Like water for Goldwyn: the H’w’d star formula

WHEN I WAS A NEOPHYTE REPORTER, newly arrived in Los Angeles, I was treated to an audience with Samuel Goldwyn. Though Goldwyn was approaching his dotage, he was still a formidable figure who loved holding forth about the film business. In a piece I did on him, I quoted Goldwyn as saying: “The trouble with today’s producers is that they try to make things too complicated. It’s really very simple. You find a good story that fits a big star. Then you twist the arm of the star until he says he’ll do it.” I remember Goldwyn smiling to himself, then adding: “Of course, it used to be even simpler — you told the stars what to do. But those times are gone forever — we’ve passed a lot of water since then.” Goldwyn, whose syntax in reality was impeccable, then gave me a sly wink, as though to acknowledge that he was delivering a “Goldwynism.” It was as though it was expected of him, like Jack Benny joking about how cheap he was. I was thinking about Goldwyn’s theory this week after meeting with a group of exhibitors who were apprehensive about the coming holiday season. Where were the hits? the exhibitors wanted to know. After a bountiful year, the supply of megapix suddenly seemed depleted.

WERE SAMUEL GOLDWYN still alive, I suspect that he would remind us that things were getting too complicated. While Goldwyn would have admired Jim Brooks , I can almost hear him ranting about a filmmaker who makes a musical, then decides to remove the music, thus delaying the holiday release. I can also hear Goldwyn’s impatience with the mind-bending complexity of today’s animated features — projects that can be stalled for months by a technological hiccup. All in all, I think the venerable producer would have regarded the list of this year’s hits as reaffirmation of his basic hypothesis. There they were — the major star vehicles like “The Fugitive,””The Firm,””Cliffhanger,””In the Line of Fire” and “A Few Good Men”– hundred-million-dollar projects in which top stars play out the sort of fantasies their fans seem to favor. “It’s the same today as it was during the heyday of the studio system,” says Joe Roth, who will make as many as 10 pictures for Buena Vista release next year. “The mass audience wants to see big stars doing what’s expected of them: Robin William in drag (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) rather than in a whimsical film like ‘Toys’; or Kevin Costner as the hero in ‘The Bodyguard’ rather than in a fine but complex performance like ‘A Perfect World.’ ”

FROM THE BEGINNING of Hollywood, actors have ardently resisted stereotyping. The moment Charlie Chaplin seized control of United Artists, he stopped making comedy and his films went into the tank (he quickly changed his ways). The old-time studio chiefs, though dictatorial, often had to resort to suspensions and random threats to force their stars into Westerns, gangster films or whatever else had established their clout. Of course, there were hits this year that fell into other “sure-fire” categories: “Aladdin” represented a triumph of animation. “Jurassic Park” was the ultimate high-concept action film — almost a theme park in search of a movie. “Sleepless in Seattle” arguably represented the prototypical pseudo-sleeper — an amiable romantic comedy with big names (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) and a memorable soundtrack. Survey this year’s disappointments and it’s possible to summon up further reinforcements for a Goldwynesque theory: Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to be a comic, not an action hero in “Last Action Hero,” and the fans didn’t bite. Mel Gibson proved faceless in “The Man Without a Face.” If the audience were actually as inflexible as this year’s results would indicate, it would come as troubling news not only to the studios but to the several important “niche-players” now mobilizing their own slates. There are, after all, a finite number of superstars. Indeed, ICM is rejoicing at the moment because all of its top names — Schwarzenegger, Gibson, Julia Roberts, etc. — are now working, with further projects backed up behind them. All around town, top stars have enough multimillion-dollar offers stacked up to last them for years. Theoretically the supply of hot new ideas surpasses the supply of hot new stars. Surely the people who run companies like New Line, Castle Rock, MGM, UA and others are banking on projects with unique themes and fresh perspectives. Disney, the home of high concept, used to score consistently with other projects like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” but this year either the concepts were leaner or the audiences less accepting. One would hope that the top 10 list for 1994 would embrace some terrific films that will break all the rules, but Sam Goldwyn might suggest that we will all pass a lot of water waiting for that to happen.

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