The Money Shot

The following extract of Jane Mills’ The Money Shot – Cinema, Sin and Censorship (Pluto Press Australia, 2001) is published here with the permission of Pluto Press Australia. The book is available at the recommended retail price of $AUD32.95 or at the online purchase price of $AUD29.65. For information on purchasing The Money Shot, click here.

Please note: this extract appears without the chapter’s endnotes and script inserts.

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It is a troubling comment on our times that by the end of the last century more than half of all US women under the age of twenty-five had sighed, and probably sobbed, not once, but at least twice, over Leonardo DiCaprio when, with a deathly pallor, he bid a sentimental farewell to his more robust ladylove and slipped beneath an ice floe to meet his maker. All over the world young women went to see this film time and again — and then some.

What is it about this highest costing movie of all time (so far), also the highest grossing movie of all time (ditto), with its superstar male lead, making him the popcorn idol of the decade and, perhaps, of all time? (And before I get completely carried away, what is it about Hollywood that turns even the most resistant cultural analyst into a hack mouthing the very clichés spewed by the studio PR machines we so deplore?)

OK, let’s get critical. With Titanic netting $200 billion worldwide by the end of the millennium, it can’t be only young female Americans who find DiCaprio, this pale, almost bottomless (as in ‘without a bum’ and no, I don’t mean simply slim-hipped — take a good look) young man worthy of so much of their devotion and so many of their dollars. And how come DiCaprio makes it into the financial stratosphere while his co-star, Kate Winslet, merely earns herself a role in a Jane Campion art-house movie? Justly praised for his fine performance as the intellectually disabled Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he played support to Johnny Depp (now there’s a man with a bum-and-a-half), but more than a little overwhelmed by everyone else (not least by the talented, but dead, playwright) in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, DiCaprio is now a superstar.

We know this because the gossip columnists tell us he’s joined the 20/20 Club. This is an elite club with few members, much more exciting than the club Tom Cruise gets to visit in Stanley Kubrick’s movie, but then membership of Weight Watchers offers more thrills than that did. Despite its name, membership requirements of the 20/20 Club have nothing to do with perfect vision, although a focused, perhaps even blinkered, perspective may be an advantage. It is an exclusive club which is so far exclusively male, with no valet parking, no exotic cocktails and certainly no naked ladies. No secret password is needed: the sole entry requirement is how much, and how, a star earns his [sic] salary.

The 20/20 Club is named for the money a star is paid for each movie: $20 million (or more) up front as security for a further back-end 20+ percentage cut of eventual profits. Members reputedly include Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis, possibly Robin Williams and, since Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio. The first three apparently constitute an inner sanctum who reportedly demand their back end even before the studio and producers cover the cost of making the movie. Membership has become one of the defining factors of today’s concept of Hollywood superstardom. And today, superstardom means taking over the controls from the studios and the producers.

The old Hollywood studio system itself went into decline from 1948 when the US Supreme Court ruled that Paramount was in breach of the anti-trust laws. This, in effect, spelled the end of the economic advantage of the vertical integration by which the major studios controlled production, distribution and exhibition. Other economic and social factors in the 1950s and 1960s put an end to the omnipotence of the studios: directors began to demand, and eventually win, the right to edit their own movies; unions put an end to the virtual master–slave relationship between studios and actors; new, exciting foreign films began to influence the taste of audiences as well as upcoming directors; audiences hunkered down in their suburban homes and watched television. By the 1970s any remaining old-style studio boss-type producers lost out to a new generation of movie-brat directors (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, de Palma, Lucas), who emerged with startling new, radical energy.

Although Spielberg has retained his power as a producer, the movie-brats were replaced in the 1980s by a powerful new breed of producers, many of them former agents and advertising executives, such as David Geffen, Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Ovitz, Jeffery Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and Don Simpson. As in any period in Hollywood, these men produced good movies and bad movies, movies that millions loved, and movies they avoided. Audiences the world over enjoyed or sneered at movies such as Flashdance, Risky Business, Beverley Hills Cop, Top Gun, Beetlejuice, The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Rock. Some of these ‘high concept’ producers and studio production executives embraced the power (huge), money (huge squared) and self-abuse (huge to the power of infinity), and in doing so mistook the glitter of tinseltown for the real thing. But many of the stories of excessive sex, drugs and rock’n’roll sound suspiciously like the stories about the so-called moron movie moguls of early Hollywood. In his unauthorised biography of Don Simpson (films include Top Gun and sequel, Beverley Hills Cops and sequel), dirt-digging, Gonzo-wannabe writer Charles Fleming tells us on page one of the first chapter:

Simpson emerged from a back room. He asked the reporter, “What time is it?” The reporter told him it was four o’clock.

“Four o’clock,” Simpson repeated. “You know what I like to do at four o’clock? I like to pour myself a big drink, lay out a few lines and abuse a screenwriter. Take a seat.”

The reporter watched as Simpson poured four fingers of Macallan Scotch from a cut-glass decanter, cut six lines of cocaine onto a glass-covered side table and serially snorted them into his nose. He took a deep glug of scotch and dialled the telephone. For the next twenty minutes the reporter listened as Simpson harangued the unfortunate, unidentified screenwriter. “You’re the stupidest son of a bitch in Hollywood, you asshole…”

Quite what we’re supposed to be shocked at isn’t clear. Did Simpson offend etiquette by failing to offer a line to the reporter? Should he have toned down his language until after 6 o’clock? The reporter and writer are both unidentified, and Simpson died (of an overdose) in 1996, so we’ll never know if this really happened or if it’s just another anecdote in a long series about idiot Hollywood producers who supposedly know nothing about art and everything about profit. The biography tells us an inordinate amount about Simpson’s choice of orifices in the many prostitutes he hired, but little about his actual movies or the role he played in the production process. The book peddles the same old mythological view of Hollywood ‘as less a business than a kind of sideshow run by comically sentimental or irascible buffoons second-guessing public taste by the seat of Harry Cohn’s pants’.

In Tom King’s similarly unauthorised biography of David Geffen (films include Risky Business, Beetlejuice, Interview with a Vampire), grandly subtitled A Biography of New Hollywood, the facts that Geffen is short and sexually ambivalent, was once unfaithful to Cher, and lied on his application form for his first job in a talent agency feature prominently. Robert Slater’s authorised book on Michael Ovitz, former chairman of Creative Artists Agency and Disney President for 14 months in the mid-1990s, is less titillating than the others (there is something to be said for unauthorised biographies) but, although hagiographic, it too stresses the supposed incompatibility of art and commerce, quoting Paul Newman, who called Ovitz ‘a cross between a barracuda and Mother Teresa’. In Kim Masters’ unauthorised take on another Disney executive, Michael Eisner, Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip, we learn he once had the following statement on his noticeboard: We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. What did she expect? A quote from Karl Marx?

Most of these books repeat, or slyly imply, the old class and anti-Semitic biases of critics of the earlier Hollywood moguls referred to earlier. According to Tom King, when the young Geffen first arrived in Hollywood, ‘His life’s ambition was soon established after he read a new biography of MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer; written by Bosley Crowther. It was called Hollywood Rajah. “I want this job,” he thought to himself.’ According to Charles Fleming, the young Don Simpson suffered from the same parvenu delusions:

Like Geffen, who idolized Hollywood legends Louis B. Mayer and Harry Warner, Simpson studied up on early show business moguls like Samuel Goldwyn and Harry Cohn. His friend Steve Tisch, remarking this, once kidded Simpson that he treated these books like owner’s manuals. ‘Damn right,’ Simpson replied, ‘I want to be a legend.’

Just as yesterday’s pornography is today’s erotica, cultural critics find it difficult to accept that what is commercially successful can be art until there are a few cobwebs and perhaps some scholarly critical analysis to give it status. British producer David Puttnam accurately diagnosed this romanticisation of the past when he said: ‘Nothing good will happen while there are still…critics who only like popular movies when they are thirty years old.’ Even a well-informed writer such as Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart suggests that ‘art’, once Hollywood’s glory, has been destroyed. In his book Who Killed Hollywood?…and Put the Tarnish on Tinseltown, he targets the media megalopolies, the conglomerate tycoons, the deal-making super-agents and, finally, the new hungry breed of $20 million actors.

The actor has become the bad guy the century-old battle of art versus commerce, a battle which Hollywood’s critics insist cannot be reconciled. It’s true that the megastars today wield enormous power. Increasingly, they (or the small number who qualify for membership of the 20/20 Club; we’re not talking very many here) get to control much more than their fees and the size of their back end: they decide which films get made, and who gets to direct and co-star. The firing of the original director, Brian Helgeland, and the subsequent rewrite and re-shoot of Mel Gibson’s Payback reveals that the superstars have even acquired the ultimate power of final cut. Carl Laemmle, cry your eyes out.

What is it about today’s superstars that has enabled them to acquire so much power? If looks had anything to do with it, Johnny Depp or Antonio Banderas would be up there at the top. Yet according to the popular movie magazine, Premiere, they don’t even make it into the top one hundred list of ‘Hollywood’s Most Powerful People’. And these two can act. Not that acting skill is an absolute requirement: with Keanu Reeves rating higher than Robert de Niro, it can’t be. Tom Cruise’s performance in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut has been acutely described as ‘a man out of his depth playing a man out of his depth’. Yet he is considered bigger, better, brighter — that is, worth more — than his luminous co-star, Nicole Kidman. This demonstrates just how complex the notion of stardom is.

Commonsense (as well as a certain basic instinct) suggests sex must be an important contributory factor to stardom, although Robin Williams’ high-ranking position in the top five is a corrective to this notion. From the mid-1980s, this superstar has been the biggest overall box office attraction, having starred in seven films which earned more than $100 million at the US box office, putting him ahead of Tom Hanks (only 5) and Tom Cruise (6). Admittedly, with age and experience comes a certain sort of power and, as we all know, power is most definitely an aphrodisiac. But Robin Williams sexy? At the other end of the age spectrum, callow youthfulness appears to be no bar to megabuck stardom, as DiCaprio’s 20/20 Club membership testifies. Quite how DiCaprio, once described by US cultural critic Camille Paglia with her customary blend of acerbity and perspicacity as a pubescent anorexic lesbian, gets to join the elite club while that seriously sexy senior citizen, Sean Connery, comes nowhere near gaining membership beggars belief.

Trying to make sense of stardom is far from easy. British academic Richard Dyer suggests that it’s impossible to define what makes a star because the whole notion is constantly lurching from one formulation of what it means to be human to another. This is distinctly worrying: a cursory glance at the list of today’s top stars tells us that Hollywood’s notion of what it means to be human is distinctly limited. Not even the most militantly anti-PC moviegoer can avoid the fact that today’s top stars are all white and male, although the racial question may soon be eased, if not solved. African-American Will Smith is on the brink of club membership, despite reputedly turning down an offer of $20 million versus 20% of the gross to star in John Singleton’s remake of the 1970s blaxploitation movie Shaft. He is said to have been offered $30 million for his next big role and is teetering on the verge of being able to demand that big back end. This would bend, if not actually destroy, the club’s apartheid rule.

The gender question is more difficult to understand, although it seems more resistant to change. It’s not simply a matter of the boys insisting on an all-male membership rule: today’s audiences, male and female, seem to like their stars man-shaped. Julia Roberts, who after Pretty Woman in 1991 became the first woman for twenty years whose name was big enough to sell a movie, is certainly the stuff stars are made of. But not even she, the first woman to earn $20 million (for Erin Brockovich in 2000), can get the back-end dollars necessary to admit her through the club’s front doors. As for other female stars, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Literally. At the start of the new century, the only women in the list of the top 100 stars, ranked by salary, were Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz. None of them comes anywhere near qualifying for club membership in terms of either their front or back ends. In fact, they get treated altogether shoddily in comparison with their male counterparts. It is said that Danny DeVito (yet further evidence that looks aren’t important for male stars) threw a tantrum when promoting The Rainmaker, and could only be appeased by being given a bigger jet than the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. But when Meg Ryan asked for her own hairdresser during the shoot of You’ve Got Mail (for which she earned a mere $10.5 million) the producers refused.

Rather than try to define stardom, perhaps we should be asking why we get the particular stars that we do, when we do, and what it is that keeps some shining brightly even after they’re dead. This might explain why Humphrey Bogart currently heads the American Film Institute list of all-time greats. Bogart obviously didn’t become a legend because of his looks (although, as the Märta Torén character asks in Sirocco, ‘How can a man so ugly be so handsome?’). Bogart realised that he and the studio system of the time had to work hard on his screen persona, and he became adept at participating in his own myth and in giving audiences what they expected. It’s curious that audiences both demand the careful fabrication of their stars and accept this construct as ‘real’. The big stars are those who understand they can’t just act or look good — they have to work hard at constructing their star persona.

John Wayne was more successful at this than almost any other film star. In the mid-1990s, he still topped a poll of ‘all-time favourite stars’, receiving more than twice the votes of Mel Gibson, who came third (after Clint Eastwood). No mean feat for someone who had been dead fifteen years. As Garry Wills reveals in his book John Wayne: The Politics of Stardom, Wayne has haunted the dreams of Americans for decades. From 1949–74 he made the top ten in every annual US distributors’ lists of ‘Stars With Commercial Appeal’, appearing in the top four nineteen times. He became a star by carefully fabricating his screen image as the symbol of American masculinity. He built up his persona — his ‘John Wayne-ness’ — through carefully considered strategies, such as concealing his refusal to fight in World War II and refusing to play roles that didn’t fit the image he wanted to project. Despite script and plot requirements, Wayne refused to play a coward for Howard Hawks or shoot a man in the back for a Don Siegel movie.

The ensuing ‘John Wayne’, whether admired or loathed, had a profound effect on how the American male came to be defined. General Douglas MacArthur considered him the model US soldier; the non-combatant Wayne was awarded the Veterans of Foreign Wars gold medal, and received the ‘Iron Mike’ from the Marines. His status was in no way diminished by those critical of this notion of masculinity. US critic Eric Bentley described him as the man who helped start the Vietnam War. Vietnam veteran, paraplegic Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, who signed up after seeing Wayne’s electric performance in Sands of Iwo Jima, later said angrily, ‘I gave my dead dick for John Wayne.’ It seems altogether fitting that Tom Cruise, the star who played Kovic in Oliver Stone’s movie, is one of today’s megastars. But will Wayne’s star fade? That’ll be the day.

Clark Gable is another dead star who continually polls highly. From 1932–42 (when, aged 42, he enlisted in the USAF), Gable was never out of the top ten. He was another who realised the importance of blending fantasy and reality in order to create his star image. It’s impossible to separate Gable from the ambivalent sexual persona built upon the way he fused sex and violence. (Producer David O. Selznick bluntly described THAT scene in Gone With The Wind as the ‘Row and Rape Scene’.) Gable’s appeal was to both women and men: he possessed the on-screen power to tame and control women, as well as less masculine men. And yet it was well known, in the words Carole Lombard, briefly his wife, that Gable was a ‘lousy lay’. Resourcefully, he used this to his advantage, saying he needed the practice as a regular part of his seduction routine. Small wonder director Victor Fleming said, in awe, ‘When this present era becomes as remote as the Stone Age is now, they’ll still be talking about Gable.’

Will they still be talking about Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis in years to come? Possibly, since they can be counted among the superstars of today who recognise the need to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in constructing themselves. Along with the film theorists, they understand that when we see Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2 we also see ‘Tom Cruise’, the equivalent of a quotation masquerading as the actor Tom Cruise who, in turn, is a mask for real person who acts ‘Tom Cruise’. What’s needed for this incredible construct of the star to be credible is large quantities of belief. The painstaking care with which verisimilitude is reproduced in mainstream cinema makes the suspension of disbelief, the contract that audiences enter into with the film, incredibly easy.

Harrison Ford’s relative flop, Random Hearts, is good example of Hollywood’s skill in providing the illusion of reality that the complex system of stardom requires. The actual plot of a sex/love affair between a grieving widow and widower who discover that, unbeknownst to them, their dead spouses had been conducting an adulterous affair, is about as close to reality as the utterly unbelievable plot of Sleepless in Seattle. And yet, coming out of the preview, marvelling at the sheer gall of such hokum, I overheard fellow reviewers earnestly discussing how ‘real’ the film was. During the press conference afterwards, director Sydney Pollack spoke movingly of Harrison Ford’s ability to distinguish between who he is and his screen persona. Ford is an actor who is very well aware of the need to manufacture a screen persona, build it into his role and fuse it with his ‘identity’. He is known, for example, to insist on script changes to ensure his character is not told anything unless he already knew it. He understands that in order to maintain his star status he can’t afford to appear weak. And yet, as Pollack pointed out, what gives him so much strength in Random Hearts is that he plays a role usually played by a woman, behaving like a neurotic scorned woman to Kristin Scott Thomas’ much stronger character. Precisely because Ford’s character in the film is fused with the fabricated ‘Harrison Ford’, this becomes a sign of strength — for only a very strong star could consider playing a weak character.

Bruce Willis, another megastar back-ender, possesses the same awareness of the need to act weak to appear strong. In The Sixth Sense, Willis once again gives us his version of Everyman as, ghostlike, he struggles to believe in a young boy’s ghostly fantasies. At its heart is the carefully constructed ‘Bruce Willis’ playing, more or less, the exact same character he played years ago in Color of Night — a caring, loving shrink who is cracking up because he failed to cure a patient. This time, however, we don’t see the Willis willy. This could well be because, showing acute business sense, he agreed to do The Sixth Sense for an inexperienced director for a low front end and no back end, and for that audiences don’t get the full tackle. Or it could be symbolic of the more passive masculinity that many of today’s top male stars are adopting. Either way, the fabricated ‘Bruce Willis’ persona means audiences are prepared to believe he can accept a small payment precisely because he’s a big star.

Sixty years after Clark Gable was voted ‘King’ in a movie gossip column, Tom Hanks inherited the crown. But Hanks, like the more recent Willis, presents a less testosterone-infused masculinity than Gable’s generation of male stars ever did. Hanks, one suspects, would give a damn. In the 1980s, the big male stars such as Ford, Gibson and Willis began to display a tendency to give their films a send-up or tongue-in-cheek flavour. At the same time, films such as the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Indiana Jones franchises suggested values of masculine physicality that were hard to maintain. The star vehicles twenty years later, at the end of the millennium, don’t diminish the star status of their male stars. But they no longer possess any ambivalence or irony, and are devoid of much that Wayne would have recognised as manly.

This humourless but oh-so-sincere tendency of today’s male superstars reflects US feminist Susan Faludi’s analysis of masculinity in which the clean-cut, insipid good looks of an actor like DiCaprio assume a decorative role in parts which offer only the illusion of control. ‘So many men,’ writes Faludi, ‘seem to be doing battle with phantoms and witches that exist only in their imaginations.’ Phantoms, ghosts and witches and passive men lie at the heart of the major movies at the turn of the century: Harrison Ford in Random Hearts, Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, failed gangsters in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, and the pathetic, trembling males in The Blair Witch Project. Even Tom Cruise (or ‘Tom Cruise’) looks a slim, slight figure as he dangles on the end of a rope in Mission: Impossible 2: more nature-lover or ballet dancer than ‘real man’. We’re being asked to accept a new version of what it means to be male: objectified, passive and infantilised — the very qualities that women in recent times have denounced as trivialising and humiliating qualities when imposed upon them.

In 1919 Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin set up their own company, United Artists, to give them more control of their screen personas. Ever since, stars have played a role in their own construction, insisting upon participating in their own mythmaking. It’s taken different forms: from Errol Flynn publicly flouting the law (in 1942 he was charged with raping two 18-year-old women) to Mel Gibson reshooting his film, Payback, to give himself a more heroic screen character than the original director and script had provided. If you can cope without the postmodern irony, reflexivity and spectacular fun of the Die Hards and Lethal Weapons, the old guys in their new guise, as well as the new guys, now provide a cinema which has a lot going for it. Not least because, unlike the Bogarts, Waynes, Gables and those of yesteryear, more of today’s male stars are determining not only which movies get made but also how their ‘reel’ personas are developed and marketed. They’ve wrested artistic control away from the producers, even the directors. This may not be actual consumer power, but at least it gives the illusion of being more democratic.

About The Author

Dr Jane Mills is Associate Professor in Communication at Charles Sturt University. Her current research interests concern screen literacy and literacy learning among school students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Her books include The Money Shot: Cinema, Sin and Censorship (Pluto, 2001) and Loving and Hating Hollywood: Reframing Global and Local Cinemas (Allen & Unwin, 2009).