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Who's a has-been and who still has it in Hollywood

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The Academy Awards acting nominees for 1997 included some of Hollywood's biggest stars -- at one time or another. Some of them still are. Others have dipped back into relative obscurity.

Stars' status
hot or not

Over The Hill?
Marlon Brando
Chevy Chase
Faye Dunaway
Liza Minnelli
Demi Moore
Ryan O'Neal
Burt Reynolds
Molly Ringwald
Sylvester Stallone
Patrick Swayze
Debra Winger

Still Going Strong
Michael Caine
Sean Connery
Judi Dench
Robert Duvall
Clint Eastwood
Albert Finney
Harrison Ford
Anthony Hopkins
Jack Nicholson
Susan Sarandon
Sigourney Weaver
Bruce Willis

Back From The Dead
Ellyn Burstyn
James Caan
Sally Field
Ray Liotta
Rob Lowe
Paul Rubens
Steven Seagal
Jon Voight

-- Compiled by Post-Gazette Movie Editor Ron Weiskind


Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda both starred in "Easy Rider" in 1969. Nicholson went on to win three Oscars (including the 1997 prize for "As Good As It Gets") as one of Hollywood's best and busiest actors. Fonda, scion of an acting dynasty, made mostly forgettable movies until "Ulee's Gold" earned him that 1997 nomination and "The Limey" gave him a role as a faded cultural wunderkind.

What made the difference in the fate of their careers? What separates the superstars from the almost famous? What keeps one set of actors on top while another group, once equally popular, goes over the hill?

"It's part luck and part skill," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks Hollywood box-office grosses. "It often comes down to a matter of the choices made by the star or his handlers or agent on which films or projects they choose.

"A star's relevance is directly related to how popular his movies are. If you are consistently in big hits, your star will rise. But if you lose that and you have a string of bombs or you don't do anything, that's when the public has a short memory."

A series of bad films that do well at the box office won't necessarily hurt a star's career, he says.

"If the movies are popular, at least you're out there" in terms of visibility, Dergarabedian says. "If they are popular, it's for a reason. It's hard to think of you as a has-been."

Back to those 1997 nominees: Anthony Hopkins was in the Best Supporting Actor category that year for his role in "Amistad." He had toiled for 30 years before Hannibal Lecter made him a superstar in "Silence of the Lambs" in 1991. Ten years and three more Oscar nominations later, he's still on top of the game.

Dustin Hoffman (seven nominations, two wins) has starred in almost a film per year beginning in 1967. Robert Duvall (six nominations, one win), who made his movie debut as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962, averaged three films a year for most of the 1990s. Dame Judi Dench, a 35-year veteran of British cinema, has had three Oscar nominations (and one win) in the past four years.

On the other hand, Julie Christie won a 1965 Oscar for "Darling," remained a star for another 15 years and all but disappeared until "Afterglow" brought back some of the luminescence.

Burt Reynolds, one of the hottest box-office stars of the 1970s, returned to his TV roots as the '90s began and appeared to be over the hill until "Boogie Nights" got him an Oscar nomination. He didn't win, and now he's playing over-the-hill characters in "The Crew" and "Driven," opening Friday , in which he acts opposite Sylvester Stallone, whose own star has dimmed considerably.

James Ulmer is the creator of the Ulmer Scale, a database used by Hollywood producers to measure the star power of more than 1,800 actors and directors worldwide. He also is the author of "Hollywood Hot List," which ranks actors based on their bankability -- the ability of a performer to raise complete financing for a studio film on his or her name alone. Julia Roberts tops the most recent list, followed by Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis.

In his book, he lists eight steps to keep a veteran actor's career going strong. They include: Take more character roles ("after a certain age, those sexy leading roles aren't as feasible"). Play comedy ("comedy is age-resistant"). Read the script first, the role second ("a star may love a meaty role, but it should be in a movie that people will love, too"). Expand your market to independent films. Hook up with younger stars.

The last of these may have paid off for action star Steven Seagal, who has an unexpected hit with "Exit Wounds," a film that has breathed life into a dying career.

"He made the right choice in looking at the marketplace and gauging what was there," Dergarabedian says. "Teaming with [rapper] DMX was smart."

Ulmer's top five stars have a few things in common. "All of them have been in action-adventure films to a certain extent, which is the most exploitable genre overseas. All have learned to accommodate their stardom. They are respected in [Hollywood] and they are liked. They will not oversaturate themselves. And they know how to market themselves."

Ford pays close attention to (and sometimes, Ulmer says, takes control of) the scripts for his films, making sure he will not wind up in a film that makes him look bad.

Dergarabedian particularly admires how Willis has managed his career.

"[He's] done a great job going from straight-ahead action movies to movies like 'Pulp Fiction,' 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Unbreakable' that let him show his range and also allow him to age gracefully. Willis will have a career forever if he wants it."

The actor's ex-wife, Demi Moore, may not be as lucky. A huge star through much of the '90s in such films as "Ghost," "A Few Good Men" and "Disclosure," she came a cropper with two critically savaged box-office disappointments, "Striptease" and "G.I. Jane." In the past four years, she has made just one small-budget film, "Passion of Mind." And in last week's People magazine, she said she decided to focus on her children instead of her career.

Her "Ghost" co-star, Patrick Swayze, was very hot after that film and another blockbuster hit, "Dirty Dancing." But his star fell almost as quickly as it rose.

Leonardo DiCaprio might take warning. He appeared in the all-time box-office champ, "Titanic," and became the hottest young star in Hollywood. But he followed it up with the lukewarm "Man in the Iron Mask," a self-mocking role in Woody Allen's "Celebrity" and a big-time bomb, "The Beach."

"It's hard to follow the biggest movie of all time. But he's so young, he's got two or three careers ahead of him," Dergarabedian says.

John Travolta already has had a few, and he's only 47. He was the breakout character on TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter" in the 1970s and reached megastardom in "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," almost blew it all in "Moment to Moment," hit again in "Urban Cowboy" and then became box-office poison in the 1980s, only to revive his career again in "Pulp Fiction." But after last year's twin debacles "Battlefield Earth" and "Lucky Numbers," he appears to be heading in the wrong direction again.

"Travolta in the '70s was the biggest star in the world," Dergarabedian says. "That he would even have to make a comeback is amazing."

Clint Eastwood, who got to the top by making low-budget westerns in Italy, gave himself another outlet by becoming a director in the early 1970s, which also allows him to tailor material to his specific needs, and in forging a long and successful working relationship with the Warner Bros. studio.

Nowadays, Ulmer says, it's harder to attain stardom, much less maintain it.

"Careers are far less stable than they used to be even 20 years ago," Ulmer says. Film studios are demanding younger stars in what Ulmer maintains is the misguided notion that teens and twentysomethings are the predominant movie audience. TV offers a ready-made outlet for finding such performers. And movies have a shorter shelf-life in this age of megaplex cinemas playing a film on multiple screens.

To get there and stay there, Ulmer says, a star must hit big and very quickly, and must be willing to protect himself financially by lowering his price for a cut of the profits, as Cruise did in "Magnolia," which also let him display a new set of acting chops.

"The marketplace is going to A-plus and C-list actors. No one can afford the B's," Ulmer says.

"The fact is stars are commodities, and, in some ways, how they are sold and marketed determines their career," Ulmer says. Acting is just part of it. His Hollywood Hot List measures bankability through four factors -- talent, professionalism, career management and willingness to travel and promote the film before its release.

He says Debra Winger, a star through most of the '80s who hasn't made a film in more than five years, dropped off the radar in large part because of her unwillingness to travel. Others have fallen off the map because they are more difficult to work with than their box-office success is worth.

And some come back, often unexpectedly and sometimes briefly, as Reynolds did in "Boogie Nights" and as Ellen Burstyn did last year in "Requiem for a Dream," which earned her an Oscar nomination.

But Dergarabedian says, "As hard as it is for men to age in Hollywood, it's 10 times harder for women." The continued success of Susan Sarandon, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep is the exception rather than the rule. Even Oscar winners like Cher and Sally Field have all but disappeared from the big screen at an age where many male actors are at their acme.

"If Judi Dench were a man, she would be a major star" instead of someone who gets supporting roles in smaller films, Ulmer says.

Like, say, Sean Connery, who is in his 70s.

"He managed to diversify his career. And as he got older, he became more of a sex symbol. He's got the talent and appeal. To have a career after James Bond and elude typecasting is just amazing," Dergarabedian says.

Ultimately, Ulmer says, "He is the hero. He has a bluster and the authority to go behind the bluster. He has those intense, penetrating eyes. He does a variety of roles. He ages real well. His age has become an advantage to him.

"When he walks onto the set, the other actors' intensity, focus and seriousness change. He impacts his films. He has a power that a lot of other actors don't have. His presence certainly defines a movie. He is the maypole around whom everyone else dances."

And isn't that the definition of a star?

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