At the start of the week, we examined the state of the A-list leading man, and why, outside of those who've been big draws for years — Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Johnny Depp et al. — so few stars seemed to be reliable at bringing audiences to their pictures. But when you look at the leading ladies, things are even more puzzling.
Put simply, the number of actreses who can be deemed consistent box office draws seems to diminish, rather than grow, as each year goes on. In part, it's because it's so rare for the major blockbusters to be lead by a woman: of the top 20 worldwide grossers last year, only "Twilight" could arguably be said to be led by a woman, and holding up those films as a victory for womankind would be an error, given their prehistoric sexual politics. 2010 was a little better, thanks to "Black Swan" and "Alice in Wonderland," but not much. But in part, it's because women seem to be pigeonholed more than men — actresses are draws in romantic comedies, or teary dramas, or even action films, but rare are those who are given the opportunity to leap from drama to comedy to special effects tentpole, and still manage to bring in crowds.
Hopefully, things will change a little this weekend with "The Hunger Games," which toplines rising star Jennifer Lawrence, one of a new batch of leading ladies who might hopefully be able to shake things up. But for the moment, she, along with Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Emma Stone and various others, remains a little untested outside of their trademark roles — we'll be examining which of them might have the right stuff next week. So who are the established contenders to be true box-office draws, right now? And who have we unfairly left out here? Charlize Theron? Keira Knightley? Kate Beckinsale? Kate Winslet? Jennifer Aniston? Weigh in below.
The Potential: Starting out in the mid 1990s, Jolie's star rose steadily until she bagged an Oscar for 1999's "Girl, Interrupted," something that launched her into the A-list, with her very own action franchise, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," coming on soon after.
The Pros: We'd argue Jolie is the only actress who's a bona-fide draw in the same way as Cruise, Smith et al, it's partly due to the fact that she's really the only A-lister to take regular action roles. Generally speaking, when she's on the poster (see "Wanted," "Salt"), she's a big draw, especially internationally — box office abroad for "The Tourist" helped save face in a big way.
The Cons: Outside of the action movie, she can struggle: "Changeling" topped out at $35 million, Clint Eastwood's usual number, and "The Tourist" didn't perform strongly domestically. That being said, when she's in ass-kicking mode, she's certainly a force to be reckoned with, and she's picky enough (it's likely that three years will have passed between "The Tourist" and whatever her next film is) that each new vehicle feels like an event, particularly given the wall-to-wall tabloid coverage taking place in he meantime.
The Potential: After turns in "Mystic Pizza" and "Steel Magnolias," Roberts went supernova with "Pretty Woman," and didn't look back for decades. There were flops, to be sure, but there were also monster hits like "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Runaway Bride."
The Pros: When you reach the level of stardom that Roberts had, you never really go away, and the success of "Eat Pray Love" two years ago is a testament to that. A film like next weeks' "Mirror Mirror" never would have got made without her, and something like the upcoming "August: Osage County," with Meryl Streep, can be billed as a clash of the titans with her presence.
The Cons: That being said, there are more misses than hits these days — commercial films like "Duplicity" and "Larry Crowne" underperformed severely, despite her being paired with other stars. Whether it's that the material she's choosing isn't connecting (neither of those were well received), or that her appeal's waned a little, it's unclear, but she could probably do with another big solo hit sometime soon.
The Potential: Breaking out as the love interest/bus driver in "Speed," Bullock's homespun charms saw her make hits of "While You Were Sleeping" and "Miss Congeniality," among others.
The Pros: "The Blind Side," the film that won Bullock her Oscar two years ago, is the biggest-grossing film ever to star a female lead, and that it came in the same year as the second-biggest hit of her career, rom-com "The Proposal," only cemented what a draw she can be in the right circumstances. Sci-fi survival thriller "Gravity" will pair her with George Clooney later in the year, and could give her a huge hit in another genre.
The Cons: It's easy to forget that, before "The Proposal," she hadn't had a $100 million hit since "Miss Congeniality" in 2000: indeed, the same summer brought the horifically-received "All About Steve." And the presence of Tom Hanks couldn't help "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" to make more than $35 million this past Christmas. All that being said, she's been able to get questionable films to decent grosses — "Premonition," for instance, made $47 million, which isn't too shabby for a film that we'd essentially forgotten existed. And her so-called peak in the 1990s actually brought more flops – "In Love And War," "Gun Shy" — than hits.
The Potential: Meryl's been a star since "The Deer Hunter" in the 1970s, but her status as a bona-fide box office draw is a relatively recent development, thanks to the huge success of "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mamma Mia!," the latter of which made a whopping $600 million worldwide.
The Pros: Ms. Streep's flair for comedy, and the audience's desire to trample into theaters in their droves to see it, is something new: the early part of her career contained only a handful of comedies ("She-Devil," "Defending Your Life," "Death Becomes Her"). But there's no denying that, when she's in that wheelhouse, as she was in "It's Complicated" and "Julie & Julia," she's a big draw, particularly — and this is a rarity — to older audiences.
The Cons: That said, when she's in Oscar-drama mode, as she was in "Doubt" or "The Iron Lady," there seems to be a ceiling on the grosses – both made about $30 million domestically. That's probably more than they would have done with any other actress, but her audience will only follow her so far, clearly. The light "Great Hope Springs" should be a hit, but "August Osage County" is more of a question mark.
The Potential: Following one of the great screen entrances, in "The Mask," there was no way that Cameron Diaz wasn't going to be a star, and while there were some faltering steps, "There's Something About Mary" ensured her fame.
The Pros: Diaz has quietly been on a very strong run of late: "Knight & Day" did well internationally (less so in the U.S.), "The Green Hornet" was reasonable, and most importantly by far, "Bad Teacher," sold entirely on Diaz, was a giant hit on a meager budget. And her next, "What To Expect When You're Expecting," should be an easy home-run hit, even if she's just part of an ensemble.
The Cons: Like Bullock, Diaz hadn't had a big hit until recently (although "What Happens In Vegas" did $80 million), at least outside the "Shrek" franchise. And she generally needs to be in the comedy zone to bring in the crowds: "The Box" or "In Her Shoes" were disappointing box-office-wise. Teaming with Colin Firth in "Gambit" early next year will be an interesting test.
The Potential: Witherspoon had been on the up for a while thanks to "Election" and "Pleasantville," but it was the rom-com trio of "Legally Blonde," its sequel and "Sweet Home Alabama" that launched Witherspoon into the A-list, something cemented with her 2004 Oscar for "Walk The Line," which was also a big hit.
The Pros: Witherspoon's shown she can bring in an audience across several genres, and in the romantic comedy world, certainly she's a big star. She doesn't work an awful lot these days, but when she does, it's normally worth paying attention.
The Cons: To be honest, we were on the edge of putting Witherspoon on this list. Her last hit was "Four Christmases" four years ago, and while she's able to help bring pictures like "Water For Elephants" and "This Means War" over the $50 million line, her films rarely progress far beyond that. And there've been a fair share of disasters like "Rendition" and "How Do You Know" — not necessarily her fault, but tarnishing the brand nevertheless. She needs to have a big solo hit like "Sweet Home Alabama" soon, ideally.
The Potential: The 'newest' star on this list, McAdams got her first big break with "The Hot Chick," before a memorable turn in "Mean Girls," swiftly followed by "The Notebook," which turned out to be a seminal smash. A supporting turn in huge comedy "Wedding Crashers" helped to seal the deal.
The Pros: McAdams had a hell of a run early on, with even films like "Red Eye" and "The Family Stone" proving modest hits, and of late, "Midnight in Paris" and, crucially, "The Vow" wildly overperforming. When you include her presence in the "Sherlock Holmes" films, she's managed hits in action, romance, comedy and even horror/thrillers, which seems to be the complete package.
The Cons: Had "Morning Glory" been a massive hit, she'd be way up this list: the film was sold entirely on her, and seemed like commercial fare. But for whatever reason, it underwhelmed deeply, and so we're not quite so sure. Do people see her movies because she's in them, or does she happen to pick smart material (arguably half the battle)? "The Vow" seems to make it clear that she's a draw in weepies, but she needs to have a big solo hit at some point.
The Potential: It's amazing to believe that Natalie Portman's been around for nearly twenty years, but thanks to "Star Wars" and "V For Vendetta," she's long since made clear that she's more than just a teen star.
The Pros: Portman had an excellent late 2010/early 2011, with the surprise smash status of "Black Swan" (which also won her an Oscar), plus the overperformance of "No Strings Attached" and the resounding success of superhero pic "Thor," in which she was the biggest star. Pregnancy has prevented her from jumping on anything else, but she's got lots of potentials, from Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" to the next Wachowskis movie.
The Cons: Outside of "Star Wars," Portman had actually had very few hits for much of her career — even "V For Vendetta" only made about $70 million in the U.S. And for all the success of her recent run, she couldn't stop "Your Highness" from flopping in a massive way. We're still a year or so from seeing her next film, so whether her box office drawing power lasts remains very much in question.