Whenever I watch a classic movie with one of the stars of yore, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, John Wayne, Bette Davis (once she had entered her thirties), I notice how few of them were handsome in the classic sense. Clark Gable was kind of the exception that proved the rule. But, the striking John Gavin never made it big.
Nor have other lookers, female as well as male. Paul Walker is nice to look at, but outside of the Fast and the Furious films, he hasn’t really been able to pack audiences in. It’s not good looks which determine how much box office a star can bank. It’s something else, something that no one can really put their finger on, but everyone kind of knows it when they see it, that “it” that makes a movie star.
At a party Saturday night, celebrating the release of the most enjoyable Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, this issue was raised in a conversation amongst a clique of conservative cinephiles. We all agreed that Sandra Bullock had it. And while an attractive woman (at least according to my straight friends contend) she’s not a Jessica (Alba, Biel or Simpson). Her breakthrough picture, Speed, came out the year she turned 30, supposedly past her prime for a Hollywood starlet.
Playing a middle-aged mother, she is carrying the Blind Side toward a quarter-of-a-billion dollar domestic box office, the eighth highest grossing film of 2009. Still, while a good actress, very good in this movie, she does not rise to the level of Meryl Streep, Laura Linney, Alfre Woodard or Kathy Bates.
That said, she has something which turns mediocre scripts like that for Two Weeks Notice into most enjoyable movies. And even in movies with, well, unsalvagable stories, like All About Steve, it takes you a while to realize just how bad the movie is, because, well, she commands your attention.
Nine years ago, in reviewing Moulin Rogue!, Owen Glieberman came closest to defining that “it” that everyone in Hollywood wishes they cold reduce to a formula: “As the courtesan Satine, Nicole Kidman has an accomplished whiplash-dominatrix style but not, perhaps, the eccentric dynamism of a true star.” Eccentric dynamism, yeah that’s it, but what exactly is “eccentric dynamism”?
UPDATE: An actress friend offers this insight on Miss Bullock:
She is approachable and likeable. Woman see her as not-too-pretty, friendly, real and someone you could go out and gossip/hang with and yet she seems to have just enough sex appeal for the guys. It’s hard to find that combo. She also is very funny and laughs at herself. She hits the right notes for both sexes to enjoy her. I think she allows her personality to come thru her performances which helps to make her successful.