So just when did people start avoiding movies that starred certain actors or actresses that they couldn’t stand?
1920: Way Down East? Not interested. Lillian Gish might be America’s sweetheart, but she’s not mine.
1931: City Lights? Why would I waste my money on that little tramp Charlie Chaplin?
1938: Bringing Up Baby? Is that the one with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant? Can’t stand either of them.
1941: The Maltese Falcon? Forget it. I’m not going to see that horsefaced Humphrey Bogart.
1946: Its a Wonderful Life? With that mushmouthed James Stewart? No thanks.
1956: Autumn Leaves? With Joan Crawford? What do you think I’m queer or something?
1959: Some Like it Hot? I’m not supporting that tramp Marilyn Monroe.
1967: Cool Hand Luke? Are you kidding? I wouldn’t go to a Paul Newman picture if you paid me.
1972: Last Tango in Paris? Why would I want to see Marlon Brando’s penis?
1976: Taxi Driver? If I want to hear cussing, I’ll go to Fenway Park and sit in the cheap seats.
1982: Sophie’s Choice? I’d rather stay home and watch I Love Lucy reruns than be stuck watching Meryl Streep for three hours.
So, up until the eighties, it was pretty rare for a person to boycott a movie on account of who was in it. Not that there weren’t blacklisted actors, but, from Fatty Arbuckle and Lionel Stander to Ingrid Bergman and Vanessa Redgrave, there was usually some political or moral issue that had endangered their career. It wasn’t that the moviegoer simply could not stand watching them.
There have always been actors so bad that they have ruined the movies, or at least the scenes, they were in. Timothy Carey gets my vote for the worst actor who ever stunk up the screen. He utterly destroyed the execution scene in Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” and provided moments of unprecedented anguish that compromised the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It was rare for an incompetent performer to walk into a scene and destroy the illusion. There were just too many struggling actors competing for the smallest roles for this to happen. Not that they all were geniuses. Lord knows that the majority of them were mediocre. But, in general, they could handle the work they were assigned. Very few actually drove the audience from the comfort of the theater into the cold, heartless streets.
But sometime in the eighties, something changed. There were fewer and fewer movie stars, and more and more generic celebrities, people who simply wanted to be famous and possessed the means and connections to become so. Some came roaring in like dead fish on a black tsunami. Others slunk in through television’s afternoon soap operas. It didn’t matter how they had arrived to their place in front of the cameras, the sad fact was simply that there they were. And we in the audience paid the price for their success.
Jami Gertz began in television (1982-84) and will probably end there, as it has been her exclusive employer since the year 2000. But from 1984-90, she had substantial roles in 13 of the worst movies the world had ever seen, the most annoying of which was 1987’s “Less than Zero,” which also suffered from the presence of her male counterpart, Andrew MacCarthy. For me, her presence in this miserable adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ breakthrough novel marked the beginning of the post-movie star era in Hollywood films.
In the Spring of 1983, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were in Boston for a pre-Broadway run of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” That I did not attend any of those performances is one of the few things in life I regret. While I would never count Elizabeth Taylor among my favorite actresses, I have always enjoyed watching her and she has never caused me a moment of aesthetic discomfort. Burton, on the other hand, was my first hero. He introduced me to Shakespeare with his “Hamlet” and to the Broadway musical with “Camelot.” My emulation of Burton, though, stunted me as an actor, as I followed his lead in believing acting was all in the voice, which led to my erroneous practice of merely acting the text. So I never became any good as an actor, but I was a pretty good singer. Better, in fact, than Burton.
I don’t know why I passed on my opportunity to see Burton live on stage. Was I so stupid to have been influenced by Kevin Kelly’s negative review in the Boston Globe, or had I become such an idiotic snob after a mere two years in the shadow of Harvard University that I thought myself too good to gawk at stars? I did manage, in January 1991, to see Richard Burton’s daughter Kate in the Huntington Theatre production of Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats,” and couldn’t take my eyes off her, letting them roll out of focus until I was hallucinating her father’s features. I mention this only to emphasize how much I idolized Richard Burton and what a fool I had been to miss my one chance of seeing him on stage.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” had been my favorite American play long before Burton and Taylor did the movie version. I wonder if it would have remained so had the movie not been cast with my favorite couple. Even had it starred Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine, I probably would not have watched it as often or consistently as l have over nearly fifty years, which has kept the play in the forefront of my consciousness for most of my life.
I never tire of seeing even the weakest Burton/Taylor vehicles over and over. Just his week, I watched “The Sandpiper” for about the tenth time. Vincente Minnelli is one of my favorite directors, and this is one of his worst pictures, but, with the exception of “Home From the Hill,” I have seen it more often than all the others. Why? You guessed it. Burton and Taylor. Even though neither of them is very good in it, I still enjoy their performances. And this is what movie stardom is all about. The pleasure we get out of watching them.
There is certainly no such pleasure to be had in watching Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in the 2009 comedy, “Adventureland.” Even though their acting is better than Burton and Taylor’s in “The Sandpiper,” some of us simply do not enjoy watching the romantic adventures of geeks and snots while working summer jobs at an amusement park. We would rather watch a married minister fall in love with a single parent beatnik, even though neither of the actors are convincing in their parts. It is still more entertaining to watch Burton and Taylor than Eisenberg and Stewart. We don’t stay away from the movie because we dread seeing Burton and Taylor fail at their craft. That is their problem, not ours. We are paying to see them, and even at their worst, they are giving us our money’s worth.
When people tell you who they think are the good actors and who they think are the bad ones, they are just telling you who they enjoy watching and who they do not enjoy watching. It has nothing to do with acting ability. If it did, nobody would ever buy a ticket to a Marilyn Monroe movie, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career would have ended when he passed the Mr. Universe title to the next muscleman in line. I don’t think Eisenberg and Stewart are so bad, but they get so over-involved in their roles and the ideas they have about acting that they dissolve before our eyes and we find ourselves looking at nothing. So the next time we see that a movie stars even one of them, we might decide to skip that movie because we found no pleasure in watching them in this one. And after the passing of a decade or so, their names and the moves in which they appeared may be as forgotten as those of Jami Gertz and Andrew MacCarthy.
Meanwhile, the legacy of Burton and Taylor lives on.