Kristen Stewart vs Bella Swan
Take a look at the movies opening in cinemas this week. It’s not a very inspiring collection: Charlene Tilton in American Cheerleader Secrets. How to Stop Being a Loser. A Nic Cage thriller called Justice. The unremittingly grim Aussie true-crime drama Snowtown (a pretty good film, but definitely not for everyone). Oh, and a little flick sporting the elongated title, Twilight Saga: The Breaking Dawn – Part 1.
And that would be the reason there’s not much competition for you eyeballs this week. See, distributors with any hope of turning a few quid like to put some space between their movie and a bone fide, certified box office sure thing, because let’s face it, we all know what the kids are going to be lining up for Friday night. A movie like Breaking Dawn dominates multiplex screens and hogs all the media attention, so you have to be very confident in your audience to put up any competition. Or maybe the opposite: maybe it’s a lost cause and you can slip something out on a couple of screens according to your contractual obligations immediately prior to a DVD release. You may like to take a look at that list of releases again and see if you can guess which flick falls into which category.
But there’s another film being released Friday that doesn’t quite fit into either mould: It’s called Welcome to the Rileys, and it’s not the kind of thing you would want to throw away, nor a box office sure thing. It’s an emotional drama about a middle aged guy who ups and leaves his wife, heads for New Orleans, and promptly takes a young lap dancer under his wing (as it were). It stars Tony Soprano, Kay Howard, and… Bella Swan.
Welcome to the Rileys is a rather odd film but this is very odd timing for a UK release. It’s nearly two years since it showed at Sundance, where it created a bit of a stir with critic - and over a year since the US release (when the critics quietly reversed their earlier enthusiasm). Most reviews were mixed and box office was very slack in North America, where it made rather less than $200, 000 (that’s two hundred thousand, not million) and opened in just ten theatres.
So there’s no doubt that the distributors who are putting the film into the Empire Leicester Square on Friday are playing the Kristen Stewart card: Come see Bella Swan as an angry lap dancer! Come see Kristen act!
What’s not so clear is whether there is sizeable audience who will find that invitation at all attractive. There are some, of course. Some people even started a “We Want Welcome to the Rileys in the UK” Facebook page. But the last Twilight movie, Eclipse, took $700, 000, 000 worldwide (that’s millions, not thousands). People – especially teenagers – are obsessed with that series. You would think that would shine up Kristen Stewart’s prospects outside of Forks, Washington.
But maybe not. Neither Adventureland nor The Runaways could be considered commercial hits. Nor was Taylor Lautner’s Abduction. Nor was Robert Pattinson’s Like Water for Elephants. Remember Me? Forget it!
And it’s not just Twilight stars who fade to black holes when they step away from the franchise that made them famous. Look at Elijah Wood’s career since about a billion people saw The Fellowship of the Ring. According to Box Office Mojo, Hayden Christensen’s latest, Vanishing on 7th Street, grossed just $22,729 in its four week US run earlier this year. For that matter, whatever happened to Mark Hamill?
And now that we’ve broached Star Wars, what is it that separates Hamill from Harrison Ford? You’re one-shot-wonder from your long and prosperous career as a superstar for hire? I bet Pattinson, Lautner and Stewart would like to know – and so would Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.
Talent? I’m not convinced that Harrison Ford is a particularly gifted actor. Charisma? Definitely plays its part. But in the end I’m afraid it comes down to luck. Ford was always Spielberg’s choice for Indiana Jones but George Lucas originally cast Tom Selleck. If the producers of Magnum PI had released him from his contract, Harrison Ford’s career might have looked very different indeed. After all, Blade Runner was a big flop. Hanover Square flopped. The Frisco Kid flopped. Force 10 From Navarone flopped. Without Raiders of the Lost Ark his career was toast. With it, he was voted the Star of the Century by US exhibitors.
I think the other lesson we learn from Ford is this: that stardom is a kind of pact, a rapport that is struck between the actor and the audience. That rapport is established in a particular role and in a specific context, a kind of coup de foudre – and the longevity of the relationship depends on the actor delivering on whatever promise the audience thinks it has seen in him or her. When Ford is being flip, cynical and courageous, we all love him – at least, in a certain type of movie. When he’s acting outside of those parameters – in Mosquito Coast, or Regarding Henry for instance – then his appeal immediately diminishes.
Same thing for Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis, or almost any major star. We may not have it right, but we get a fixed idea of who these people are and what they represent – and we don’t like to be disabused.
When it comes to Twilight, the fans are there for Bella, Jacob and Edward. Kristen Stewart has shown she can act in other movies – she’s a very good Joan Jett in The Runaways – but she hasn’t really sparked with the public in the way that, for instance, Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman, or Will Smith did in Independence Day. Not yet anyway – her time may come. For now, it’s Bella they want.
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