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A Lesson of the ‘Ben-Hur’ Debacle: Movie Stars Still Matter

Up until recently, when a movie turned out to be a major bomb — not just a financial failure but a symbol of waste, a legend, a stink bomb — there was usually a movie star’s name imprinted on it. The star became part of the movie’s infamy, and he also took on some of the blame. Just think of a folly like “Ishtar” (1987), in which the combined star wallop of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty couldn’t add up to a hill of beans in the desert, or “Battlefield Earth” (2000), which proved that John Travolta in the middle of the Travoltassance couldn’t sell a sci-fi epic that was really an obsequious vanity project. “Heaven’s Gate,” the movie that brought down a movie studio, was the exception that proved the rule: No one really thought of it as a Kris Kristofferson film, but that’s because there was a much bigger star in his midst, and that star was the director — Michael Cimino, the last auteur superhero of the New Hollywood. It was his name that adorned the legend.

These days, though, notorious movie bombs tend to arrive with an impersonal, disaster-by-committee feeling. For every picture like “The Lone Ranger,” which had Johnny Depp’s name all over it (though it’s worth pointing out that the film’s nominal star, Armie Hammer, wasn’t a star), there are one or two more like the $150 million fiasco “Mars Needs Moms” (2011), a motion-capture fantasy that no one remembers for its actors, or “John Carter,” the sci-fi trainwreck that starred Taylor Kitsch, a pleasant but recessive actor — he has his fans, but he’s about as far from a movie star as you can get — who had the sorry distinction of also starring in 2012’s other infamous debacle, “Battleship.” The disaster of a movie like “John Carter” isn’t hung around Taylor Kitsch’s neck, and it probably shouldn’t be, but in one sense he was connected to it: The way he played the title space traveler (anonymously), he was like a stand-in for the movie star who, theoretically, could have sold the movie.

Ditto for Jack Huston in the new “Ben-Hur.” Now that the film is an official debacle, we shouldn’t blame it on him; the movie is boring and inept on too many other levels. But perhaps the responsibility does lie, to a degree, with the filmmakers and executives who decided that they simply didn’t need a movie star. The ones who figured that Huston, with his handsome but slightly wimpy blue-eyed smiley okay-ness, was enough.

It’s that decision that makes “Ben-Hur,” like “John Carter” before it, a disaster that is so emblematic of its era. It reflects a strain of thinking in contemporary Hollywood that says, “We don’t need movie stars.” But why would anyone who wants to sell a big movie say that they don’t need a star? It all comes down to the logic of spectacle, to the notion that action and special effects and concept can carry the day. It comes down to the way that executives now invest themselves — literally — with an almost religious belief in the power of the package.

Now that we’ve seen what a mediocrity “Ben-Hur” is, a lot of people are wondering how it could have gotten made in the first place. But the context for it is everywhere around you, in every blah extravaganza like “The Legend of Hercules” or “Wrath of the Titans” or “Warcraft.” These movies will sometimes feature a “name” actor (addled producer: “Get me Sam Worthington!”), as well as venerable middle-aged supporting icons who show up for the paycheck (“Get me Liam Neeson!”), but essentially they are post-movie-star movies: spectacle for the global masses, ground out by the yard with showy and expensive digital anonymity.

“Ben-Hur,” by comparison, may look like an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” but let’s not kid ourselves about why this movie was made (or why they hired as a director the go-go visual stylist Timur Bekmambetov, who couldn’t stage a good “Masterpiece Theatre” scene if he tried — and in this movie, he tries). Sure, the faith-based demo was a factor, but the real draw was the chariot race, the ten-minute sequence that was the hair-raising action cornerstone of the 1959 version (and, before that, the silent 1925 version). The race was going to be the hook, the lure, the money shot. Remember the famous quote from Dino Di Laurentiis about his 1976 remake of “King Kong”? That movie was a proto entry in the packaging-is-everything era, and what Dino said about it was, “When my monkey die, everybody gonna cry.” The chariot race in “Ben-Hur” is this year’s monkey. Except that no one cared, because it’s the all-action era, when the eyeballs of moviegoers around the world are assaulted with kinetic amazements every week, so no one thinks twice about a bunch of dudes in horse-drawn vehicles trying to get all fast and furious the way Charlton Heston once did.

What they might have cared about, however, is an actor who could summon the contempo equivalent of Heston’s sinew and heart and wrath. Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” is a superlatively well-made movie, but if you took Russell Crowe out of it, you wouldn’t have the movie. His feral, eyebrow-knitted ferocity infuses every frame. “Ben-Hur” needed an actor like that. But in our era, stardom, more and more, has been cut out of the equation, and that’s partly because it’s been devalued by a culture of 24/7 pinup-gazing. Anyone who’s got the face and the body is potentially a “star,” and there are so many of these smoldering would-be demigods out there — hunks with a modicum of talent — that the people who make movies are forgetting how to tell the difference. He pops on camera. He can act (at least, without embarrassing himself). He looks hot in Zegna on the red carpet. He’s a star!

But that’s not what a movie star is. A movie star — Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts — has a quality of soul. He or she has character, and the rare ability to project it. Hollywood is still mining true stars (Ryan Gosling is one), but when it comes to the movies that genuinely make the money, more and more of the energy is consumed with putting together packages that transcend stardom. The new interwoven superhero movies, in which every film seems to be a sequel to every other film, are connect-the-dots matrixes that, to an increasing degree, are bigger than anyone in them. How many different actors can play Batman (there have been four since Michael Keaton) before we forget who Batman is? That’s the thing about movie stardom: It’s not just something out there, beyond us. It’s our mirror — it shows us who we are. It does no one any favors (not the audience, not the industry) when a movie like “Ben-Hur” bombs, but in this case there may be a valuable lesson (beyond the obvious one of don’t make lousy movies). The lesson is that movie stars still matter. Because without them, we’re just staring up at movies that are big glittering empty shells.

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