Emilia Clarke is the star of the new movie “Me Before You.” But is Emilia Clarke a movie star? Can we even allow her to be when we know her so well already as the platinum blonde Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones”?
It’s the dilemma of every actor trying to translate success on television into the larger iconography of the big screen, and it raises issues of cultural value and individual charisma, familiarity versus allure, the people we welcome into our homes and the people we prefer to see larger than life.
Actually, those issues are arguably more interesting than “Me Before You” itself. The movie’s a sudsy four-hankie romantic drama, based on a bestseller, about a working-class British woman (Clarke) who cares for and comes to fall in love with a dashingly bitter upper-class quadriplegic (Sam Claflin, Finnick in the “Hunger Games” movies). It’s well-appointed guilty-pleasure tosh, even with a side-plot about assisted suicide that has properly outraged disability rights advocates, including the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation. (The movie’s Prince Charming has endless wealth, access to the best health care, a flipping castle in his backyard — and he wants to end it all? Where does that leave mere mortals in his condition?)
I’m betting the movie’s a hit, maybe not on “The Notebook” scale but more successful than the last five Nicholas Sparks adaptations. But while Clarke successfully makes you forget all about “Game of Thrones” for the 110-minute running time of “Me Before You” — it helps that her big-screen character’s a brunette, not to mention a klutz — you don’t hit the end credits feeling that a star has just been born. Is it because Clarke’s “Thrones” role is so dementedly commanding? Or because the stardust in a TV series falls on the character rather than the actor?
There’s a history here that goes back to the medium’s roots in the post-World War II era, when the novelty was that suddenly there was a screen in your own home. The people you saw there — bus drivers like Ralph Kramden and ditsy housewives like Lucy Ricardo — were closer to home, too, smaller in scale to fit the screen and the comic dilemmas they played out week after week. That familiarity and that repetition is why we fall in love with characters on TV shows rather than the actors playing them. We iconize Archie Bunker rather than Carroll O’Connor, Samantha Stevens rather than Elizabeth Montgomery, Hawkeye Pierce rather than Alan Alda.
The same holds true even today, when the two-hour theatrical movie is an increasingly beleaguered species and when writers, directors, and actors know the real challenges are to be found in television. Will Jon Hamm ever be able to establish a serious movie career when audiences feel they know him so well after seven brilliant seasons as Don Draper? Was Dan Stevens’s “Downton Abbey” character, Matthew Crawley, killed off in a car crash for naught? Caitriona Balfe is spectacular as a time-traveling heroine in Starz’s “Outlander” — and the best Hollywood can do for her is a third-banana part in the George Clooney/Julia Roberts thriller “Money Monster.”
It’s easier for an older performer like Bryan Cranston, who went into “Breaking Bad” a character actor and came out of it a character lead. But still: Before his untimely death in 2013, it wasn’t at all clear whether James Gandolfini would be able to translate his triumph in HBO’s “The Sopranos” into lasting movie stardom. Some actors seem born to the smaller screen. And some seem imprisoned by it. Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey” has complained that a fair amount of US fans believe he’s actually a titled British noble.
A chosen few break free. In retrospect, movie stars like Denzel Washington, John Travolta, George Clooney, Robin Williams, Will Smith, Steve Carell, and Tom Hanks were just passing through their TV beginnings. All men, interestingly. Women performers, constricted by industry and cultural assumptions governing glamour, age, and types of roles, have a harder time moving from televised success to major-league movie stardom. Sally Field’s the rare exception — she overcame “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun” to win two Oscars — and Melissa McCarthy is an uncommon example of a woman juggling concurrent TV and film careers. But it says something that, as adored as Jennifer Aniston was on TV’s “Friends” and as much as she remains a gossip-magazine cultural icon, few of her movies have panned out. She’s a star — but she’s not a movie star, and that is still, rightly or wrongly, considered the top tier of pop-culture royalty. Maybe it’s the Curse of the Friends.
So what does “movie stardom” require? Persona, basically. An overarching sense of self that carries over from one movie to the next, even as the individual films and performances may vary. Within that persona is a mysterious allure, a charismatic something that makes us want to come back again and again. Kevin Spacey not only has it but has brought it along to his role as the conniving Frank Underwood in Showtime’s “House of Cards.” Meryl Streep changes drastically from movie to movie, but we go expecting a certain Streep-iness that connects her roles like beads on a string. The old Hollywood gods possessed it in spades; it’s what the studios were selling. Trying to figure out what made Cary Grant Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn called him “personality, functioning.” Which may be as close as anyone will ever get.
By contrast, playing the same character on TV for weeks and months and years on end may bring you closer to the people watching but it privileges the character’s persona over the player’s. It also takes an especially strong personality to break the spell and cast a new one tied more closely to the performer. Good parts with good scripts matter, too. Can Aaron Paul make us want to move on from Jesse Pinkman of “Breaking Bad”? Not when the movie’s as limp as 2014’s “Need for Speed.”
Will Emilia Clarke come out of “Me Before You” a bona fide movie star? Probably not. But at least she convinces us she’s more than the imperious, flaxen-haired, flame-resistant Mother of Dragons of “Thrones.” That’s a start. The larger problem — for Clarke, anyway — is that we may not want anything more.