The New York Times, 12/24/06


You’d have to go back to the old Hollywood studio days to find a year like 2006, when stars’ off-screen personalities so completely overshadowed their movies. The mediocre romantic comedy “The Break-Up” became a summer hit, helped greatly by gossip about a romance between its stars, Jennifer (Dumped by Brad) Aniston and Vince (There to Catch Her) Vaughn.

Tom Cruise landed in the middle of a giant industry story when Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, chose not to renew Mr. Cruise’s expensive production deal with his studio, Paramount. Yet the harsh message that decision sent to pricey stars was overshadowed by Mr. Cruise’s couch-jumping declarations of love for Katie Holmes (shown above), behavior so weird that even Mr. Redstone cited it as a reason for letting him go.

And despite weeks of hand-wringing in the media, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade after his arrest for drunken driving didn’t seem to hurt the Maya action movie he directed, “Apocalypto,” which opened strong and is on course to be a modest success. Now that the public apology has become a standard phase in stars’ careers, there really is no such thing as bad publicity, just opportunities for redemption and even more publicity.

This emphasis on off-screen fame almost brings celebrity full circle, back to the era when actors were brands; their larger-than-life personalities were as flimsy as cardboard and constructed for the public, but so huge that “Cary Grant” was bigger than any Cary Grant movie. The crucial difference, of course, is that the fierce control studios maintained over actors’ images — covering up arrests, arranging bogus dates — has given way to a media culture in which virtually nothing remains hidden, from Mr. Gibson’s arrest report to Britney Spears’s no-underpants crotch. As an old-fashioned emphasis on personality collides with today’s ever-changing onslaught of truth, gossip and damage control, the result is a moviegoing public that paradoxically idolizes and mocks its stars.

What this cult of personality means for movies is still in flux, as stars, publicists and filmgoers adjust to a new tug-of-war over image-making, but the conflict certainly intensified this year.

Stars searched for ways to fight back, not very effectively. Some were mischievous: George Clooney suggested thwarting the celebrity-sightings section of the Gawker Web site by flooding it with fake reports. (There are already so many ludicrous reports, who could tell the difference?)

Others took the battle (nearly) to court. Reese Witherspoon sued Star magazine for falsely stating she was pregnant and in return got its version of a retraction: another photo of her in a bikini and the explanation “She’s not pregnant — it’s bloat!” At least we know she’s not pregnant. (She has reportedly settled the suit.)

And Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s Vanity Fair photo spread introducing their baby daughter, Suri (shot by the also-famous Annie Leibovitz), followed by their hugely hyped, celebrity-jammed wedding in Italy — what was that about if not image shaping? They allowed only their own photographers at the wedding, which made the hype more orchestrated, not less real. Their control added a veneer of desiring privacy, a sham the public didn’t buy.

But then no one has been more tone-deaf about publicity than Mr. Cruise, whose attempts to make the public love him again have been consistently ridiculed. The year’s top apologists have done a better job of looking sincere, from Mr. Gibson calling his drunken comments monstrous to Madonna going on “Oprah” to justify her decision to adopt a baby boy from Africa. (Michael Richards, in his rambling appearance on David Letterman’s show to apologize for making racial slurs, hasn’t quite mastered the art of redemption.)

At times you can even feel sorry for stars, who are expected to live up to some idealized old-Hollywood standard only to have every imperfection publicly scrutinized. Essentially they are put in the position of saying, “Excuse me for being human!” No need to feel too sorry, though. In the P.R. tug of war, what we usually see is not humanity but the cardboard facade, more colorful and detailed than in the old black-and-white days but just as shallow.

It is impossible to know precisely how much this relentless attention to celebrity affects the box office. Mr. Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible III” (it feels as if that came out years ago, but it was actually summer ’06) didn’t do as well as earlier movies in the franchise. Did his newly off-putting personality damage the film, or was an aging series just slowing down? Probably both.

The off-screen fireworks that helped “The Break-Up” also worked the previous summer for “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the movie where Brangelina began. But this year’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie films are ensemble pieces, “Babel” for him and “The Good Shepherd” for her, works that take the heat off individual stars. Who knows how their Brangelina fame will translate to movies they have to carry?

And Mr. Gibson’s high-profile problems may have had little effect on “Apocalypto” because in the end the incident seemed to reinforce what Mel-watchers already thought, either pro (he’s a genius fighting demons) or con (anti-Semitic going back to “The Passion of the Christ”).

The year brought lots of evidence, though, that Hollywood stardom is a double-edged sword. Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore were both subjected to lethal criticism when they appeared on Broadway, each for the first time. Ms. Roberts was lambasted when she appeared in “Three Days of Rain,” although much of the disaster wasn’t her fault. Richard Greenberg’s play is strained, and Joe Mantello’s direction served Ms. Roberts badly; he appeared to work against her fame so stridently that she had her back to the audience more than any play’s star should.

Ms. Moore, now onstage as a war reporter turned academic in David Hare’s eloquent “Vertical Hour,” gives a perfectly natural performance, which suffers only next to the dazzling turn by her co-star, Bill Nighy. An undercurrent in much of the criticism of Ms. Roberts and Ms. Moore seemed to punish them for being movie stars on stage, even though the plays’ commercial appeal depended on their stardom.

There was more dismal news for image-shaping celebs recently, from the annual Gallup Poll measuring movie stars’ appeal. Asked which star’s films they would make a special effort to see, the respondents gave Tom Hanks the top spot, no surprise. He has always been an actor in the old-fashioned mold, sticking close to good-guy roles that mirror his clean-cut image.

Asked whose films they would avoid, those polled gave it to Mr. Cruise in a landslide, 34 percent. Coming in a distant second was Ms. Jolie at 18 percent. Being perceived as a wacko or as a home wrecker are obviously not the best P.R. choices.

When naturalistic acting dominated films, from the ’60s through the ’90s, it was desirable for a star to bury his personality (sometimes even his body) in a role, as Robert De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” Good actors still disappear into parts, but that may be more difficult when a premium is put on personal fame. No celebrity can escape entirely, unless the vanishing act itself becomes a stunt. The one star whose real-life persona didn’t bleed into his movie this year was Sacha Baron Cohen, who insisted on doing all publicity for “Borat” in character. The controlling old-time studio bosses might have been proud, but that strategy won’t help the next movies from famous couch jumpers or femmes fatales.