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6 A-List Stars With Greenlight Power: Do They Wield It For Good Or Evil?

by The Playlist Staff
June 3, 2013 2:45 PM
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Angelina Jolie
Jolie is perhaps a marginal case, but of all the high-profile, often younger women climbing the greasy Hollywood pole (that image came out grosser than we intended) -- Jennifer Lawrence, for example, has a Best Actress Oscar and a huge franchise under her belt; Kristen Stewart’s appeal has apparently created a franchise out of the nothing that was “Snow White and the Huntsman” -- Jolie has one thing they don’t have: Brad Pitt. We’re only being partly facetious here, because perhaps as evidence of just how mercurial the Hollywood power thing can be, Jolie’s own achievements -- she too is an Oscar winner (supporting, for “Girl, Interrupted,” aka “Film, Forgotten,”) she had a biggish franchise of her own in the Lara Croft movies, in fact she’s probably the only credible big-time female action lead of the last decade -- are somehow magnified by her status as one-half-of-a-power-couple. This gives the impression that she has a lot more clout than a mere look at her IMDB page would suggest. She’s also quite cannily managed her exposure so that she doesn’t pop up in too many films in one year (she balances live-action and animation gigs quite cleverly too.) But the glamorous image she projects and her extra-curricular interests mean she’s never forgotten about either.
The Way She Wields Her Power for “Good”: In and amongst the “Tomb Raider”s and the “Alexander”s and the kinda samey serial killer thrillers (“The Bone Collector,” “Taking Lives”) there are flashes of the Jolie passion-project ethos. Michael Winterbottom getting the 2007 true-story film “A Mighty Heart” made was largely attributed to her and the film was widely lauded, especially for Jolie’s committed and impressive performance as Marianne Pearl, wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. It’s hard to see how Clint Eastwood’s meticulously mounted but incredibly depressing “Changeling” could possibly have gotten made without someone of Jolie’s stature in the lead, and she does turn in another commanding performance, even if the film is maybe not what we might have hoped. Perhaps Jolie’s finer impulses found their best expression in her fiction directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” It's a well-intentioned film conceived as a love story across the divide during the Bosnian/Serbian war, and it convinced in some aspects more than others, but was a promising effort overall. In fact, it’s surprising to us that Jolie hasn’t yet mounted a directorial follow-up.

The Way She Wields Her Power For “Evil”: It’s not as impressive a track record as her husband’s in terms of championing new talent and taking risks on otherwise moribund projects, but then Jolie as an actor does not really enjoy the same level of popularity that he does, so maybe she can be forgiven for pouring a lot of her energy (whatever she has left after her family and humanitarian work) into big-budget showcases for her own talents -- “Salt,” “Wanted,” “The Tourist,” the upcoming “Maleficent,” the gestating “Cleopatra.” Though actually no, not for “The Tourist” with fellow greenlight-wielder Johnny Depp -- neither should be forgiven for that shitty, shitty movie.
Future Projects: With “Salt,” kind of without anyone noticing, sneaking up to a worldwide $300 million take, “Salt 2” has been announced. As much as we were pretty meh about the first one, we’re fairly meh about the sequel, but it’s clear that Jolie sees potential in the franchise, if more for her own profile than for, like, CINEMA. With the big-budget, starrily cast “Malificent” seemingly perfectly tailored for Jolie’s slightly scary, forbidding charisma, and the announced, potentially Fincher-directed “Cleopatra” too, the coming few years may see Jolie kick up a league. She is also attached as the lead in a potential Ridley Scott-directed Gertrude Bell biopic, and an as-yet-untitled movie with Luc Besson, which should see her kick some ass again.
In Summary A tricky one really. Jolie certainly is in it for the long haul, but we’d love to see one or two smaller, more personal projects on her upcoming slate than she has at the moment. It’s not that we think she’s slacking off exactly, what with all her ambassadorships and offspring, but she’d certainly be in a position to give some smaller, struggling productions a leg up (her right leg is especially high-profile) if she felt so inclined.

Johnny Depp
Overview: The whimsical misfit chameleon. He's "Edward Scissorhands" and now he's "Ed Wood!" Then he shaves his head and is almost unrecognizable in "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas!” This guy’s amazing! Remember when Johnny Depp could do no wrong and was one of the most adventurous actors on the planet creating a body of work that most actors could only dream of? Famous well before he became “A-List Famous” (that only happened circa 2003,) Depp’s career has changed dramatically since he became Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: Oh, Johnny, we know you have kids. And we know those Bahaman Islands don’t pay for themselves. And we know you recently separated from your partner Vanessa Paradis and you’re probably paying some kind of outrageous child support even though you’re not technically married. But what excuse do we have for fourPirates Of the Caribbean” movies and a fifth one on the way? Granted, the original “Pirates Of the Caribbean” was awesome, or at least awesomely unexpected fun entertainment -- the kind of blockbuster we can get behind. But it’s had grotesquely diminishing returns ever since and Captain Jack Sparrow, once a character as unique and interesting as Edward Scissorhands, has turned into an obnoxious caricature -- the kind that you just want to club on the head and silence for good. "Lazy diminishing returns" should be the title of a book that chronicles the latter half of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton career collaborations. Yes, they are “original” projects (if you consider the Tim Burton Auto-Generating Screenwriting Machine original,) but lord are they becoming more and more excruciating with each successive film (“Dark Shadows” being the most recent aberration, “Alice In Wonderland” being the most financially successful and yet easily worst/most suicide-inducing.) But while on the surface it looks like Depp only uses his powers for evil, he still does some good, albeit, in a lot quieter way, and as for some of his higher-profile passes, I mean, can you fault the guy for not wanting to star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” after the disastrous first attempt well-documented in “The Man From La Mancha?”

The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Sure, agreeing to star in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” and therefore getting it greenlit is not the most heroic act of your star power, but grading it on the late-period Depp curve, it's an absolutely magnificent achievement (minus points for the fact that Depp hated Mann.) So there’s that. And yes, Terry Gilliam’s “The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” is a near-abomination (not all the director’s fault, his lead actor died mid-shoot), but Depp did agree to step in for Heath Ledger (as did two other actors) and that saved the film from being an unfortunate footnote in history about productions that collapsed midway when the lead actor died. What else has he done in recent years that isn’t loathsome? Playing a younger Hunter S. Thompson in “The Rum Diaries” (ironically, the movie is pretty terrible,) agreeing to a hilarious cameo in “21 Jump Street” (two thumbs up all the way,) voice-starring in “Rango,” Gore Verbinski’s much-less blockbuster friendly, but awesomely bizarre and entertaining animated film, and arguably not a lot else, unless you count agreeing to narrate documentaries on Thompson and The Doors.)
Future Projects: Oh, Johnny. The actor was about to do his first serious drama in quite some time, the “Donnie Brasco”-esque “Black Mass,” but Depp doesn’t get out of bed for less than $20 million these days (unless your name is Bruce Robinson and you’ve coasted on years of outdated goodwill, see “The Rum Diaries”.) So just last week the actor bailed on the project, ostensibly because there’s another “Pirates 5” movie around the corner and hell, it’s easier to just punch in that time clock, no? On the relatively good side is a musical ("Into The Woods") with Rob Marshall, but then we remember “Pirates 4,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Nine” and maybe we’re not so excited anymore. Positively strong is "Transcendence," Christopher Nolan's DP Wally Pfister's directorial debut. Depp is the star and he surely got it greenlit. More importantly it feels like the actor’s first adventurous role in almost a decade. But also coming up next is Verbinski's sure-to-be tentpole hit "The Lone Ranger. It could be massive and if so it'll legitmize Depp's recent choices and you can probably say bye bye to the "Transcendence" films of the world for the next few years while Depp is busy with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th iteration sequels.
In summary: While it’s easy to write off Johnny Depp as the sad clown who went so far off the whimsical charts that he somehow landed in the strange land of predictably evil, the actor has done some good things in the last 7-8 years (“The Tourist” not being one of them; a film so awful we had to mention it again -- see Angelina Jolie). That said, it has been, let’s face it, mostly evil. Let’s hope “Transcendence” isn’t a shit show.

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  • Donella | September 4, 2013 6:08 AMReply

    1. The writers at the Onion have a strange, unnatural obsession with Black children that makes one wonder about the demographic of the editorial staff. There have been frequent sightings of mean-spirited commentary on Sasha Obama, Quvenzhane Wallis, and now Jaden Smith.

    2. The star and lead protagonist of After Earth is Jaden Smith, not Will Smith, so it makes no sense to compare Jaden's box office revenue to Will Smith's two decades of greatest hits.

    3. Will Smith would be better served with direction by Spike Lee or Lee Daniels or Steve McQueen moreso than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino's desire for hipster coolness overshadows artistry as a comparison of 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained will show.

  • Chinny | July 1, 2013 4:51 PMReply

    Yes, two of the biggest movie stars, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, really did make a movie together once, and yes, the movie received middlin/mediocre ratings on RT and meta critic (more awful movies get ranked and trashed on a weekly basis though, don't know why this one's 'fair' critiques are overblown)...
    ....however yes, it did gross almost 300 million worldwide (see the term, blockbuster, defined)...and despite all the odd, intense revisionist jackhole disdain, it was NOT Gigli, nor was it anything approaching the pathetic pablum rom com duds that Pitt's ex assaults us with, seemingly tri-annually.

    Get a grip, and please get over it.

  • Jeff | June 9, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    Call me crazy, but we could see Channing Tatum make a run for this club. He could easily grab Will Smith's spot as being the likeable everyman in blockbuster tentpoles, especially since Will has lost his grasp on what make audiences like him in the first place. He opened up 3 different movies, only one of which was based on an established property, at over $35 million domestic, grossing over $100 million each time. His next 3 movies, White House Down, 21 Jump Street 2, and Jupiter Ascending all look to have a really good chance to either match or eclipse those. In a year or two, this will either read genius or insane, depending on the Wachowskis, most likely.

  • Donella | September 4, 2013 6:01 AM

    So much for

    White House Down ($135,000,000 ww box office/$150,000,000 budget) outdoing

    Jaden Smith's After Earth ($243,000,000 ww box office/$130,000,000 budget).

  • Marlon | June 8, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    For a decade, people have been saying, whenever a new DiCaprio movie was announced: Oh, he's all wrong for that part, miscast, he won't be able to pull that off. Every. Goddam. Time. From The Aviator through J. Edgar, Inception, Django and Gatsby. And he always nails it.

    Now, suddenly, the criticism is: he's always playing it safe. Good grief, he just can't win, can he?

  • JD | June 5, 2013 9:17 AMReply

    I enjoy coming to this site from time to time for its blunt and (mostly honest) editorial content and less industry based than some of the competition but I've noticed recently how hard the Playlist team are pushing Lone Ranger as a must-see summer blockbuster seemingly, because you were invited to an early footage screening for the press.

    Since when did it become a "sure to be tentpole hit"?. I'm sure what you saw was entertaining but the film itself remains to be seen by most so let's not get ahead of ourselves considering its only tracking to top out at 122 million domestically and critically its highly unlikely to be showered with praise. Can you at least wait till you see the finished package before making outlandish claims.

  • oogle monster | June 4, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    What about Matt Damon?

  • MBrane | June 4, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    Spot on about Brad Pitt, he has the most interesting choices. A bit harsh on diCaprio in the Aviator, I thought. Felt he worked there, though not in most of his other Scorsese adaptations. More like Django would be good (he was the best thing in it).
    Depp has had a lot of good movies over the years and still attempts the odd interesting thing (Public Enemies, Rum Diary). His Tonto looks fun (ish) and nice to see a Native American lead character (even if he's only marginally Native). Transcendence might be good.
    Think Will Smith is the most "evil" on your list - he's had very few interesting movies in his past, very few good performances, and seems to have almost no interest in playing non-schmaltzy or non-action roles. Pity as he has some charm and a bit of talent. Just terrible taste.

  • Tobi | June 4, 2013 8:29 AMReply

    Your assessment on Depp had me dying in laughter. Even funnier because it's all true. And I've been arguing that point with DiCaprio for a decade now; all of his roles have the same 'anti-hero, emotionally flawed' blueprint to them like you mentioned, just to various degrees and different settings. That's why Django was just a relief. I'm very interested in Jolie directing more films, especially smaller more passion driving projects as was mentioned here. And I was wondering where Clooney was in this, but your points (he's older and his projects are more cerebral then huge blockbusters) are spot on.

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:27 AMReply

    There are kinda limited actors like Matt Damon who choose projects so carefully that they practically never have misfires. And on the other hand there is Hugh Jackman who, in my opinion, is more gifted artisticaly but prefers to participate in crap movies.

  • Frencheagermoviebuff | June 5, 2013 7:03 AM

    I agree with you Cromby mouse, while I would not be that categoric about Matt Damon who, in my opinion, is a fine actor with some flaws in his choices (not a lot indeed). I really like him , and he seems to be such a charming person !

    Anyway, I found this article a little harsh with Leo DiCaprio who is such a gifted actor, and comparing his long list of projects with his love/sex life is not very accurate and smart ! And just after that you indicates the list of Brad Pitt's projects which is as long as Leo's.

    The both of them seem to be the most accomplished comedians in this list. Brad has a great screen presence, Leo too, and they are the most versatile ! Sooo much better than Will Smith and, nowadays, Johnny Depp !

  • Ned | June 3, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Leo really needs to try something new. So far he's been a one trick pony.

  • Noah | June 3, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    I mean, can you fault the guy for not wanting to star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” after the disastrous first attempt well-documented in “The Man From La Mancha?”

    I do. It wasn't Gilliam's fault that Quixote fell apart the first time around. But what I really fault Depp for is developing his own Quixote project without so much as a courtesy call to Gilliam, who was supposedly his friend. He's the new Marlon Brando: A boring, money-grubbing sell-out whose best work is LONG since behind him.

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:32 AM

    Yeah, Depp once had a great image but since he sat on a horse named "Jack Sparrow, he can't get off.

    Brad Pitt is opposite, what a great actor and artist!

  • Mitchell | June 3, 2013 7:11 PMReply

    Willow Smith isn't starring in Annie, Quvenzhane Wallis is.

  • Jess | June 3, 2013 7:19 PM

    thanks, yes, we've clarified that in the text.

  • Tom | June 3, 2013 6:49 PMReply

    Interesting piece! Indeed, it is disgusting to see Depp's awful track list from the last couple of years.. On the other hand, mad props for Pitt. His mishaps (Mr. and Mrs. Smith!) are easily forgotten when you have the Tree of Life, Moneyball, and the Assassination to counter it.

    I maybe expected an "honorable mention" for Ryan Gosling. Drive would have been a generic piece of crap without him picking Refn to turn it into a masterpiece, and didn't he kickstart Cianfrance's career as well? Agreed, he does not have tha A-list allure or franchise to put him in the list as a full-on member, but being (at least partially) responsible for Refn and Cianfrance is not bad, is it?

  • SUP | June 3, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    I disagree about DiCaprio playing the same role in every movie. The only time that happened was in 2010 when he did play very similar characters in both Inception and Shutter Island. Whether he was too young to play Howard Hughes in The Aviator is a matter of opinion so that's fair, but as I understand it DiCaprio brought that to Scorsese, not the other way around.

  • AE | June 3, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    Do any of them really hold that much power? They earn a lot of people a lot of money, and I imagine those people are very careful their wards don't stray too far from 'acceptable taste' and the star's projected image.

  • Thomas | June 3, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    I have to disagree with your assessment of DiCaprio. I think it's a bit unfair and off base. There seems to be an underlying contempt masked as constructive criticism. He's the finest actor of his generation, one who has only gotten better with each role. There's nothing "boring" or "safe" about any of the choices he makes. He's constantly challenging himself and only trying broaden his horizons seeing how much more he can grow. Shutter Island is his greatest performance to date, in fact. He's never less than consistent, and is one of the more versatile actors on the planet. That you find them all to be a variation of the same character is perhaps more an unwillingness to get to the core of the characters he portrays (perhaps through a distraction by his boyish looks, or whatever), and the different complexities and nuances they carry, not through any problem of his own. He's been stretching his wings with quality projects and filmmakers, that maybe otherwise wouldn't have gotten the attention they deserve without his presence since 1993, but for some people, I guess that will simply never be enough. I see the out of place comment about the women in his life, and can't help but think you're letting his lifestyle color your perceptions of him and seep into your consciousness of him as an artist.

    There was no miscalculation with The Aviator either. It's one of the best, most harrowing and accurate portrayals of OCD you'll ever see anywhere. That was a revelatory performance. And, judging only from the nominees that year, should've been an Oscar-winning one, too.

    If there's one area in which he can improve, I would say that he perhaps takes himself and his work a bit too seriously and could stand a lighter approach once in awhile, which he accomplished in Django Unchained. But it's a minor quibble, at least as far as I'm concerned.

  • Mr Guest | June 7, 2013 7:39 PM

    @ Cromby Mouse Yeah except for that horrendous accent

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:30 AM

    The Aviator was great, classic turn by Di Caprio but I'd also like to mention Blood Diamond. Besides that sort of cheesy ending it is a terrifc movie and Leo is especially convincing in it.

  • kitcon | June 3, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Smith -- Django showed how risk averse he is w/ his acting choices. He probably thought he was using his power for good in getting Shyamalan a job. He seems more interested in his kids and producing. The results of After Earth probably worry him more for Jaden's career than his own. Which means he'll next be focused on finding a film that will give Jaden a hit.

    DiCaprio - All those directors are great but almost all of them would not have had much problem getting another star in his place and their films still green lit. It would be nice to see him work with lesser known directors in more intimate films.

    Jolie - She's next directing Unbroken and got the Coens to rewrite the script which in itself shows her clout. Everyone knows she's a bit of an oddball ( and I don't mean that negatively). She either makes films she is passionate about or as a matter of expediency. She made your fav The Tourist because she wanted her kids to vacation in Venice. But now that she is no longer worried about her physical longevity perhaps she'll be more focused.

    Depp - Perhaps it's a midlife crisis kind of thing where despite all he has, he's worried that it might not be enough. He complained about taxes in France too and asked for $15M to make The Rum Diary -- his own passion project.

    Cruise -- I think he just loves being a star -- perks, pay and all. And he sees action movies as his best bet to staying in the mix. Hence the back to back to back action flicks.

    Pitt - Z sounds like its a decent Summer blockbuster. He can be forgiven for wanting his own franchise. He's got bills to pay and has not had the mega paydays that Smith, Cruise, Depp and Downey have had.

  • Donella | June 4, 2013 10:29 AM

    I agree with you, Edward. Many readers of the script pointed out what Smith also knew--Django was a dead-end, static role overshadowed by the dialogue and action written for the supporting cast--Schultz, Candie, and Stephen. Not "there" there. Smith was right to pass up the role.

  • Edward Davis | June 4, 2013 8:34 AM

    "Smith -- Django showed how risk averse he is w/ his acting choices" Vehemently disagree. While it reads that way on the surface, Smith was astute enough to realize that Django wasn't the lead or best written character. That was King Schultz. Django is the least interesting main character in Django Unchained, Candie, Shultz and Stephen outshine him at every turn because they're colorful. Django is essentially monosyllabic at first and then grows to be sort of one-note bad ass, but that's it.

    It's Waltz who went on to win the Oscar, rightfully so and Jamie Foxx didn't even get nominated because that role is dead boring. Kudos for Smith for being able to pinpoint that. Django is the superficial lead of Django Unchained, but his character is ironically the most poorly written of all the main characters.

  • owdl114 | June 3, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    “The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” is a near-abomination

    Really? I think that's quite extreme. It's not up there with the best of Gilliam's work but I didn't think it was anywhere near terrible.

  • Chris | June 3, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    Sorry, but DiCaprio was fantastic in "The Aviator." He would have been a far more worthy Oscar winner than Jamie Foxx and his shallow mimicry in "Ray." (Though my personal choice of the nominated bunch, since Paul Giamatti wasn't nominated, would have been Don Cheadle from "Hotel Rwanda.")

  • Cris | June 3, 2013 11:16 PM


  • Nolan | June 3, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    Surprised there was no mention of Pitt nearly putting "The Fountain" to bed. Then again, the film may have been better off with a smaller budget, but who knows. Honestly, though, I think Brad Pitt has done better work than most of the people on this list. Leo plays it safe (and Gatsby is awful,) and I can't remember the last time Johnny Depp was in a good movie. Oh, wait, he was in "Before Night Falls" for a few minutes.

  • Sexton Blake | June 3, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Angelina's recent announcement regarding her double mastectomy far exceeds any film she could greenlit for 'good', no?

  • Freddie | July 1, 2013 4:42 PM

    Shhhh. The whole purpose of this exercise that passes for writing is to throw major shade at the only woman on the list, why'd you think the opening line of Angelina's blurb has the writer attributing her success and accomplishment to Brad Pitt. #teamsmackabish I think if Angelina had never met Brad she would have continued on as she was, breaking box office in franchise/action films and winning Oscars for indies and doing her humanitarian work...all things she did before she even met him. I will say Brad Pitt, like he keeps saying in interviews was in a rut in the early 2000s, and has done some of his best work, personally and professionally, since he met Jolie.

  • blahblah boo boo | June 3, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Does Cruise really still have "greenlight power" In the Mountains of Madness and the Cameron Crowe Marvin Gaye film were shelved with Cruise attached. Disney even shitcanned Oblivion, Universal grabbed that in turnaround.

  • Dave | June 3, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    Downey has joined the dark side. Dropping out of Inherent Vice for Perry Mason and Pinnochio? Evil.

  • Frank | June 3, 2013 4:06 PM

    He didn't drop out. PTA went with Joaquin instead. @Sexton. Not sure what her (very brave) double mastectomy has to do with movies.

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