As has been commented on by more than one person in the last day or two, this weekend's box office chart tells of an impressive feat. Both the number one movie, the Guillermo Del Toro-produced horror "Mama," and the number two film, Kathryn Bigelow's much-lauded "Zero Dark Thirty," feature the same actress in the lead role -- Jessica Chastain.
Chastain was virtually unknown this time two years ago, but a flurry of activity in 2011, with "The Tree Of Life," "Take Shelter," "The Debt," "Coriolanus" and "Texas Killing Fields" culminated in an Oscar nomination for her role in blockbuster hit "The Help." And her success continued in 2012 with "Lawless" and a vocal turn in "Madagascar 3," with 2013 kicking off with a second Oscar nomination for "Zero Dark Thirty," an acclaimed turn on Broadway in "The Heiress," and her current box-office supremacy.
The latter feat is particularly impressive when you consider that the two films comprehensively outgrossed new openings from both Mark Wahlberg, one of the more reliable leading men out there, and one-time megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, the combined take of both Wahlberg's "Broken City" and Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand" still falls below what "Zero Dark Thirty" alone made in its second week of wide release. But the question is, does any of this make Chastain a legitimate box office draw?
On the one hand, the last time a "name" actor managed the same feat in live-action films, it was... Chastain again, who featured in both No. 1 movie "The Help" and No. 2 film "The Debt" back in September 2011. (Denis Leary had films at number one and number two in July 2012 with "Ice Age: Continental Drift" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," but neither of those movies were even close to be being sold on his name). But one can certainly put down some of Chastain's accomplishment to her omnipresence, and status as a relative newcomer; if you've been in a dozen releases across two years, the law of averages says that you're more likely to pull something like this off than someone like Brad Pitt or Will Smith, who make a film every year or two.
Furthermore, while Chastain is undeniably the lead in both (she was only a supporting player in both "The Help" and "The Debt"), her name was nowhere to be found on the posters for these two current films (and her likeness only on the "Zero Dark Thirty" one, albeit obscured by sunglasses and the film's title), with the films' director (in Bigelow) and producer (in Del Toro) respectively, far more prominent. And there are far more obvious reasons for the films' success than Chastain's presence: the undoubted appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at the hunt for Bin Laden, and a PG-13 horror movie, appealing particularly to women, at the time of the year where that kind of thing tends to perform best.
But the wags dismissing the "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Mama" double-header as pure coincidence are missing the point. The films aren't successful because of Chastain, but Chastain's going to be successful because of the films. Prior to the last few months, the actress was likely unfamiliar to most of the American public, even after "The Help" (thanks to a chameleonic performance and platinum blonde hairdo). But she's now familiar as a leading lady to very different audiences (the older "Zero Dark Thirty" crowd, and the younger "Mama" market), and, perhaps more importantly, has been shouldering all the responsibilities of being a leading lady, from Yves Saint Laurent ads, to covering magazines from W and Marie Claire to GQ and Entertainment Weekly, to talk show appearances. However distasteful it might be to some, it's this circus that really cements stardom, and the likelihood is that your mum might now be able to pick Chastain from a line-up in a way that she wasn't able to before. And if not, that should change by the end of Oscar season.
Despite the obsession with celebrity, the star system is not what it once was (as conveniently demonstrated by this weekend's performance of the Arnie movie). The success of "Mama" and "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't mean that her next film, "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby," will launch to $30 million in its first weekend. Admirably, Chastain has marched to the beat of her own drum so far; declining offers for blockbusters "Oblivion" and "Iron Man 3," and so far shying away from any kind of substandard rom-com, things which have curbed the careers of some of her predecessors, and her next film looks likely to be a film version of Strindberg's "Miss Julie." There'll be ups and downs, but Chastain seems to be following the template of Meryl Streep more than anyone else. And one only has to look at how much of a draw Streep continues to be in her sixties to see the potential for a similar kind of slow-burning stardom for Chastain, towards which this weekend was probably the first step.