Talent transfusion

Fresh faces put emphasis back on story, character

Michael Winterbottom’s decision to cast Stephen Dillane in the lead role of a television reporter in “Welcome to Sarajevo” meant that there were no prior references, no recollection of an earlier gallantry of romance, to distract us from the full effect of the Bosnian war’s horrors on a once cosmopolitan city. There were no stylistic clues or tell-tale mannerisms acquired from a history of seeing this actor’s work to tip us off about whether we’d be delivered in some way from the evil of this conflict, which made its depiction all the more shocking and inescapable.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s casting of newcomer Djimon Hounsou in “Amistad” helped deliver a fresh view of an unfresh topic, however complicated and painful: racial plunder — an especially tough job right now in a political climate of hardened attitudes.

That we’ve seen next to nothing of the work of Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce made the plot and character twists of “L.A. Confidential” the more intriguing, since we could genuinely ask “Who are these guys?”

And although Matt Damon has become this season’s poster boy for new kids on the block, his performances in “Good Will Hunting” and “The Rainmaker” carried no familiar baggage. Damon’s “Good Will” co-star and co-author, Ben Affleck, has also made his way onto the covers of American premiere glamour mags and established his acting chops at the same time. A new presence, if it’s authoritative enough, opens a filmmaker’s world wider to us and puts us in more intimate relation with it.

Last year’s Tom Cruise megahit “Jerry Maguire” introduced the mainstream movie audience to Renee Zellwegger, leading to widespread critics’ plaudits and awards, while Danish art film “Breaking the Waves” brought the U.K.’s Emily Watson an Oscar nomination. Watson still qualifies as a new face for the majority of the American filmgoers, a fact that Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer,” co-starring Daniel Day-Lewis, may help to alleviate.

The British Isles have been a traditional source of fresh acting talent, a trend that continues this year with Mark Addy and Robert Carlyle from the surprise indie hit “The Full Monty,” as well as Jude Law, who gained attention for his scene-stealing performances in “Gattaca” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” In addition to Crowe and Pierce, Australia adds “Oscar and Lucinda’s” Cate Blanchette to its shipment of valuable imports.

Closer to home, “Chasing Amy” introduced actress Joey Lauren Adams to auds and awards, with a Golden Globe nom already in tow. Jennifer Lopez, though known to TV comedy aficionados as a former “flygirl” from the “In Living Color” comedy series, broke through to big screen big time in the biopic “Selena,” which also drew her a Golden Globe nom.

Is there a trend developing here, in which big-time directors and major studios are shrewdly willing to put their mega-buck bets in unproven hands? Or are they just bringing fresh players into an old game, knowing the percentages always favor the house?

First there’s the question of demographics. New faces tend to be young faces and young audiences offer the ripest pickings for studio strategists hired to keep a step ahead of the Hollywood shuffle. These fresh talents also tend to mirror their audience’s generational attitudes, which means they tend toward short memories; anything older than five years is academic history.

“We looked at several big name actors,” says Fred Fuchs, president of American Zoetrope (and “Rainmaker” producer). “But Matt Damon possessed the fresh qualities the film needed. If there are more new faces this year than usual, I think it’s partly due to demand. Leonardo DiCaprio can’t do every movie, and there’s no question that moviemaking now is driven by the demographic, as in ‘Scream 2,’ where young audiences want to see people their own age. When Jim Cameron did ‘Titanic,’ he was no dummy. He made it a love story between two 20-year-olds.”

Oddly, that audience may be panning out in a new and peculiar way, not because of growing sophistication and savvy, but because a lot of the Boomers and the Gen-Xers are engaged in a kind of generational cross-dressing. As cultural observer Kurt Andersen points out in a recent issue of The New Yorker, “It used to be, during the Ford and Carter administrations, that baby boomers were accused of clinging to an extended adolescence — sensation-seeking fecklessness as a way of life. No longer: instead of behaving like hell-raising college kids at 30, we have contrived a culture that lets us feel at 40 like very lucky fourth graders. It’s the ‘Big’ generation, and the world is our rec room. Youth isn’t wasted on the young anymore.”

Fuchs agrees with this sentiment, and sees this trend reflected in the movies. “They’re a lot about adults playing video games or dealing with themes of winning and losing instead of dramatic issues related to their lives. If they’re trying out new faces, it isn’t because they’re more willing to take a chance on the unknown. It’s because the industry is in a static mode and nobody knows where to go next.”

One of the dilemmas the film industry finds itself in at the moment is that banking on a star who pulls down a $10 million to $20 million salary — or even one who’s on a hot run — no longer guarantees a hefty return, as we saw with Brad Pitt and Har-rison Ford in “The Devil’s Own,” or Pitt in “Seven Years in Tibet.” Traditional stars like Bogart and Gable flopped too. But as Jimmy Stewart used to say, “You finished one movie on Thursday and they told you to report to wardrobe for another beginning Tuesday.” Three or four movies a year from a major star meant that studios weren’t locked into an all-or-nothing-at-all mentality, the way, increasingly, they are now, nearly desperate for a way out (as Sony showed in offering 18-year-old post-“Clueless” Alicia Silverstone an $8 million production contract).

“I don’t know that we’re seeing such an extraordinary uptick in new faces this year,” says New Times’ film critic Peter Rainer. “What’s unusual is that a studio like Warner Brothers (“L.A. Confidential”) was willing to cast unknowns in a major film, when the general trend is to cast for box office instead of suitability for a role. Still, everyone has to start somewhere. Even Hollywood, as foot-dragging as it is, feels the need to drag in a few new corpuscles.”

The success of independent filmmakers has also made for a more hospitable, indeed eager, climate towards newcomers. Checking the names of the aforementioned performers, nearly all of them turned up in an indie pic or two, which by Middle American standards, means they haven’t hit the vast bulk of multiplex screens. However, Hollywood is scrutinizing those low-budget indies for the hottest new talent as if their studio expense accounts depended on it, which, says Rainer, is basically the case.

“It’s not like the old days of Cinema 16 or Film Archive, where film cultists huddled in ratty surroundings to watch obscure movies,” Rainer observes. “A lot of the indies aren’t so obscure anymore when you consider the number of film festivals like Sundance that are out there now. Miramax is all over the place trying to sign up actors and directors no one’s seen before. In principle, there’s not a lot of difference between the way studios finance their movies and an unknown filmmaker maxing out his credit card to get it done.”

If the end result of Hollywood execs searching foreign lands and schlepping to film fests is gauged by this year’s crop of acting talents, the bonus miles are worth their weight in Oscar contenders.

Steven Gaydos contributed to this report

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