Modest scale films allow actors to balance credibility, commerciality

You’re looking for just that right actor. In walks thesp John Smith and he plunks down his resume on your desk. You read:

“SKILLS: Fencing, Kung Fu, Ballet, Wrestling, Acrobatics. ACCENTS: Bronx, Puerto Rican, Midwestern, Australian, Irish. PLAYS: ‘All My Sons’ by Arthur Miller, ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett, ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, ‘The Imaginary Invalid’ by Moliere. TELEVISION: ‘Two Girls and a Guy,’ ‘JAG,’ ‘One Life to Live,’ ‘Oz.’”

Like all actors, John wants to do it all, and above all, he wants you to know he can do it all. And no matter the level of paycheck for the actor, that desire fundamentally never changes — which goes a long way to explain a phenomenon that has swept over Hollywood in the past decade.

A lengthening roster of thesps are switching back and forth between big-budget studio projects and low-cost independent films, some on a nearly one-to-one ratio.

For every “Shaft” or “The Negotiator” that Samuel L. Jackson has done, for example, he has balanced it with a “Jackie Brown” or “The Caveman’s Valentine.” Tim Robbins nurtures his long-cherished “Cradle Will Rock” to the screen as a celebration of the actors’ art, then within months of that film’s release appears in “Mission to Mars.” Cate Blanchett, after a string of successful indie credits from “Elizabeth” to “The Gift,” is due next as a co-star in one of the most anticipated mega-budget movies of recent years, “The Lord of the Rings.”

Those in Jackson, Robbins and Blanchett’s company are growing: Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Johnny Depp, Nick Nolte, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen, Edward Norton and Mark Wahlberg, among many others.

Industry observers note that several factors account for this basic change in the acting business, and topping the list is the expansion of indie film production, providing actors greater opportunities.

“The independent market has matured,” says John Fogelman, William Morris Agency’s head of motion picture talent, “and that whole side of the business has become extremely attractive for ambitious actors.

“(Morris indie specialist) Cassian Elwes does over two independent deals per month now, with the expanded market on international financiers able and willing to underwrite these films.”

“James Woods did a lot of studio movies earlier in his career,” says Movieline magazine film critic Stephen Farber, “but once the independent film movement really got going, Woods seemed to go with it. Now, about the only kinds of films he appears in are independent, writer-director works.”

To supplement things, Woods — who hitched his wagon to the indies as early as Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” in 1985 –generally has chosen to star in made-for-cable work, which naturally showcases performances (like his acidic portrayal of Roy Cohn in “Citizen Cohn”) rather than studio tentpole projects.

Younger thesps have enjoyed the chance to launch their careers immediately by playing both sides of the aisle, as with Cameron Diaz, whom film historian and critic Leonard Maltin observes “went right from something like ‘The Mask’ into something completely different like ‘Feeling Minnesota.’ She’s continued to do so — look at ‘There’s Something About Mary,’ followed by ‘Being John Malkovich.’ Conventional wisdom would say that, as a young actor building a career — and in her case, switching from modeling to acting — that you should build up some big studio credits first before launching into riskier, less-hyped films. But she didn’t do that.”

The recent airing of ABC’s “Life With Judy Garland” underlines the fact that life for the Hollywood actor during the height of the studio system was a highly stratified existence, obliging even the biggest names to often onerous contracts.

In the case of Garland, her MGM deal became nearly a lifetime sentence in which she found herself as an adult star under nearly identical contractual terms as when she was a budding 13-year-old.

Other than the few stars like Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas who broke away from the contract stranglehold and hung their own shingles as actor-producers — thus determining the kinds of films and roles that they wanted to play — most thesps were extremely limited in their choices of roles until the late ’60s.

Then, with the old studio hierarchy evolving into a looser confederation of corporate partners and various business experiments, a generation led by actor-stars like Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway were able to play rich, complex roles in studio-financed features.

“What happened then,” notes respected casting director Mike Fenton, “is that instead of beautiful faces, you had a lot of theater-trained actors like Hoffman and Al Pacino taking on character-driven films. Films like ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Marathon Man’ called for actors, not personalities.”

Though independent filmmakers continued to prowl the landscape offering courageous actors a chance to break away from studio vehicles, the next real break came in the mid-’80s with a critical mass of young filmmakers determined to stay as far away from a studio lot as they could.

“What one saw in the ’70s,” notes Fogelman, “was a lot of smaller movies that made huge footprints on our culture, and that same thing can happen today. A movie like ‘American Beauty’ (starring Fogelman client Kevin Spacey) shows you can have critical acclaim as well as financial return.”

Perhaps the watershed moment for movie stars came in 1994 when Bruce Willis, a full-fledged member of the $20 million club, opted to play a supporting role as a flummoxed boxer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

“Willis has to be the poster boy for this trend,” says Maltin. “With that choice of role, he was effectively sending a message to other stars that they, too, could take a pay cut and play interesting, fulfilling characters. He was also sending a message to the industry — agents, producers and so on — that stars would not always work in potential blockbusters, but pick their spots.”

It was the same film that revived John Travolta’s near-moribund career, marking, in the view of Fenton, “an example of how the small, independent film can provide an actor with a personal renaissance.”

But then, as Travolta’s recent B.O. failures such as “Battlefield Earth” and “Lucky Numbers” demonstrate, a resurrected career needs careful handling.

“One hopes that actors like Travolta or Julianne Moore don’t get pushed by their agents or other business people into dumb studio projects just to keep their profile high,” says Farber, “because that can become self-defeating since enough turkeys can end up permanently tarnishing a career.”

With that in mind, says Fogelman, actors today “are more aware than ever of leaving behind a trail of good, hopefully great, movies: a legacy. They’re looking, first, to be remembered for being a part of a great story, and second, to be able to continue being in the position to be asked to do great stories. That’s why it’s an extraordinarily rich period in our business.”

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