In Defense of Rooney Mara
There was a minor internet scuffle last week about Rooney Mara’s comments on past roles – particularly her one-episode guest spot in “Law & Order: SVU” and the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.
You may recall a similar kerfuffle last year when Shia LeBeouf took shots at both Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He apologized that the Transformers franchise had lost his heart, and that Indiana Jones wasn’t any good either. He was roasted alive by the internet, and in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview with Steven Spielberg, the normally straightforward director said only “I’m not going to go there” when asked about the comments, as if the subject was much too painful to touch.
What’s most interesting to me about these two events is how innocuous these comments actually are. In regards to Nightmare, Mara had only stated that, worried about the quality of the project, she’d sort of tried to sabotage her own audition by not giving it her all, and calling her "SVU" episode "ridiculous". After receiving some criticism, she later cleaned up her comments on “SVU” (supposedly she was calling humanity ridiculous as opposed to the episode’s storyline). LeBeouf’s comments are even more toothless – he was promising those disappointed with the second Transformers movie that the third one would be much better, and apologized for not performing better in Indiana Jones. His quote is “the actor's job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn't do it. So that's my fault. Simple." Not much in the way of vitriol there.
I bring this up because there’s an unwritten rule in the film industry that the actor must constantly and unequivocally give their support to any film in which they appear. Depending on what these actors signed, it may in fact be a written one: most stars are contractually obligated to appear in promotion of the films they produced. Some actors are so good at this that their enthusiastic promotion becomes part of the decision to cast them (Tom Hanks, Will Smith), while other times an actor’s distaste for this process is so strong it becomes impossible for the audience to not pick it up (Harrison Ford being the best example). But that’s not what this is.
If Mara or LaBeaouf had said these things prior to their movie’s release, or in the weeks immediately following, there could be an argument that their comments affected the movie’s financial picture. But years after the fact, what damage could these comments possibly do?
If you read any of the angry posts about these two, you’ll find that most people’s thoughts seemed to run along the following lines: “you’re a famous actor, it’s a life millions of people want, why slam these jobs that so many people would do almost anything to have?” I understand that viewpoint. But I think the reason for their anger runs deeper than that.
Look, all of the movies we’ve discussed so far have been terrible. The comments Mara and LaBeouf said were perhaps the kindest things ever said about these movies. Indiana Jones was a terrible movie well before poor Shia ever appears on screen (the fridge scene locked that up), Transformers 2 was godawful even by the minimal standards we hold Michael Bay to, and horror fans hold this Nightmare remake roughly on the same level most people hold Pol Pot. So, so what if Rooney Mara thinks an episode of television where she played a skinny girl who killed fat people for being overweight is ridiculous? It is ridiculous. She’d be crazy not to think so.
What’s more, we eviscerate actors for appearing in these movies, in fact, we hold them personally responsible for their lack of quality. We call them sellouts and accuse them of mailing in performances or just showing up for the paycheck. When these movies fail, we blame the box office performance on the actors (“no one wanted to see them in this”). When a few of their movies fail in a row, we insist that these failings are the fault of the actors, and many an actor suddenly finds his or herself unemployed for reasons having very little to do with their talent and effort. It is a vicious business, and no one has ever had much sympathy for the famous.
Why don’t we value honesty from the actors that play these roles? A director can look back and admit his failings, a producer can talk about swings and misses, a movie studio can admit where they’ve dropped the ball. This week NBC’s entertainment chairman, Bob Greenblatt, admitted at the TCA that they’d had a bad fall, and he was praised to the skies for his honesty. But if Maria Bello were to take a shot at ‘Prime Suspect’ this spring, they’d hang her from a billboard.
You have to wait until the end of a distinguished career before you’re allowed to take shots, at which point it becomes charming. This is part of why we love Michael Caine so much.
Why did I bring this up instead of talking about Green Lantern? Well, mostly because Green Lantern isn’t very interesting to talk about. But also because the fact that it isn’t very interesting has little to do with Ryan Reynolds or Blake Lively.
I’ll defend those two and ignore the other actors in the film, since the two leads seemed to be the ones who shouldered all the blame, despite the fact that Mark Strong gave easily the weakest performance of his career. Peter Sarsgaard was also given a pass, since he’s Peter Sarsgaard and everyone loves him (that list includes me, so I have no trouble giving him a pass as well).
I don’t have the energy to get into all the reasons that people hate Blake Lively, but she falls into that category of lovely but moderately talented actresses that women seem to despise. In terms of talent, is the line between her and Sandra Bullock really all that wide? But Bullock is adored and admired and has an Oscar because of it, and Blake Lively has every piece of her life assumed to be a staged fame-grab, and also gets no credit for being actually pretty good in this terrible action movie.
Ryan Reynolds is a more interesting case. The argument about why Green Lantern failed seemed to whittle down to, “well, Ryan Reynolds isn’t actually a movie star”. As if that would matter. Movies franchises make stars, and not the other way around. No one has ever said, “let’s go see that new Tobey MacGuire/Daniel Radcliffe/Sam Worthington/Hayden Christensen movie,” yet somehow Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Avatar, and Star Wars managed to do just fine. Alice In Wonderland grossed over a billion dollars worldwide (ninth all time, by the way) without anyone ever feeling the need to crown Mia Wasikowska the new queen of Hollywood. In fact, I had to go look up how to spell her name just now, something I rarely have to do with Angelina Jolie.
Movies have buzz. People like the trailers, like the TV ads, hear good things about something, and go see the movies. The fact that John Carter will almost certainly bomb at the box office in a couple months doesn’t mean that Taylor Kitsch can’t ever be a movie star, it just means that no one wants to see an actor they barely know in some horrific-looking Star Wars/Waterworld thing. The public is smarter than movie studios think. We can spot a bad movie, Twilight excepted.
I, for one, eagerly await the next Ryan Reynolds movie*. He’s a fun actor and he doesn’t have to be a movie star for me to enjoy him. He just needs to be in a good movie.
Maybe when he is, he can admit that Green Lantern was pretty terrible. I won’t hold it against him.
*wait, his next movie is Safe House. Never mind.