Whether it takes home the Oscar on Sunday night or not, “The Revenant” is the sole representative in the best-picture race of a curiously old-fashioned concept: the star vehicle.
And Leonardo DiCaprio, who almost certainly will win the Academy Award for best actor for his role as long-suffering mountain man Hugh Glass, is unquestionably a front-rank star, uniting several generations of fans and retaining the power to bring a movie to profitability on the strength of his name alone.
He may, in fact, be the last of his kind.
Which sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but look closely and you’ll see that Hollywood has been retreating from the star wars for quite some time now.
Above-the-title talent commanded ticket sales and garnered industry respect from the 1920s up to the first years of the new century, but the money is now in franchise properties — all those comic-book superheroes and heroines of young adult novels — and mind-blasting digital effects.
Tom Cruise can’t open a movie anymore, unless it’s called “Mission Impossible: The Quest for Relevance.” (You didn’t see “Edge of Tomorrow”? You should.) Will Smith can’t do it, as the ho-hum reception for “Concussion” proves. “Black Mass” aside, Johnny Depp appears to have given up trying since his “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
Matt Damon is universally liked, but he’s only half the reason “The Martian” works so well and has seven nominations. Besides, we like him not because he’s a star but because he seems like one of us.
Certain comedy stars are reliable profit centers — Kevin Hart and Kristen Wiig spring to mind — but no one would call them screen icons, let alone Oscar bait.
It’s telling that this year’s best-picture nominee list is filled with ensemble acts (“Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “The Martian”), period pieces (“Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn”), and films that rely on high concepts of action (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) or drama (“Room”).
Put another way — and not to impugn the talents of their generally excellent casts — you could switch out almost all the featured players in the above movies for different actors of equal skill, and the results would roughly be on par, both artistically and commercially.
(The possible exception is Tom Hanks, still a star but no longer the box-office guarantor and automatic Oscar nominee he once was, in “Bridge of Spies.”)
But “The Revenant” with any other star but DiCaprio? It would still be a visual dazzler — director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is no slouch — but it wouldn’t have grossed more than $380 million worldwide or, arguably, be up for best picture. Despite competition from costar Tom Hardy, “The Revenant” is a one-man show with the biggest name of his generation holding the screen.
This may be difficult for you to comprehend if you’re a moviegoer over the age of 40. You may think of DiCaprio as the kid he still resembles.
But the secret to his pop power is that he has conquered two younger generations of filmgoers, the then-teenage and twenty-something women who went to see 1997’s “Titanic” 147 times in a row, and the millennials of both genders who had their minds blown by Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” in 2010.
Those two films are pillars in the cultural consciousness of many young movie fans. Along with films like “The Departed” (2006), “Shutter Island” (2010), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), and “The Great Gatsby” (2013) — the last nothing less than a cinematic coronation — they cement DiCaprio’s status as the 21st-century movie star of movie stars.
It matters that he can act, of course. Fans can point as far back as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) and as recently as “Django Unchained” (2012) for examples of DiCaprio stealing a movie on the audacity of his talent. But there are actors with just as much talent, if not more, who aren’t old-school movie stars — not the genuine article.
You don’t see Cate Blanchett, Michael Fassbender, or even Ryan Gosling or Christian Bale on the cover of gossip magazines. Do you even care what they do when they’re not onscreen? And there are celebrities who command headlines but somehow not the market power and generational respect that DiCaprio does. George Clooney? Brad Pitt? They’re movie stars, but they can’t guarantee an audience on the strength of their names and personas. DiCaprio can.
If there’s any other movie performer who comes close, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. Like DiCaprio, she’s an outsize talent with a public persona beyond her undeniable on-screen talents. Unlike him, she seems to revel in the spotlight (plus, she already has her Oscar).
“Joy” is hardly a great movie but, like “The Revenant,” it’s an unabashed star vehicle, and Lawrence’s best-actress nomination — the film’s sole Academy Award recognition — is a mark of her continued pop clout.
What’s odd is that Hollywood used to mint stars like DiCaprio and Lawrence by the dozen; it was the only way the town knew how to do business. Each studio had its top-tier royalty, consorts and jesters, handsome studs and femme fatales.
If DiCaprio had been born 70 years ago, he might have had a mid-to-high-level career along the lines of Glenn Ford, the sensitive tough guy of the 1940s and ’50s. Lawrence sometimes gives off the headstrong sparks that made Susan Hayward the queen of hard-boiled postwar melodramas. They might have been lost in the crowd back then.
Now they look like the last true movie stars standing, for a little longer, at least. Except for event films like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” most audiences under 40 don’t even bother to go to the movies anymore. They watch them on home screens or laptops, legally or not, and those films are swept up in a slipstream that includes must-see TV series, Web shorts, and music videos.
Ask college students to name their favorite star, and you’ll probably hear someone from the world of pop music: Beyonce, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Adele. Indeed, the first two act out all the controversial cultural moves that celluloid gods like Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando once did for your parents and grandparents. They matter.
For the millennials, DiCaprio may be the only movie star who still fits the bill. Don’t think aging Academy voters don’t realize it, too.
Unless they’re so aged that they decide to honor Bryan
Cranston for portraying Dalton Trumbo, their old screenwriting pal from the blacklist era, expect DiCaprio to take home the gold Sunday. Not because he gave the best performance but because he’s a movie star in a way both the kids and the Academy understand.