Discuss: Does Having 'Mama' & 'Zero Dark Thirty' At The Top Of The Box Office Make Jessica Chastain A Movie Star?

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by Oliver Lyttelton
January 22, 2013 12:05 PM
26 Comments
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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.
 

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26 Comments

  • aj | January 23, 2013 2:32 AMReply

    she's done this once with The Debt and The Help. That didnt make her a "star". Neither this time.
    I'm a big fan of her, but I really think she's not those kind of star. She's better than just a "movie star",she's an actress.

  • Sean | January 22, 2013 11:18 PMReply

    """""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""""""" = perfection writing!

    Chastain is brilliant & will be a Meryl Streep in the following years NO QUESTION ABOUT IT....(gotta say I knew J Chastain would be a superstar years upon years ago)

    SHE IS INCREDIBLE, there hasn't been a actress so phenomenal for quite a while. & the fact that everything (her success) has happened in just a mere 2 YEARS.... is just a testament how beautiful & amazing she is!!! (basically Im in love with her)

  • Ccc | January 22, 2013 7:58 PMReply

    She didn't 'decline' the Oblivion offer, in fact she already signed up for it right before Bigelow came calling for the ZDT. She wanted to do both but couldn't work it out, she decided to bail out on Tom Cruise and choose to do ZDT. She said so in an interview and said she's grateful Tom Cruise let her go without a grudge.

  • Smyth E. Alan | January 22, 2013 6:37 PMReply

    To quote the TCM promo, she's just a damn good actress. For me she has reached that echelon of actors that I will pay some heed to anything they do, even if I'm not so interested.

  • ap | January 22, 2013 8:25 PM

    I completely agree with you.
    She's the kind of actress that shines even in shitty roles (or movies).I would certainly watch a movie just because of her. Wich is curious because I don't do that at all with "movie stars"...

  • ali | January 22, 2013 4:55 PMReply

    Jessica Chastain is Meryl Streep which IMO is so much better than being a movie star.

  • Nancy | January 22, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    I think the word "movie star" has things outside of acting attached to it such as gossip and tabloid type of stuff. I don't see Jessica as the type of person to engage in anything to get her into the tabloids. I also consider her to be the type of person to have a Cate Blanchett type of career versus a Julia Roberts. If you consider the career of Anne Hathaway. . .she's more well known because of her life OFF the big screen rather than strictly her roles. It's what you do when the cameras stop rolling that makes you a celebrity or movie star.

  • Cribbster | January 22, 2013 2:22 PMReply

    So-called experts tend to too closely align a movie's success with an actor's prominence or draw. Is Jessica Chastain a movie star? Without question. Does that mean she's bankable? Not necessarily. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie everyone wants to see, Jessica Chastain or not. "Mama" is a horror movie. I don't really want to see it, but it looks scary and more interesting than a lot of typical horror stuff that gets thrown at audiences. Chastain's presence is a bonus. The movie is a success, in this instance, thanks to the filmmaker more so than the actors. People point to guys like Will Smith and Tom Cruise as these stars that get people to the theaters, but it's a little reductive to think that way. Yes, they're mostly in massive hits, but it's not like they're randomly forced into these roles. They pick them. And rather shrewdly, I might add. As appealing as Smith and Cruise are as stars, I think they're also choosing roles with mass appeal in movies that give them the greatest chance of box office success. But remember "Seven Pounds." Movie sunk like a rock. That's not to say Will Smith couldn't open a small movie, but the probability of success shrinks with smaller movies. So, yeah, Chastain is a movie star (an incredibly talented one at that).

  • A. | January 22, 2013 2:15 PMReply

    If I had to choose between being a movie star or being recognised as a great actress I would go with the second option...

  • A. | January 22, 2013 8:10 PM

    SMYTH E. ALAN - I'll take that as a compliment.

  • Smyth E. Alan | January 22, 2013 6:33 PM

    This made me think of 'Mulholland Drive'. Random.

  • erika | January 22, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    It reminds a bit of Nicole Kidman in 2001 : she had Moulin Rouge and The Others both overperforming and while it was clear she was a movie star, it didn't make her a box office star. I think the same will happen to Chastain because both are primarily character actresses trapped in the body of a leading lady.
    In order to be a box office star in the US you need to be attached to a particular genre : action for Angelina Jolie, rom coms for Julia Roberts... I don't see Chastain being attached to a particular genre, I think she will have a career a la Cate Blanchett, even though she will be more famous and more of a draw because she has more of a girl-next-door persona and is American. I am more inclined to compare her to Blanchett than to Kidman because I doubt she will be as famous worldwide as the latter and it also seems that she wants to do more stage work, kind of like Blanchett.

  • coke | January 22, 2013 2:10 PM

    I also like to compare her to Cate Blanchett...

  • seren | January 22, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    However ironic it may sound, if she stars in a random rom-com and still manages to make the film successful, then she will be a "movie star" in my humble opinion. A movie star can even sell a mideocre film. But I don't think she really cares now that she's really recognized as a great actor.

  • TLA | January 22, 2013 8:08 PM

    Agreed, she needs to have a hit that is sold on her name. ZDT is being sold based on the reviews and subject matter. Mama on the genre and Del Toro. The Help was an ensemble.

    Bradley Cooper is a movie star because Limitless was a hit, and it is a relatively generic film that over-performed and he was the main marketing hook.

    Tom Cruise's worst movies (in a lead role/wide release) still make 75 Mil US.

    If Chastain can have a normal movie that is sold off her success alone be a success, then she can earn that movie star label. As of now, she is just a fine actress.

  • Alan B | January 22, 2013 1:43 PM

    Seren is right. Despite the fact that Chastain has had a golden couple of years, she needs that one hit built primarily on her name to cement her place on the A-List. She may be a fine actress, but - unless she can take that final step - she'll be appearing in supporting roles or doing TV in five years time. Anne Hathaway, for instance, has become attached to two romantic comedies recently (a Mindy Kaling script and a Shakespeare update), and if she call sell those two films, then Hathaway will be a true star in the Julia Roberts mold. Unless Chastain does otherwise, she'll just be another Miranda Richardson or Vera Farmiga: both fine actresses who aren't marketable to a wide audience.

  • Alex | January 22, 2013 1:20 PMReply

    No. She doesn't really seem to have any kind of identifiable personality or public persona. You can only create a movie star by mixing the right actor with the right role - think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. That certainly hasn't happened with Jessica Chastain, despite the 2 Oscar noms and Mama. I think this recent success either a random confluence of events, or attributable to the fact that there aren't that many movie stars coming up through the ranks so that our standards are essentially lowered. Other than Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ryan Gosling, I can't really think of too many young movie stars.

  • ap | January 22, 2013 8:27 PM

    You consider Jonah Hill a movie star? I can go with Ryan Gosling, but Jonah Hill????

  • Alexander Lane | January 22, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    She is certainly a movie star, although, in fame and recognition a relatively small one. She's had two years that could rival any actor's and, as GENADIJUS said, has shown great range. Seeing her in 'Tree of Life', an important film for me, I couldn't help thinking about her after.. 'the perfect woman, full of grace and poise and human emotion!' I look forward to seeing her continue to work at this astonishing pace and further subvert the importance of the title or term 'Movie Star'.

  • Me | January 22, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    I think Jessica avoids any movie star type roles. Even ZD30 isn't a star vehicle. It's just a movie that people are going to see in droves because of it's subject matter and the fact it's directed by Bigelow. I think most people, especially those interested in pop culture, are only vaguely aware of who Chastain is. Would love to see her continue to take roles that challenge her, and not necessarily high profile roles for a paycheck. Though if she wins the Oscar, she will have access to all the best parts. Though doubtful that her name alone will sell movies as the likes of Jolie, Pitt, Smith etc., do.

  • Genadijus | January 22, 2013 12:52 PMReply

    Jessica entered top class movies as a top-class actress. She proved to be able to create diverse, ironic, funny, dramatic performance within 2 years. Sometimes actresses are trying to do it for decades. I can really imagine her winning 2 oscars within the upcoming 10 years. She is great great!

  • Dan | January 22, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    I think it's less important that she's a movie star than a great actress, which we all know she is.

  • Harley Quinn | January 22, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    No, she's not a movie star. Movie stars are people like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, etc. Regular people still have only the vaguest sense of who Jessica is. Yes, she's been in a lot of movies, but she hasn't had that one big break through, name recognition role. Zero Dark Thirty comes close.

  • Harley Quinn | January 22, 2013 12:32 PM

    I forgot to add that once my mom can remember her name, Jessica will be a movie star.

  • Harley Quinn | January 22, 2013 12:30 PM

    I forgot to add that once my mom can remember her name, Jessica will be a movie star.

  • DG | January 22, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    Im pretty sure the fact that she stars in movies makes her a movie star...

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