Pretty Woman

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Less Action, More Romance

Nadira Begum

In a recent cover interview with Allure magazine, Jennifer Aniston lamented the dearth of ‘movie stars’ nowadays. “I feel like it’s dying,” she said. “There’s no more glamour.” While the mouthpiece of such a claim feels somewhat dubious, the sentiment is no less true – she’s right to say that there aren’t any real definitive ‘movie stars’ of this generation, at least not any like the movie stars of the past. If someone were to ask you to name a movie star, it would be easy – names like Cary Grant, Julia Roberts, and Tom Hanks would roll off your tongue without a second thought. The star power of these figures was undoubtable, each of them easily drawing in a crowd of movie-goers with the pull of their names alone. When promoting a film, they were the star attraction, not the production company or the studio.

Now, it seems as though Hollywood is so focussed on franchise building and IP-driven projects that very little thought is given to the stars themselves. Many of Hollywood’s ‘bigger’ names have built a portfolio of almost exclusively action roles for themselves, breaking box office records but not necessarily capturing audience’s hearts. In doing so, these actors are failing to really establish themselves in the public consciousness as ‘movie stars’. In a recent podcast interview, Quentin Tarantino commented that the issue with the ‘Marvelisation’ of Hollywood was that the actors themselves weren’t the stars of the show – the characters were. Heart-breaking: the worst person you know just made a great point. During Marvel’s prime years, it wasn’t Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth or whichever other Chris that drew in audiences, it was Captain America and Thor. Despite an actor like Evans possessing the kind of charm needed to be a lead, audiences were never really tuning in to see his performance, they were tuning in to keep up with an overfamiliar fictional character. In fact, the actors’ inability to establish themselves as stars and draw in crowds with their names alone is proven by their lacklustre filmography outside of Marvel projects. Just look at the (non)success of The Gray Man (2022).

This reliance on easy, big-budget franchise films puts limitations on what our understanding of the modern movie star is. Charismatic actors like Jonathan Majors and Tom Holland would easily thrive in a romantic setting, so why isn’t a rom-com on the cards for them? Daniel Kaluuya, one of our generation’s most magnetic actors, once expressed his desire to make a rom-com, but it seems that no filmmakers have taken him up on this offer. This complete disregard for romance as a genre is robbing us of the delight of watching someone like Kaluuya let his natural charm and charisma play out on screen. We are suffering because studios seem more intent on reaching targets and making unfathomable amounts of money than actually connecting with an audience, which would, ironically, make them more money in the long term. And if money must remain the end goal for these productions, then surely it would make sense to cash in on cult followings and capitalise on the online stan culture that surrounds actors like Holland and Kaluuya. In a tragic twist of fate even the pioneer of modern blockbusters, Steven Spielberg, struggles to find space among the superhero-saturated multiplexes for his personal project The Fabelmans (2022). And, in a cinematic landscape that seems to prioritise franchise-building above all else, the desire for real connection has never been more potent amongst audiences that seem fatigued by such an onslaught of unfeeling action films, as showcased by Marvel Studios’ inability to cross their usual billion pound threshold at the box office in recent years. Action blockbusters like those within thenever-ending behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe are great films to switch your brain off to, but they are so far detached from genuine emotional depth that they feel unbearably cold. The onslaught of endless superhero films and extended universes has left a romance-shaped hole in the heart of audiences, and it goes without saying that an action-heavy industry can only last so long before inevitably self-destructing, taking their biggest talents out along with it. If we are to return to a cinema of feeling once more, then we need the talent of today to get behind these films wholeheartedly and bring audiences along with them.

Classic actors like the aforementioned Cary Grant and Julia Roberts became household names with careers that spanned decades due to the sheer range they were able to display in their early film roles. There would be no North by Northwest (1959) without Bringing Up Baby (1938), and there would be no Erin Brockovich (2000) without Pretty Woman (1990). In fact, if you go beyond Hollywood and look to foreign cinema, some of the biggest stars are those who are known for their ability to carry romantic roles. The clearest example is Bollywood, where you cannot be a movie star if you cannot charm an audience as easily as you can intimidate them. Romance is part and parcel of these films, so much so that some of the biggest and most iconic names in Indian cinema are actors who are most well-known for their romantic roles. Films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) served to establish the long-lasting careers of Bollywood icons Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, forging them into an era-defining duo; they’re like Bollywood’s Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, if you need a derivative Western comparison. These actors knew that on some level, the key to winning an audience’s support was to first win their hearts, and what easier way to do that than with the magic of romantic comedy?

When presented with that much revered title of ‘movie star’, the only relatively new name that comes to mind is Timothée Chalamet, and that is no doubt due to his ability to be as captivating as a romantic lead as he is a compelling dramatic lead. Many of his roles thus far have hinged on this charm. In Call Me By Your Name (2017) he is mesmerising as a young boy discovering himself, in Little Women (2019) he embodies the perfect pining Laurie, and his most recent turn in Bones & All (2022)showcases his ability to capture the desperation of young love with admirable ease. Equally intriguing is his refusal to take on a superhero role thus far. Since heeding the advice of Leonardo DiCaprio (another actor who initially won audiences over with his romantic roles), Chalamet has not been afraid to embrace romance in his search for a fulfilling acting career, and his penchant for the more tender roles gives him an edge that his peers lack.

There are no real movie stars for this generation because audiences simply aren’t being encouraged to fall in love with them anymore. Everything is sterile and neatly fits into a box — the superhero leads are symbols of patriotism and nothing more, the franchise leads are clean-cut heroes and nothing more. There is no nuance or grey area involved in the kinds of stars we are being offered now, and there certainly isn’t much room for charisma. The superstardom of someone like Robert Pattinson is proof of the power of romance and charisma. After shooting to global fame with his role in Twilight (2008), a teen vampire romance, Pattinson spent the better part of the next decade seeking out the creative and artistic fulfilment of arthouse films, working with a range of indie directors. His roles ranged from the terrifying to the absurd, and when he finally returned to the blockbuster earlier this year in Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022), he brought along his legion of devoted fans and their ‘Team Edward’ t-shirts. Pattinson is testament to the fact that movie stars can be forged when you don’t disregard romance as a starting point. Cinema is suffering from a famine of romance; in the rat race to the top of the box office, love is a mere afterthought that has no place in this game. Perhaps this is symbolic of a society in decline, though it’s more likely the product of a regurgitative money-making machine. This current trend of emotionless American blockbusters is one of the most heart-breaking aspects of modern cinema.

That is why I think Hollywood would benefit from a return to its romantic roots, and my one wish this holiday season is for cinema to embrace romantic comedies once more. I encourage studios and directors to find their most charming actors – the Daniel Kaluuyas and the Keke Palmers of this generation – and allow them free reign with a genre that thrives off of audience connection. Invest in stories that value human emotions like love and heartbreak, and trust that audiences will be invested too. Romance has never really been respected as a genre, but it seems that even modern attempts to revive the rom-com don’t fully believe in the trusted mechanics of the genre in the way they used to, and that is exactly what holds them back. I implore Hollywood to indulge in the most clichéd aspects of the romance genre and take a leap of faith on films that care more about matters of the heart than they do saving the world from an imaginary foreign invasion. After all, is love not the most trusted saviour of all?