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Discuss: Who, If Any, Of The Current Crop Of Leading Ladies Are Reliable Box-Office Draws?

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 23, 2012 3:27 PM
25 Comments
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At the start of the week, we examined the state of the A-list leading man, and why, outside of those who've been big draws for years -- Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Johnny Depp et al. -- so few stars seemed to be reliable at bringing audiences to their pictures. But when you look at the leading ladies, things are even more puzzling.

Put simply, the number of actreses who can be deemed consistent box office draws seems to diminish, rather than grow, as each year goes on. In part, it's because it's so rare for the major blockbusters to be lead by a woman: of the top 20 worldwide grossers last year, only "Twilight" could arguably be said to be led by a woman, and holding up those films as a victory for womankind would be an error, given their prehistoric sexual politics. 2010 was a little better, thanks to "Black Swan" and "Alice in Wonderland," but not much. But in part, it's because women seem to be pigeonholed more than men -- actresses are draws in romantic comedies, or teary dramas, or even action films, but rare are those who are given the opportunity to leap from drama to comedy to special effects tentpole, and still manage to bring in crowds.

Hopefully, things will change a little this weekend with "The Hunger Games," which toplines rising star Jennifer Lawrence, one of a new batch of leading ladies who might hopefully be able to shake things up. But for the moment, she, along with Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Emma Stone and various others, remains a little untested outside of their trademark roles -- we'll be examining which of them might have the right stuff next week. So who are the established contenders to be true box-office draws, right now? And who have we unfairly left out here? Charlize Theron? Keira Knightley? Kate Beckinsale? Kate Winslet? Jennifer Aniston? Weigh in below.

Angelina Jolie
The Potential: Starting out in the mid 1990s, Jolie's star rose steadily until she bagged an Oscar for 1999's "Girl, Interrupted," something that launched her into the A-list, with her very own action franchise, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," coming on soon after.
The Pros: We'd argue Jolie is the only actress who's a bona-fide draw in the same way as Cruise, Smith et al, it's partly due to the fact that she's really the only A-lister to take regular action roles. Generally speaking, when she's on the poster (see "Wanted," "Salt"), she's a big draw, especially internationally -- box office abroad for "The Tourist" helped save face in a big way.
The Cons: Outside of the action movie, she can struggle: "Changeling" topped out at $35 million, Clint Eastwood's usual number, and "The Tourist" didn't perform strongly domestically. That being said, when she's in ass-kicking mode, she's certainly a force to be reckoned with, and she's picky enough (it's likely that three years will have passed between "The Tourist" and whatever her next film is) that each new vehicle feels like an event, particularly given the wall-to-wall tabloid coverage taking place in he meantime.

Julia Roberts
The Potential: After turns in "Mystic Pizza" and "Steel Magnolias," Roberts went supernova with "Pretty Woman," and didn't look back for decades. There were flops, to be sure, but there were also monster hits like "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Runaway Bride."
The Pros: When you reach the level of stardom that Roberts had, you never really go away, and the success of "Eat Pray Love" two years ago is a testament to that. A film like next weeks' "Mirror Mirror" never would have got made without her, and something like the upcoming "August: Osage County," with Meryl Streep, can be billed as a clash of the titans with her presence.
The Cons: That being said, there are more misses than hits these days -- commercial films like "Duplicity" and "Larry Crowne" underperformed severely, despite her being paired with other stars. Whether it's that the material she's choosing isn't connecting (neither of those were well received), or that her appeal's waned a little, it's unclear, but she could probably do with another big solo hit sometime soon.

Sandra Bullock
The Potential: Breaking out as the love interest/bus driver in "Speed," Bullock's homespun charms saw her make hits of "While You Were Sleeping" and "Miss Congeniality," among others.
The Pros: "The Blind Side," the film that won Bullock her Oscar two years ago, is the biggest-grossing film ever to star a female lead, and that it came in the same year as the second-biggest hit of her career, rom-com "The Proposal," only cemented what a draw she can be in the right circumstances. Sci-fi survival thriller "Gravity" will pair her with George Clooney later in the year, and could give her a huge hit in another genre.
The Cons: It's easy to forget that, before "The Proposal," she hadn't had a $100 million hit since "Miss Congeniality" in 2000: indeed, the same summer brought the horifically-received "All About Steve." And the presence of Tom Hanks couldn't help "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" to make more than $35 million this past Christmas. All that being said, she's been able to get questionable films to decent grosses -- "Premonition," for instance, made $47 million, which isn't too shabby for a film that we'd essentially forgotten existed. And her so-called peak in the 1990s actually brought more flops - "In Love And War," "Gun Shy" -- than hits.   

Meryl Streep
The Potential: Meryl's been a star since "The Deer Hunter" in the 1970s, but her status as a bona-fide box office draw is a relatively recent development, thanks to the huge success of "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mamma Mia!," the latter of which made a whopping $600 million worldwide.   
The Pros: Ms. Streep's flair for comedy, and the audience's desire to trample into theaters in their droves to see it, is something new: the early part of her career contained only a handful of comedies ("She-Devil," "Defending Your Life," "Death Becomes Her"). But there's no denying that, when she's in that wheelhouse, as she was in "It's Complicated" and "Julie & Julia," she's a big draw, particularly -- and this is a rarity -- to older audiences.
The Cons: That said, when she's in Oscar-drama mode, as she was in "Doubt" or "The Iron Lady," there seems to be a ceiling on the grosses - both made about $30 million domestically. That's probably more than they would have done with any other actress, but her audience will only follow her so far, clearly. The light "Great Hope Springs" should be a hit, but "August Osage County" is more of a question mark.

Cameron Diaz
The Potential: Following one of the great screen entrances, in "The Mask," there was no way that Cameron Diaz wasn't going to be a star, and while there were some faltering steps, "There's Something About Mary" ensured her fame.
The Pros: Diaz has quietly been on a very strong run of late: "Knight & Day" did well internationally (less so in the U.S.), "The Green Hornet" was reasonable, and most importantly by far, "Bad Teacher," sold entirely on Diaz, was a giant hit on a meager budget. And her next, "What To Expect When You're Expecting," should be an easy home-run hit, even if she's just part of an ensemble.
The Cons: Like Bullock, Diaz hadn't had a big hit until recently (although "What Happens In Vegas" did $80 million), at least outside the "Shrek" franchise. And she generally needs to be in the comedy zone to bring in the crowds: "The Box" or "In Her Shoes" were disappointing box-office-wise. Teaming with Colin Firth in "Gambit" early next year will be an interesting test.

Reese Witherpoon
The Potential: Witherspoon had been on the up for a while thanks to "Election" and "Pleasantville," but it was the rom-com trio of "Legally Blonde," its sequel and "Sweet Home Alabama" that launched Witherspoon into the A-list, something cemented with her 2004 Oscar for "Walk The Line," which was also a big hit.
The Pros: Witherspoon's shown she can bring in an audience across several genres, and in the romantic comedy world, certainly she's a big star. She doesn't work an awful lot these days, but when she does, it's normally worth paying attention.
The Cons: To be honest, we were on the edge of putting Witherspoon on this list. Her last hit was "Four Christmases" four years ago, and while she's able to help bring pictures like "Water For Elephants" and "This Means War" over the $50 million line, her films rarely progress far beyond that. And there've been a fair share of disasters like "Rendition" and "How Do You Know" -- not necessarily her fault, but tarnishing the brand nevertheless. She needs to have a big solo hit like "Sweet Home Alabama" soon, ideally.

Rachel McAdams
The Potential: The 'newest' star on this list, McAdams got her first big break with "The Hot Chick," before a memorable turn in "Mean Girls," swiftly followed by "The Notebook," which turned out to be a seminal smash. A supporting turn in huge comedy "Wedding Crashers" helped to seal the deal.
The Pros: McAdams had a hell of a run early on, with even films like "Red Eye" and "The Family Stone" proving modest hits, and of late, "Midnight in Paris" and, crucially, "The Vow" wildly overperforming. When you include her presence in the "Sherlock Holmes" films, she's managed hits in action, romance, comedy and even horror/thrillers, which seems to be the complete package.
The Cons: Had "Morning Glory" been a massive hit, she'd be way up this list: the film was sold entirely on her, and seemed like commercial fare. But for whatever reason, it underwhelmed deeply, and so we're not quite so sure. Do people see her movies because she's in them, or does she happen to pick smart material (arguably half the battle)? "The Vow" seems to make it clear that she's a draw in weepies, but she needs to have a big solo hit at some point.    

Natalie Portman
The Potential: It's amazing to believe that Natalie Portman's been around for nearly twenty years, but thanks to "Star Wars" and "V For Vendetta," she's long since made clear that she's more than just a teen star.
The Pros: Portman had an excellent late 2010/early 2011, with the surprise smash status of "Black Swan" (which also won her an Oscar), plus the overperformance of "No Strings Attached" and the resounding success of superhero pic "Thor," in which she was the biggest star. Pregnancy has prevented her from jumping on anything else, but she's got lots of potentials, from Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" to the next Wachowskis movie.
The Cons: Outside of "Star Wars," Portman had actually had very few hits for much of her career -- even "V For Vendetta" only made about $70 million in the U.S. And for all the success of her recent run, she couldn't stop "Your Highness" from flopping in a massive way. We're still a year or so from seeing her next film, so whether her box office drawing power lasts remains very much in question.

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25 Comments

  • David Lawrance Barnes | December 5, 2012 9:46 PMReply

    I believe Angelina jolie is Retiring from the film biz ! so My new film Project need a new Leading Lady that is or can play the part of a Dutch Blond lady in " A Splintered Family "
    as described at :- www.hollywoodscreenstorywriter.com . By David Lawrance Barnes.

  • David Lawrance Barnes | December 5, 2012 9:46 PMReply

    I believe Angelina jolie is Retiring from the film biz ! so My new film Project need a new Leading Lady that is or can play the part of a Dutch Blond lady in " A Splintered Family "
    as described at :- www.hollywoodscreenstorywriter.com . By David Lawrance Barnes.

  • Uncle Gibby | March 24, 2012 11:25 PMReply

    All these ladies have "been there" and "done that" regarding box office success.
    All have their fans who will stick with them through "thick and thin".
    All have been involved in stinkers as well. That's the way it always have been and
    it will continue that way long after we are all gone.
    The fact that you list these women shows that you realize, given the right conditions, all can succeed and be "box office". That is if that's their personal goal.
    The fact that people are still talking about them 10-40 years after their initial effort proves
    that they have "staying power" and will continue to entertain us. The new crop of "in" actresses,
    let's see where THEY are in 5 years.

  • Sarah | March 24, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    Cameron was wonderful with Tom in Knight and Day, I'm more drawn and inclined to watch her future movies after that.

  • Haydn | March 24, 2012 1:25 PMReply

    You say that THE BLIND SIDE is the highest-grossing film to have a female lead... then directly under is Meryl Streep's column, where you state that MAMMA MIA grossed $600 million. One could argue that Amanda Seyfried was the lead in that, but nevertheless, it grossed far more than THE BLIND SIDE.

    And please don't tell me you're one of those assholes who says certain movies were "one of the highest grossing ever", just talking about US box office.

  • Gemini71 | March 24, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    Instead of discussing the current crop of leading ladies, I would like to predict who will be the next big screen leading ladies, both here in the UK and in America.

    The US Girls:
    Elizabeth Olsen
    Dakota Fanning
    Dianna Aragon

    The UK Girls:
    Holliday Grainger
    Imogen Poots
    Felicity Jones

    Regards.

  • Ellie | March 24, 2012 10:19 AMReply

    I'll see anything for Streep or McAdams. It doesn't matter the movie, they have the most talent. It's unfortunate that McAdams took a breather in 2006/2007 and Anne Hatheway somehow started getting her roles. McAdams has an old Hollywood allure with modern day looks, not to mention a unique ability to get an audience to buy into every one of her characters. There aren't many of those. And Meryl is just Meryl. Always brilliant. Both Streep and McAdams choose to be actual actors and not just movie stars, also choosing not to get too into the Hollywood scene. They love the craft not the lifestyle.

  • Wendy | March 26, 2012 4:27 PM

    Agreed. It's a pity Rachel doesn't pick projects more frequently, but hopefully her upcoming De Palma and Terrence Malick movies will push her back up to the top.

  • sasha | March 23, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    The star system is dated and belongs back in the 90s. Hollywood needs place more focus on making good films, to cast and MARKET them well. Successes such as Avatar prove that stars aren't reliable anymore. Something Hollywood needs to understand.

    That it's not about the star as much as it is about the MOVIES they choose to make. The only thing that would make me want to see a movie because of a particular star is if I know that the actor/actress in question has made good films in the past. I hate Leonardo Dicaprio but I would still see his films because he has good taste. Same with Brad Pitt.

    Not to mention some are successful in certain genres (see Kate Hudson + romcoms) but place them in something else and they're not a big draw. Proving it's more about familiarity about what you're expecting than the star itself.

  • jmp | March 24, 2012 3:14 AM

    sasha, I completely agree. Stars don't always guarantee box-office success anymore. Back in the day, movie audiences supported all of Tom Cruise's films- big commercial films or small -budgeted films. We don't have that type of loyalty anymore. For example , " New Year's Eve" was chock full of stars and it only earned $54 million domestically. Now , more than ever , it is about strong commercial movies that are marketed well and catered to teen audiences.

    Oliver, " Duplicity" , was a well-reviewed movie. Please write an article about the best acting talent in Hollywood - upcoming or established .

  • seren | March 23, 2012 9:37 PMReply

    In a sense, women don't need to be in the tentpole films to generate decent box office. If you look at the blockbuster films, they also cost so much to make. Most of those movies that female so-called A-listers make may not reach 100 m marks, but I think they make decent money more often than male equivalent in non-tentpole movies.

  • kris | March 23, 2012 7:49 PMReply

    i think the amazing spider-man is kind of franchise big budget , superhero movie also both the help and crazy stupid love ensemble movies , for kstew im not her fan or something but its unfair to say forgettable bacause her upcoming movie snow white looks like a hit and on the road is clever choice for her acting career.

  • Oogle monster | March 23, 2012 7:27 PMReply

    Also, I think Rachel McAdams is certainly a box office draw. But she just picks really shitty projects from time to time... even if they perform well. She's wildly talented though.

  • Oogle monster | March 23, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    Emma Stone is probably the only one of the younger batch that can draw in audiences without being attached to a franchise. J. Law and K Stew have only managed to usurp Stone when they are in franchise-mode. "Winter's Bone" and "The Beaver" did not set the box office on fire and anything outside of Twilight that was heavily sold on K Stew was entirely forgettable. "The Help" was entirely sold on Stone's appeal and while it may have had a somewhat large following, I don't think anyone expected it to perform the way it did. Add "Easy A" to that list, and you have a bonafide movie star. I think Charlize Theron is a rare exception since does well for the films she's in- she doesn't usually go after tent poles (exception: everything this year) and the fact that she's been an A-lister for nearly 15 years, is HIGHLY respected in the industry, and had one of the most memorable Oscar wins in Oscar history is saying something. Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, is the poor man's Charlize Theron... Bad Teacher may have been a hit, but boy was it awful. Young Adult was never meant to appeal to the mainstream movie going public and for a film that was thought to be "unfilmable"- it not only earned back its budget but then some (and you KNOW Paramount barely spent a dime in awards campaigning on behalf of Theron and co... they spent everything on Hugo).

  • Luther | March 26, 2012 1:55 AM

    "The Help" was entirely sold on Stone's appeal? I like the girl two, but weren't there three Oscar nominees (1 winner, 1 that unfortunately was up in a Meryl year) from that movie. Not to even mention the enormously huge book the thing was based on. And how exactly do we know that Charlize is HIGHLY respected in the industry? I'm not saying she's not, I like her. But unless you did I poll I'm not aware of, she might be the most hated woman in show business. More than Sharon Stone.

  • KitCon | March 23, 2012 7:10 PMReply

    Lawrence and Stone probably have the best shot of the younger batch. Their acting abilities were recognized before they became attached to huge franchises and they're both charismatic interviews.

  • kris | March 23, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    why do you put czj and soderbergh picture under the rachel mcadams photo?

  • Lisa | March 23, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    The sad thing is, the A list men you cite are in their 50s. Women don't get as long to establish their brand. Once a woman turns 40, it's time to make "serious" movies that don't make big money, or be resigned to playing The Mom. Take a look at the women who starred opposite Cruise and Depp back in their early films. You haven't seen those women in anything in a long time.

  • Luther | March 26, 2012 1:59 AM

    Go Testicles!

  • Chris | March 23, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    "The Blind Side" is the biggest-grossing film ever to star a female lead? Uh...no. Try "Alice in Wonderland" and most of the "Twilight" movies. They had female leads and made substantially more money than "The Blind Side."

  • seren | March 23, 2012 9:32 PM

    You need to see the credit billing. Sandra Bullock was the sole name above the title of "The Blind Side" and it was largely talked about when it hit the 200 m mark. The star in "Alice in Wonderland" is Johnny Depp technically even there are female stars in it, and "Twilight" movies are the ensemble.

  • Andrew James | March 23, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    I think you've probably nailed out all the main contenders here. But small cases MIGHT be made for the following:

    Charlize Theron
    Jodi Foster
    Kate Winslet
    Anne Hathaway
    Emma Stone (in a couple of years maybe)
    Cate Blanchet


    Though again, it's tough to think of any that you didn't already list. Good show!

  • Patrick | March 23, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    You should indeed have included Aniston. And maybe even Katherine heigl... They have been handed starring roles in commercial films quite a few times in recent years.

  • Luther | March 26, 2012 2:04 AM

    Does Aniston have even one hit? She gets cult kudos for "Office Space", but I could be wrong by saying she hasn't topped $100 mil once. Unless she was in the Chewbacca suit.

  • Zinjo | March 23, 2012 5:42 PM

    OK anyone mentioning Aniston is an obvious fan. She tried to de-throne Heigel as Rom-Com queen and failed with epic finesse. Jolie is a draw but has come to the point where "interesting" indie flicks appeal to her more these days. McAdams and Portman can draw in the audience but half of that is dependant on the premise of the film. Portman's presence did nothing for "Your Highness". The rest have their fan following, but few are capable of moving beyond that with the mere mention of their names.

    I would keep my eye on Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, as a few examples of upcoming talent that will command an audience with their presence if they choose projects wisely.

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