Hollywood has often relied on its $20 million men - stars who can "open" films, immediately bringing in two or three times their prodigious salaries - to motivate moviegoers during the two bonanza weeks of Christmas and New Year's. This year will test their power to reach adults as well as children during Yuletide.
Many of the stars who usually play quarterback to commercial franchises have chosen to go deep and get serious. For example, we'll see Will Smith as an IRS agent with a guilty conscience in Seven Pounds. Tom Cruise, in Valkyrie, takes on the real-life heroism of Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the most famous plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Brad Pitt creates a character from a fantasy figure who is born an old man and de-ages as the years go by in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of a little-known F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. And Leonardo DiCaprio delves into Mad Men territory with the long-awaited adaptation of Richard Yates' celebrated 1961 novel about a troubled 1950s marriage, Revolutionary Road, co-starring his Titanic true love, Kate Winslet, as his bride.
Add 007 Daniel Craig co-starring with Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell in Defiance, the tale of the Bielski brothers, Jewish resisters to Nazi conquest who established their own free village in Belarus, and you've got a lineup of Tinseltown's most intriguing, influential and, yes, bankable male stars lending their talents to productions that attempt to carry historical weight, moral earnestness and/or literary pedigrees with liveliness and grace.
This Christmas season's panoply of marquee-name art and entertainment includes other box-office draws in more predictable outings, such as Keanu Reeves in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in Marley & Me, Jim Carrey in Yes Ma n and Samuel L. Jackson in The Spirit, while a slew of our most honored actors return in roles sure to win critical attention, such as Sean Penn as the United States' first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk, in Milk, and Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams as embattled clerics in Doubt.
This apparent glut caused Variety to headline its Hollywood preview story "Holiday Heartburn: Crush of star-driven Yule pics raises studio angst." As noted by the trade paper's reporter, Pamela McClintock, the Christmas period usually brings a swarm of releases on the specialty side, but in 2008, the major studios have doubled their typical output of lavishly promoted end-of-year releases.
McClintock warned, "Moviegoers will have to choose carefully if they want to avoid drama and death; three of the world's biggest stars play characters who kick the bucket."
She went on to ask, "Considering the state of the country, will more serious storylines work, or will lighter fare prevail ... do people want to laugh or cry?"
It's understandable that Hollywoodians grow antsy when stars stray from their usual turf. After all, Pitt's most popular movies have been caper comedies such as Oceans 11-13 and that garish piece of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Cruise became a brand name with action romances such as Top Gun and a franchise leader with the Mission: Impossible films.
Yet audiences often reward stars who dare to stretch themselves and pique their fans' curiosity. It's predictable that Variety would ask, "Will they even be willing to cry for Will Smith, 'the world's biggest box-office star?' " But no one is in better position to set the industry's collective mind at ease, because no one has a better track record at pulling off changes of pace than ...
These days when Smith commits to serious projects he holds nothing back - his performance in the title role of Michael Mann's Ali marks one of the great transformations in American movie acting. Unlike many performers who start out as comedians, Smith hasn't become over-reliant on audience response, and audiences reward him by responding to his authenticity.
When Ali did not click at the box office, Smith still put it forward as his best work, proving himself the kind of performer a strong, individual director like Mann would love to have on his team every time out. (Mann served as a producer on Smith's schizophrenic summer blockbuster Hancock.)
Smith first collaborated with his Seven Pounds director, the talented Italian Gabriele Muccino, on 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness, the fact-based story of an unemployed, San Francisco homeless man who raised a young boy in the streets while becoming a financial wizard.
The gamble paid off in Pursuit with a gritty tearjerker that grossed more than $162 million in the U.S. and in its own docudrama fashion echoed classics like Bicycle Thieves. Smith's Seven Pounds co-star Rosario Dawson told Entertainment Weekly of this new collaboration: "No matter how macho you [are], you're gonna be crying."
Then there's Smith's off-screen pal ...