A few weeks ago, I was a member of a panel that discussed movies. At one point, the moderator asked us to compare today’s actors with those in the past. All the others surprised me by voting for the current crop. Even while granting there is some excellent talent around these days, as a group I honestly don’t think there’s any comparison.
Part of the handicap that today’s movie stars labor under in this post-studio era is that the hey-day of the character actor has come and gone. In years gone by, even if the star was just another pretty face, he or she would be propped up by the likes of Charles Bickford, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Charles Coburn, Beulah Bondi, Claude Rains, Frank Morgan, Alice Brady, Basil Rathbone, Helen Broderick, Lionel Barrymore, Eve Arden and William Demerest, and, so, the audience never felt short-changed.
In the 30s and 40s, actors who wound up on the big screen had generally had years of seasoning on Broadway, in vaudeville and on the English stage. In addition to which, radio was in vogue, so they usually had distinctive voices. Today, not only can’t I distinguish between one actor’s voice and another, I doubt if the actors, themselves, can do much better.
But, silly as it may sound, I think the worst thing that happened to the movies was the 1960s. That was the first decade in the history of the world in which parents wanted to grow up to be just like their children, thus turning the natural order of things on its head.
Over night, or so it seemed, adults began looking to their kids to be their role models. In huge, scary, numbers, American grown-ups were asking the squirts to tell them what was hip and cool. Adults lived in constant dread that their children would regard their taste in movies and music as -- far worse than bad -- as square!
It was the time when demographics became the most important word in the lexicon of mass media. No longer was it enough that millions upon millions of people bought a certain magazine or watched a certain TV show. They had to be the right people. They had to be urbanites between the ages of 16 and 35. People you wouldn’t trust to pick out your necktie suddenly became America’s taste-makers when it came to popular culture. And, like most people, what they were mainly interested in were people just like themselves.
It led in 1971 to the cancellation of such top-rated shows as “Red Skelton,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Lawrence Welk” and “Green Acres,” shows that appealed to older, rural-dwelling viewers. At what might be considered the high end, the culmination of this particular mind-set was “Friends,” a show starring six actors in their 30s pretending to be characters in their 20s, all of whom spoke and behaved like teenagers. At the low end are the cheaply-produced, mindless, so-called reality shows.
In movies, things aren’t much better. We used to have leading men like Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, William Holden, Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Compare them to the likes of Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Tobey Maguire, Jim Carrey, Rob Schneider, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. Even though the youngest in the crowd is 32, and four of them are in their 40s, they all seem like their biggest concern is getting carded when they go to buy brewskis for Friday night’s frat house beer bash.
Perhaps, as my fellow panelists seemed to agree, it’s just me. But, frankly, I think we’ve gone from having leading men to having leading boys.