The age of the male movie star has passed. Welcome to the age of the female movie star.
The most successful performers at the box office of late have all been women, featured in star vehicles that focus almost entirely on them: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Angelina Jolie, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Lawrence, and now, Scarlett Johansson. She is in an odd film called Lucy that opened last weekend and made $45 million solely on the strength of a trailer that showed her manipulating the world with enhanced brainpower.
Now consider this: That same weekend, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Hercules was released. The Rock is the present-day heir to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mantle—an extraordinary physical specimen with a surprisingly light and agile touch. If he had been around in the 1980s, he would have given Arnold—who was, for about five years, the biggest star the world had ever seen—a run for his box-office money. But he couldn’t give Johansson a run for hers; Hercules made $29 million, which is a healthy sum, but not for a $100-million movie that exists solely to be a worldwide blockbuster. (Lucy only cost $40 million.)
The Rock’s inability to compete with Johansson parallels a larger trend: Long-standing male stars seem to be running out of gas. With the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt—and possibly Channing Tatum, who has had a good run over the past two years—the men who have dominated the box office over the past couple of decades have come up short lately. Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Johnny Depp have each had a succession of flops. That failure suggests their day might have passed. More important, no one has come along to replace them in their ability to “open” a picture, save for the women I’ve mentioned.
This is significant. For half a century, men ruled the roost at the box office. Indeed, if you scan the list of the most successful performers in motion-picture history, as judged by the grosses of their movies, you have to go to No. 19 to find the first female name—and that name is Emma Watson, who played a supporting role in the Harry Potter movies. The first out-and-out female star on the list is Julia Roberts, who clocks in at No. 21.
There were more male stars than female stars in Hollywood’s studio era, but there were plenty of the latter until the late 1960s. At that point, female performers receded so far into the background that there were only two female box-office draws—Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda—in the 1970s and 1980s. In the mid-1970s, with the advent of the blockbuster, teenage boys became the dominant audience at the multiplex. Movies were made for and about them, and that fare barely required women at all except as window dressing.
Roberts was the first major female star who could compete, and she did so for a decade, from Pretty Woman in 1990 to Erin Brockovich in 2000. Her success carved something of a path for others, Meg Ryan primarily, but Roberts was a singular comet. She stepped away for a few years after winning her Oscar as Brockovich, had kids, and never got her mojo back—largely, I think, because her angry-with-a-beautiful-smile shtick reached its apex with her Oscar-winning role, and she doesn’t have the range to become a character actress.
But when she slowed down, other women came in to occupy her place—Meryl Streep, who really hit it big after the age of 50, and Bullock, who came roaring back from a fallow period in 2008 and is now unquestionably the biggest star in Hollywood. Johansson’s career was supercharged by her presence in the series of linked Marvel comic-book movies, while Lawrence and Woodley have established themselves by taking leading roles in massively successful movie versions of young-adult novels adored by teenage girls—Lawrence in the Hunger Games franchise, Woodley in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars.
So right now, if you’re a nervous Hollywood studio executive and you want the security of casting someone who is reasonably assured to bring in an audience—which is the way stars can bid up their price and earn genuinely huge amounts of money—then all things considered, you would be safer casting a woman than a man.
Don’t ask me what it all means; your sociological theories would surely be just as valid as mine. Just know it’s happening, and get used to it.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.