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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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Tom Cruise
Overview: Arguably the biggest star on this list and Planet Earth, Tom Cruise can act -- that is... when he wants to (see this Cruise Essentials list for evidence and or this list of Early Performances Before He Was Famous.) The problem with Tom Cruise, like many of these A-listers, is he usually doesn't get out of bed unless there's he’s taking on some kind of huge event movie or tentpole. In other words, Tom Cruise does nothing small and the days of the megastar taking a minor, but essential, part in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie (see "Magnolia," one of Cruise's finest performances) may be a thing of the past. Cruise generally only uses his green light power -- choosing what he deigns to appear in and what is thus instantly whisked into production -- for blockbuster franchises or would-be franchises and very little else.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Admittedly, the star has put his green light power behind two "original" high concept films in the last 12-18 months (yes, original being a very relative term.) One, he greenlit Joseph Kosinski’s ambitious sci-fi movie “Oblivion” which was so expensive it would never have been made had Cruise or some other A-lister agreed to star in it (quality wise, well, we’re not talking about that now are we...) He agreed to star in “All You Need Is Kill,” another sci-fi project from auteur Doug Liman, based around effects and time travel. ‘Kill’ arguably wasn’t getting made unless Cruise stepped up to the plate, which he did. We would argue that Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” falls into this category, even if it attempts the ridiculous hero-complexing of turning a Nazi (Cruise of course) into a good guy. His hilariously unexpected turn as Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder" is probably his best left-field choice in ages, but the mooted solo Grossman film seems more dubious. Yes, there are the "Collateral"s of the world, but they feel like a lifetime ago and another era.

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: “Evil” being relative, obviously. Cruise, as we noted above tends to take a lot of safe blockbuster choices that will not only do financially well at the box-office, but maybe even more importantly, will reaffirm his position as the world’s biggest star. And he’s not even looking for financial windfalls; Cruise could never spend all the money he’s made in his lifetime. His choices appear to be simply to retain and polish his status. So that means “Mission Impossible” movies that vary in quality and occasionally take on some interesting directors and it means a lot of would-be franchise like “Jack Reacher” (which probably failed in that respect) and the aforementioned “All You Need Is Kill” (which makes the Liman project less appealing.) One could even cynically argue that “Oblivion” leaves the door open for sequels. Even an original project with a respectable director (“Knight and Day” with James Mangold) seemed to be geared towards the lowest common denominator.
Future Projects: Cruise obviously has “Mission Impossible 5in the works mostly to just continue his A-list, box-office hegemony, but don’t expect “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie to ultimately helm it. Cruise wants another mega-hit and McQuarrie has probably demonstrated that he can’t deliver there yet (though evidence of ultimate “good” would be Cruise taking another chance on the writer-turned-director.) There's remake of the "The Magnificent Seven" which feels all too safe, and we suppose Cruise dropping out of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ,” a surefire franchise, could be seen as a good sign, but it’s possible that script just sucks. If you really want to hear obnoxious however, rewind to 2008 where Cruise lorded over five projects (including David Cronenberg’s “The Matarese Circle”) and decided which one he would take. Essentially interested, but not sold on any of them, he hired McQuarrie to punch them all up to his liking/specifications and then in the end he chose “Knight & Day” (blech) and “Valkryie” (meh).
In Summary: Regardless of our assessment of "Oblivion" and some of his other recent films, Cruise isn’t as bad as some of the people on this list. Yes, times have changed, but we’d love to see him take on another “Collateral”-like character drama for once. He tips towards the evil, but sadly, Johnny Depp makes everyone look good these days.

Brad Pitt
If you’d told us in the early nineties that the eye candy boy from “Thelma and Louise” and “A River Runs Through It” was going to mature into maybe one of the most committed and interesting star/producers in Hollywood, we’d have probably not believed it (in our defense, we’d have barely been a teenager.) But starting perhaps with his terrific, tragic turn in David Fincher’s “Se7en” which the actor took as a reaction against “the pretty boy stuff,” Pitt deviated from the path we might have prescribed for him in a quietly impressive way. For every all-out, tentpole, name-above-the-title gig (“Troy,” “Mr & Mrs Smith,”) there’ve been several big films in which Pitt was content to take a smaller role, often within an ensemble, (“Twelve Monkeys,” “Snatch,” the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, “Inglourious Basterds”) and several other films from fledgling or auteur directors that feel like they were more about getting the film made than bumping his profile (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Moneyball” even “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”) As misleading as this might be, a glimpse at Pitt’s filmography therefore gives the impression that, unlike some of the other actors we feature here, Pitt’s primary focus has never been on making sure he stays super-famous -- instead he uses his profile to help get prestige projects made and in the process lands himself some plum roles (“Tree of Life,” ‘Assassination.’) We can’t help but feel that in the topsy-turvy world of Hollywood, Pitt may be one of the only stars going about this the right way round.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Pitt earned our admiration in a big way in 2011 when he singlehandedly (and this is according to superproducer Scott Rudin) brought “Moneyball” back from the brink of death following Sony baulking at the original Soderbergh-directed package. That film, finally directed by Bennett Miller, turned out to be a terrific, smart, adult drama, amply rewarding Pitt’s faith and perseverance, and also giving him one of his best recent roles. His involvement in “Tree of Life” (which would probably have gotten made without him, in fairness, but still) and “Killing Them Softly” haven’t hurt his image as the thinking-filmgoer’s superstar of choice either, especially as both of them boast roles for him as an actor that, while integral, are not necessarily the leads, and certainly not what anyone would call “heroes” (Mr Smith & Mr Cruise could take note.)

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: Of course, one big test of Pitt’s clout will be the notoriously troubled, soon-arriving “World War Z.” While early word on the film is mixed-to-positive, and therefore maybe better than we’d feared, the first trailers, the reports of director/star clashes (uncharacteristic for Pitt, it should be said) and the significant alteration of the story from its source novel all have us a bit muted in our expectation here. It’s a shame though, because when we initially heard that Pitt’s Plan B shingle had taken the rights to Max Brooks’ zombie novel, we were excited, hoping that Pitt & Co would recognise that the genius of the book lay in the docu-realist way it portrayed the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, and that a small-scale “District 9”-style production could do it great justice without necessarily breaking the bank. Instead, Pitt seems to have seen in it a potential franchise-starter (his first) and we have hordes of zombies pouring through city streets and a beefed-up central hero role for Pitt himself… we’ll reserve judgement for now, but reports of cost overruns and a fractious set have already dented Pitt’s crown a bit. 
Future Projects: That said, Pitt is taking an acting/producing role on Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years A Slave” too, and if even a quarter of his other 26 currently listed developing projects come to pass (our fingers are especially crossed for "The Fortress of Solitude" among others,) there’ll more than likely be enough to expunge the memory of any missteps. Plan B does take a lot of risks with the material they champion, so we guess that Pitt needs to refresh his big-star tentpole relevance every now and then in order to be able to continue with his good works elsewhere. We can chalk 'Z' down to that if needs be... and meantime we can anticipate the David Ayer-directed WWII tank movie "Fury" which is due in 2014 and in its combination of action and drama again sees Pitt aiming slightly higher than some of his contemporaries, into that territory where smarts and action/adventure meet.
In Summary: Pitt's a force for good, we believe. It feels (mostly) like he seeks out projects and filmmakers he believes in passionately, and only secondarily to that does he look for what those films can do for him.

(Sort Of) Honorable Mention
Well, that’s kind of it. Thanks to “Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” (which could surpass the former at the billion plus box-office gross), Robert Downey Jr. will soon be joining this club. His Team Downey production shingle is already starting to develop projects that, like DiCaprio, he will self-green light by starring in them ("Perry Mason," "Pinocchio" "Yucatan"). And his Marvel movies are giving him more clout, but it remains to be seen how he’ll use it exactly -- and how he’ll have the time -- if he’s going to re-up for “Avengers 2 & 3” and “Iron Man 4.” There’s George Clooney too, and while he’s too old to greenlight blockbusters -- see him dropping out of Soderbergh’s version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” because of his back problems (Clooney himself has ruled himself out of these kinds of gigs because he simply can’t endure it physically,) he does have some power. You’ll recall that Alfonso Cuaron needed some big male star to help greenlight his long-in-gestation sci-fi epic “Gravity.” At first it was Robert Downey Jr. and when he dropped out, Cuaron went to Clooney. So it’s not like his draw is entirely gone. It’s also that Clooney’s preoccupations are more about mid-size dramas than A-listers using their clout for gigantic projects. Anyhow, your thoughts? What’s your take on how we've sized up some of the world’s biggest stars? -- Jessica Kiang, Rodigo Perez

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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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