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6 A-List Stars With Greenlight Power: Do They Wield It For Good Or Evil?

6 A-List Stars With Greenlight Power: Do They Wield It For Good Or Evil?

The process by which movie A gets made while movies B-Z end up as so much shredded paper and shattered dreams is an arcane and mysterious one. While it seems as though most scripts, if they’re not just ignored, are simply fed into the enormous, clogged-up machine of the Hollywood system to be pawed over, derided or defended by the assistants to various junior executives at endless meetings about meetings, the accepted wisdom still runs that if you can get your script in front of one of maybe twenty or thirty specific pairs of eyes, the odds tip dramatically in your favor. These godlike beings with ”greenlight power,” however, are fewer now than in previous eras, in part because of a shift in the type of movies that make the big moneys these days (it’s not like “The Hangover Part III” or “Fast And Furious 6” were little sure-to-be-overlooked gems in need of a Selznick-type saviour to rescue them from the turnaround pile.) This casts the opening weekend disappointment of “After Earth” in an interesting light in a couple of ways.

Firstly, how will this be interpreted in terms of the Hollywood tentpole club’s already well-documented aversion to “original” ideas? As rote as the premise may have seemed, “After Earth” wasn’t based on a comic or a video game and had no pre-existing fan base, aspects which, when applied to something like “Inception” seem risky and brave, but somehow when applied to the Shyamalan film, seem risky and foolish (yes, the director may be a factor there.) Secondly, what does this do to Will Smith’s previously unassailable standing? When we talk about the pool of individuals with greenlight power getting smaller, that’s especially true of the subset of that number who are actors, if you compare it to even a few years ago, when not every big release had to cost $130 million to make. In “After Earth” we have a clear example of a film that simply wouldn’t exist in any form without its star: it was a “passion project,” conceived of as a big-budget, sci-fi spectacular with monsters! Spaceships! And peril! It was marshalled into being purely by Smith, shot by the director he chose, starring himself and his son, and released in a prime summer weekend slot against what should have been easy competition (the second weekend of a sixquel; an ensemble magician heist movie.)

Had the “After Earth” gamble paid off, it would have looked like a brilliant use of Smith’s greenlight power. However, it now it looks like it won’t, because while Smith’s movies tend to perform well overseas, something remarkable would have to happen for this not to end up a disappointment, and let’s not forget that your power as an actor in Hollywood is largely predicated on how big you can open a film domestically in its first weekend. Add to that the fact that the film really isn’t very good (our review here) and the whole endeavor starts to feel a lot like hubris — a cynical and rather smug attempt to parlay his own success into a blockbuster career for his son that audiences saw through and were put off by (it’s mean, but we love The Onion’s take on same.) It got us to thinking about Smith and the few other actors who are in the rare position of being able to greenlight a film — by which we mean not simply increase its bankability by signing on but actually get it into production from a standing start — and whether they use their privilege for good or evil ends. Essentially; do they choose projects that have no chance of getting made elsewhere because they are attracted by the story or the director (good) or do they simply leap onto whatever looks most likely to give their profiles, bank balances and egos a boost (evil.) Here are six individuals who currently have that power, and how we think they wield it.

Will Smith
If “After Earth,” purely in opening weekend numbers, is Smith’s first stumble in a long period of box-office infallibility, it really throws into high relief just how impressive a job he had done at translating his likable persona and broad-based appeal into the kind of massive stardom that maybe on this list, and in the whole wide world in general, only Tom Cruise could rival. It’s especially remarkable considering how few really great films Smith has been associated with (you can check out our rundown of his 5 best performances here, and take note how we were kind of reaching to get to 5.) From “Independence Day” to the “Men in Black” franchise, “I Robot,” “I Am Legend” and right through to comedies like “Hitch” and “Hancock” Will Smith has proved time and again that he can pull in all sorts of audiences to all sorts of genres, domestically and, importantly, internationally where his bankability is such that even Sony’s statement about the to-date disappointment of “After Earth” mentions their hopes for an overseas bump. In fact, we can believe that if Smith had simply continued in his established vein ad infinitum, he’d have had the same ongoing success. However, perhaps showing that even his stretchy appeal has a limit, it’s possible he’s just spread himself too thinly of late.
The Way He Wields His Power for “Good”: Smith has made a few slightly left-of-field, non-tentpole choices, even if they do feel like fairly obvious bids for Award recognition and actor credibility. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could have done “Ali” justice in Michael Mann’s uneven but occasionally great film, but Smith did a fine job of interpreting the great man without resorting to impersonation. If his first go-round with son and “After Earth” co-star Jaden, “The Pursuit of Happyness” was just too po-faced in its sincerity to really be a good film, he was great in it, and it was refreshing to see him use his everyman charm to actually play an everyman (albeit an immensely unlucky one.) “Seven Pounds” felt more like an attempt to replicate that formula than anything else, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” was sweet but forgettable and other than that it’s been all-tentpole all the way.

The Way He Wields His Power for “Evil”: Smith’s energies recently have been directed into creating careers for his children — acting for Jaden, first in ‘Happyness,’ then in the actually-quite-fun ‘Karate Kid’ remake, now in “After Earth.” Same goes for generating singing and acting opportunities for daughter Willow, with her short-lived recording career and once-mooted starring role in the upcoming “Annie” remake (which will now be filled by Quvenzhané Wallis, because, according to Smith in this Vulture piece, Willow no longer wants to do it.) As much as it feels like Smith earned his spot at the top, we’re not sure the halo effect of our goodwill towards him can extend over his whole brood. Otherwise he seems content to go back to the wells that have served him in the past, with “I, Robot 2,” “Bad Boys 3” and even a “Hancock 2” apparently in the works. This, of course, after his big chance to shake things up a bit, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was served to him on a platter, only for him to reject it. Now, we might in the end agree with his mooted reasons for passing on ‘Django,’ and we have mixed (or in this writer’s case, negative) feelings on the finished film, but there’s no denying that to have taken it would have piqued our interest in Smith immeasurably.

Future Projects: Aside from those sequels, Smith has a list of development titles as long as your arm, though we did feel a flutter of potential interest in “Focus” which, while by no means a game changer, is at least an original property that looks like it might tax Smith’s acting chops just a little more than running around shooting things. Also in that category are the Oscar-baity Ed Zwick Katrina movie “The American Can” and possibly the Black List script “The Accountant.” Oh and a remake of “The Wild Bunch,” which has been through so many incarnations now that we’re not holding our breath for it, if we ever were.
In Summary: It’s early days for “After Earth,” and who knows what kind of overseas numbers it could pull in to make “After Earth 2” a possibility (it’s actually kinda hopefully listed on Smith’s IMDB page at the moment, but we’ll see.) Either way, perhaps a little tarnish on that halo will be a good thing for the star, who has some interesting productions lined up and who perhaps will therefore concentrate more on those and less on future Family Smith Brand Extension Projects.

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably the outlier of this pack in that his trajectory is pretty clear, but he is one of the few A-list stars on the planet that can get almost any movie he wants made.  Ever since “Titanic” when DiCaprio launched into the stratosphere of biggest actors on earth he’s made wise, well-intentioned choices (and he did so before.) DiCaprio is the one actor on this list who not only hasn’t taken a franchise role, he’s never even seemed interested in one. So the “good” and “evil” are very relative here and maybe the evil is more “how he can and should improve.”
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Perhaps the distinction that DiCaprio has over all these actors is taste. While he’s struggled to fit into grown-up roles because of his boyish good looks, his intentions to work with some of the best directors on earth has always been sound. Becoming Martin Scorsese’s new DeNiro-like muse and starring in every film Marty wanted him to even though he might have been too young and therefore not convincing enough for the role (see “The Aviator.” Although this is arguably Marty’s miscalculation.) Since 2000 DiCaprio has worked with Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg, Scorsese (four times,) Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and Baz Luhrmann. It is auteurs-only in the DiCaprio household and regardless whether you like the films or his choices, this is commendable and shows that he is a champion of quality cinema (albeit a slightly safe one, who rarely takes a flier on someone not already well-established.)

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”/The Ways He Could Improve: The problem is that is DiCaprio is essentially always playing the lead and some variation of the damaged protagonist or anti-hero (see “Revolutionary Road,” “Inception,” “J. Edgar,” “Shutter Island” etc.) While the actor’s been nominated for three Academy Awards thus far, it took a delicious villain turn in “Django Unchained” (which he was ironically not nominated for) to demonstrate just how safe and boring DiCaprio’s choices have become of late. Yes, he’s working with the best. But DiCaprio desperately needs to try new things and stretch his wings. Yes, it’s nice to be the center of attention and to greenlight big projects made by auteurs, but if he’s truly going to make his mark, then it’s high time he started switching things up a la ‘Django’ before his routine becomes too stale. While it’s not “evil” per se, DiCaprio is also notoriously becoming the Ridley Scott of actors. That is to say he has 24 projects in development on his IMDB page and that’s probably 24 projects that those poor writers and producers are likely never going to see out in the light of day. Granted, DiCaprio is only a producer on some, but the actor, like Scott, has the bad habit of developing dozens of projects at the same time hoping one of them will be to his liking. What ends up happening is they simmer forever and then a hot new tasty dish comes along and takes up all his attention. It’s sort of the way DiCaprio dates; why buy the cow when there’s so much milk out there to taste?
Future Projects: A fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) illustrates that DiCaprio isn’t about to drop the damaged dramatic protagonist role any time soon. Please Leo, stretch your wings a little.
In Summary: Kid could stand to be much less safe in his choice of collaborators, but otherwise he’s got his heart in the right place. Bear in mind though, as Johnny Depp has proved, there’s plenty of time to sell out in your forties and fifties.

Angelina Jolie
Jolie is perhaps a marginal case, but of all the high-profile, often younger women climbing the greasy Hollywood pole (that image came out grosser than we intended) — Jennifer Lawrence, for example, has a Best Actress Oscar and a huge franchise under her belt; Kristen Stewart’s appeal has apparently created a franchise out of the nothing that was “Snow White and the Huntsman” — Jolie has one thing they don’t have: Brad Pitt. We’re only being partly facetious here, because perhaps as evidence of just how mercurial the Hollywood power thing can be, Jolie’s own achievements — she too is an Oscar winner (supporting, for “Girl, Interrupted,” aka “Film, Forgotten,”) she had a biggish franchise of her own in the Lara Croft movies, in fact she’s probably the only credible big-time female action lead of the last decade — are somehow magnified by her status as one-half-of-a-power-couple. This gives the impression that she has a lot more clout than a mere look at her IMDB page would suggest. She’s also quite cannily managed her exposure so that she doesn’t pop up in too many films in one year (she balances live-action and animation gigs quite cleverly too.) But the glamorous image she projects and her extra-curricular interests mean she’s never forgotten about either.
The Way She Wields Her Power for “Good”: In and amongst the “Tomb Raider”s and the “Alexander”s and the kinda samey serial killer thrillers (“The Bone Collector,” “Taking Lives”) there are flashes of the Jolie passion-project ethos. Michael Winterbottom getting the 2007 true-story film “A Mighty Heart” made was largely attributed to her and the film was widely lauded, especially for Jolie’s committed and impressive performance as Marianne Pearl, wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. It’s hard to see how Clint Eastwood’s meticulously mounted but incredibly depressing “Changeling” could possibly have gotten made without someone of Jolie’s stature in the lead, and she does turn in another commanding performance, even if the film is maybe not what we might have hoped. Perhaps Jolie’s finer impulses found their best expression in her fiction directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” It’s a well-intentioned film conceived as a love story across the divide during the Bosnian/Serbian war, and it convinced in some aspects more than others, but was a promising effort overall. In fact, it’s surprising to us that Jolie hasn’t yet mounted a directorial follow-up.

The Way She Wields Her Power For “Evil”: It’s not as impressive a track record as her husband’s in terms of championing new talent and taking risks on otherwise moribund projects, but then Jolie as an actor does not really enjoy the same level of popularity that he does, so maybe she can be forgiven for pouring a lot of her energy (whatever she has left after her family and humanitarian work) into big-budget showcases for her own talents — “Salt,” “Wanted,” “The Tourist,” the upcoming “Maleficent,” the gestating “Cleopatra.” Though actually no, not for “The Tourist” with fellow greenlight-wielder Johnny Depp — neither should be forgiven for that shitty, shitty movie.
Future Projects: With “Salt,” kind of without anyone noticing, sneaking up to a worldwide $300 million take, “Salt 2” has been announced. As much as we were pretty meh about the first one, we’re fairly meh about the sequel, but it’s clear that Jolie sees potential in the franchise, if more for her own profile than for, like, CINEMA. With the big-budget, starrily cast “Malificent” seemingly perfectly tailored for Jolie’s slightly scary, forbidding charisma, and the announced, potentially Fincher-directed “Cleopatra” too, the coming few years may see Jolie kick up a league. She is also attached as the lead in a potential Ridley Scott-directed Gertrude Bell biopic, and an as-yet-untitled movie with Luc Besson, which should see her kick some ass again.
In Summary A tricky one really. Jolie certainly is in it for the long haul, but we’d love to see one or two smaller, more personal projects on her upcoming slate than she has at the moment. It’s not that we think she’s slacking off exactly, what with all her ambassadorships and offspring, but she’d certainly be in a position to give some smaller, struggling productions a leg up (her right leg is especially high-profile) if she felt so inclined.

Johnny Depp
Overview: The whimsical misfit chameleon. He’s “Edward Scissorhands” and now he’s “Ed Wood!” Then he shaves his head and is almost unrecognizable in “Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas!” This guy’s amazing! Remember when Johnny Depp could do no wrong and was one of the most adventurous actors on the planet creating a body of work that most actors could only dream of? Famous well before he became “A-List Famous” (that only happened circa 2003,) Depp’s career has changed dramatically since he became Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: Oh, Johnny, we know you have kids. And we know those Bahaman Islands don’t pay for themselves. And we know you recently separated from your partner Vanessa Paradis and you’re probably paying some kind of outrageous child support even though you’re not technically married. But what excuse do we have for fourPirates Of the Caribbean” movies and a fifth one on the way? Granted, the original “Pirates Of the Caribbean” was awesome, or at least awesomely unexpected fun entertainment — the kind of blockbuster we can get behind. But it’s had grotesquely diminishing returns ever since and Captain Jack Sparrow, once a character as unique and interesting as Edward Scissorhands, has turned into an obnoxious caricature — the kind that you just want to club on the head and silence for good. “Lazy diminishing returns” should be the title of a book that chronicles the latter half of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton career collaborations. Yes, they are “original” projects (if you consider the Tim Burton Auto-Generating Screenwriting Machine original,) but lord are they becoming more and more excruciating with each successive film (“Dark Shadows” being the most recent aberration, “Alice In Wonderland” being the most financially successful and yet easily worst/most suicide-inducing.) But while on the surface it looks like Depp only uses his powers for evil, he still does some good, albeit, in a lot quieter way, and as for some of his higher-profile passes, I mean, can you fault the guy for not wanting to star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” after the disastrous first attempt well-documented in “The Man From La Mancha?”

The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Sure, agreeing to star in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” and therefore getting it greenlit is not the most heroic act of your star power, but grading it on the late-period Depp curve, it’s an absolutely magnificent achievement (minus points for the fact that Depp hated Mann.) So there’s that. And yes, Terry Gilliam’s “The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” is a near-abomination (not all the director’s fault, his lead actor died mid-shoot), but Depp did agree to step in for Heath Ledger (as did two other actors) and that saved the film from being an unfortunate footnote in history about productions that collapsed midway when the lead actor died. What else has he done in recent years that isn’t loathsome? Playing a younger Hunter S. Thompson in “The Rum Diaries” (ironically, the movie is pretty terrible,) agreeing to a hilarious cameo in “21 Jump Street” (two thumbs up all the way,) voice-starring in “Rango,” Gore Verbinski’s much-less blockbuster friendly, but awesomely bizarre and entertaining animated film, and arguably not a lot else, unless you count agreeing to narrate documentaries on Thompson and The Doors.)
Future Projects: Oh, Johnny. The actor was about to do his first serious drama in quite some time, the “Donnie Brasco”-esque “Black Mass,” but Depp doesn’t get out of bed for less than $20 million these days (unless your name is Bruce Robinson and you’ve coasted on years of outdated goodwill, see “The Rum Diaries”.) So just last week the actor bailed on the project, ostensibly because there’s another “Pirates 5” movie around the corner and hell, it’s easier to just punch in that time clock, no? On the relatively good side is a musical (“Into The Woods“) with Rob Marshall, but then we remember “Pirates 4,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Nine” and maybe we’re not so excited anymore. Positively strong is “Transcendence,” Christopher Nolan‘s DP Wally Pfister‘s directorial debut. Depp is the star and he surely got it greenlit. More importantly it feels like the actor’s first adventurous role in almost a decade. But also coming up next is Verbinski’s sure-to-be tentpole hit “The Lone Ranger. It could be massive and if so it’ll legitmize Depp’s recent choices and you can probably say bye bye to the “Transcendence” films of the world for the next few years while Depp is busy with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th iteration sequels.
In summary: While it’s easy to write off Johnny Depp as the sad clown who went so far off the whimsical charts that he somehow landed in the strange land of predictably evil, the actor has done some good things in the last 7-8 years (“The Tourist” not being one of them; a film so awful we had to mention it again — see Angelina Jolie). That said, it has been, let’s face it, mostly evil. Let’s hope “Transcendence” isn’t a shit show.

Tom Cruise
Overview: Arguably the biggest star on this list and Planet Earth, Tom Cruise can act — that is… when he wants to (see this Cruise Essentials list for evidence and or this list of Early Performances Before He Was Famous.) The problem with Tom Cruise, like many of these A-listers, is he usually doesn’t get out of bed unless there’s he’s taking on some kind of huge event movie or tentpole. In other words, Tom Cruise does nothing small and the days of the megastar taking a minor, but essential, part in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie (see “Magnolia,” one of Cruise’s finest performances) may be a thing of the past. Cruise generally only uses his green light power — choosing what he deigns to appear in and what is thus instantly whisked into production — for blockbuster franchises or would-be franchises and very little else.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Admittedly, the star has put his green light power behind two “original” high concept films in the last 12-18 months (yes, original being a very relative term.) One, he greenlit Joseph Kosinski’s ambitious sci-fi movie “Oblivion” which was so expensive it would never have been made had Cruise or some other A-lister agreed to star in it (quality wise, well, we’re not talking about that now are we…) He agreed to star in “All You Need Is Kill,” another sci-fi project from auteur Doug Liman, based around effects and time travel. ‘Kill’ arguably wasn’t getting made unless Cruise stepped up to the plate, which he did. We would argue that Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” falls into this category, even if it attempts the ridiculous hero-complexing of turning a Nazi (Cruise of course) into a good guy. His hilariously unexpected turn as Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder” is probably his best left-field choice in ages, but the mooted solo Grossman film seems more dubious. Yes, there are the “Collateral“s of the world, but they feel like a lifetime ago and another era.

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: “Evil” being relative, obviously. Cruise, as we noted above tends to take a lot of safe blockbuster choices that will not only do financially well at the box-office, but maybe even more importantly, will reaffirm his position as the world’s biggest star. And he’s not even looking for financial windfalls; Cruise could never spend all the money he’s made in his lifetime. His choices appear to be simply to retain and polish his status. So that means “Mission Impossible” movies that vary in quality and occasionally take on some interesting directors and it means a lot of would-be franchise like “Jack Reacher” (which probably failed in that respect) and the aforementioned “All You Need Is Kill” (which makes the Liman project less appealing.) One could even cynically argue that “Oblivion” leaves the door open for sequels. Even an original project with a respectable director (“Knight and Day” with James Mangold) seemed to be geared towards the lowest common denominator.
Future Projects: Cruise obviously has “Mission Impossible 5in the works mostly to just continue his A-list, box-office hegemony, but don’t expect “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie to ultimately helm it. Cruise wants another mega-hit and McQuarrie has probably demonstrated that he can’t deliver there yet (though evidence of ultimate “good” would be Cruise taking another chance on the writer-turned-director.) There’s remake of the “The Magnificent Seven” which feels all too safe, and we suppose Cruise dropping out of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ,” a surefire franchise, could be seen as a good sign, but it’s possible that script just sucks. If you really want to hear obnoxious however, rewind to 2008 where Cruise lorded over five projects (including David Cronenberg’s “The Matarese Circle”) and decided which one he would take. Essentially interested, but not sold on any of them, he hired McQuarrie to punch them all up to his liking/specifications and then in the end he chose “Knight & Day” (blech) and “Valkryie” (meh).
In Summary: Regardless of our assessment of “Oblivion” and some of his other recent films, Cruise isn’t as bad as some of the people on this list. Yes, times have changed, but we’d love to see him take on another “Collateral”-like character drama for once. He tips towards the evil, but sadly, Johnny Depp makes everyone look good these days.

Brad Pitt
If you’d told us in the early nineties that the eye candy boy from “Thelma and Louise” and “A River Runs Through It” was going to mature into maybe one of the most committed and interesting star/producers in Hollywood, we’d have probably not believed it (in our defense, we’d have barely been a teenager.) But starting perhaps with his terrific, tragic turn in David Fincher’s “Se7en” which the actor took as a reaction against “the pretty boy stuff,” Pitt deviated from the path we might have prescribed for him in a quietly impressive way. For every all-out, tentpole, name-above-the-title gig (“Troy,” “Mr & Mrs Smith,”) there’ve been several big films in which Pitt was content to take a smaller role, often within an ensemble, (“Twelve Monkeys,” “Snatch,” the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, “Inglourious Basterds”) and several other films from fledgling or auteur directors that feel like they were more about getting the film made than bumping his profile (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Moneyball” even “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”) As misleading as this might be, a glimpse at Pitt’s filmography therefore gives the impression that, unlike some of the other actors we feature here, Pitt’s primary focus has never been on making sure he stays super-famous — instead he uses his profile to help get prestige projects made and in the process lands himself some plum roles (“Tree of Life,” ‘Assassination.’) We can’t help but feel that in the topsy-turvy world of Hollywood, Pitt may be one of the only stars going about this the right way round.
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Pitt earned our admiration in a big way in 2011 when he singlehandedly (and this is according to superproducer Scott Rudin) brought “Moneyball” back from the brink of death following Sony baulking at the original Soderbergh-directed package. That film, finally directed by Bennett Miller, turned out to be a terrific, smart, adult drama, amply rewarding Pitt’s faith and perseverance, and also giving him one of his best recent roles. His involvement in “Tree of Life” (which would probably have gotten made without him, in fairness, but still) and “Killing Them Softly” haven’t hurt his image as the thinking-filmgoer’s superstar of choice either, especially as both of them boast roles for him as an actor that, while integral, are not necessarily the leads, and certainly not what anyone would call “heroes” (Mr Smith & Mr Cruise could take note.)

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”: Of course, one big test of Pitt’s clout will be the notoriously troubled, soon-arriving “World War Z.” While early word on the film is mixed-to-positive, and therefore maybe better than we’d feared, the first trailers, the reports of director/star clashes (uncharacteristic for Pitt, it should be said) and the significant alteration of the story from its source novel all have us a bit muted in our expectation here. It’s a shame though, because when we initially heard that Pitt’s Plan B shingle had taken the rights to Max Brooks’ zombie novel, we were excited, hoping that Pitt & Co would recognise that the genius of the book lay in the docu-realist way it portrayed the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, and that a small-scale “District 9”-style production could do it great justice without necessarily breaking the bank. Instead, Pitt seems to have seen in it a potential franchise-starter (his first) and we have hordes of zombies pouring through city streets and a beefed-up central hero role for Pitt himself… we’ll reserve judgement for now, but reports of cost overruns and a fractious set have already dented Pitt’s crown a bit. 
Future Projects: That said, Pitt is taking an acting/producing role on Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years A Slave” too, and if even a quarter of his other 26 currently listed developing projects come to pass (our fingers are especially crossed for “The Fortress of Solitude” among others,) there’ll more than likely be enough to expunge the memory of any missteps. Plan B does take a lot of risks with the material they champion, so we guess that Pitt needs to refresh his big-star tentpole relevance every now and then in order to be able to continue with his good works elsewhere. We can chalk ‘Z’ down to that if needs be… and meantime we can anticipate the David Ayer-directed WWII tank movie “Fury” which is due in 2014 and in its combination of action and drama again sees Pitt aiming slightly higher than some of his contemporaries, into that territory where smarts and action/adventure meet.
In Summary: Pitt’s a force for good, we believe. It feels (mostly) like he seeks out projects and filmmakers he believes in passionately, and only secondarily to that does he look for what those films can do for him.

(Sort Of) Honorable Mention
Well, that’s kind of it. Thanks to “Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” (which could surpass the former at the billion plus box-office gross), Robert Downey Jr. will soon be joining this club. His Team Downey production shingle is already starting to develop projects that, like DiCaprio, he will self-green light by starring in them (“Perry Mason,” “Pinocchio” “Yucatan“). And his Marvel movies are giving him more clout, but it remains to be seen how he’ll use it exactly — and how he’ll have the time — if he’s going to re-up for “Avengers 2 & 3” and “Iron Man 4.” There’s George Clooney too, and while he’s too old to greenlight blockbusters — see him dropping out of Soderbergh’s version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” because of his back problems (Clooney himself has ruled himself out of these kinds of gigs because he simply can’t endure it physically,) he does have some power. You’ll recall that Alfonso Cuaron needed some big male star to help greenlight his long-in-gestation sci-fi epic “Gravity.” At first it was Robert Downey Jr. and when he dropped out, Cuaron went to Clooney. So it’s not like his draw is entirely gone. It’s also that Clooney’s preoccupations are more about mid-size dramas than A-listers using their clout for gigantic projects. Anyhow, your thoughts? What’s your take on how we’ve sized up some of the world’s biggest stars? — Jessica Kiang, Rodigo Perez

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Comments

Donella

1. The writers at the Onion have a strange, unnatural obsession with Black children that makes one wonder about the demographic of the editorial staff. There have been frequent sightings of mean-spirited commentary on Sasha Obama, Quvenzhane Wallis, and now Jaden Smith.

2. The star and lead protagonist of After Earth is Jaden Smith, not Will Smith, so it makes no sense to compare Jaden's box office revenue to Will Smith's two decades of greatest hits.

3. Will Smith would be better served with direction by Spike Lee or Lee Daniels or Steve McQueen moreso than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino's desire for hipster coolness overshadows artistry as a comparison of 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained will show.

Chinny

Yes, two of the biggest movie stars, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, really did make a movie together once, and yes, the movie received middlin/mediocre ratings on RT and meta critic (more awful movies get ranked and trashed on a weekly basis though, don't know why this one's 'fair' critiques are overblown)…
.
….however yes, it did gross almost 300 million worldwide (see the term, blockbuster, defined)…and despite all the odd, intense revisionist jackhole disdain, it was NOT Gigli, nor was it anything approaching the pathetic pablum rom com duds that Pitt's ex assaults us with, seemingly tri-annually.

Get a grip, and please get over it.

Jeff

Call me crazy, but we could see Channing Tatum make a run for this club. He could easily grab Will Smith's spot as being the likeable everyman in blockbuster tentpoles, especially since Will has lost his grasp on what make audiences like him in the first place. He opened up 3 different movies, only one of which was based on an established property, at over $35 million domestic, grossing over $100 million each time. His next 3 movies, White House Down, 21 Jump Street 2, and Jupiter Ascending all look to have a really good chance to either match or eclipse those. In a year or two, this will either read genius or insane, depending on the Wachowskis, most likely.

Marlon

For a decade, people have been saying, whenever a new DiCaprio movie was announced: Oh, he's all wrong for that part, miscast, he won't be able to pull that off. Every. Goddam. Time. From The Aviator through J. Edgar, Inception, Django and Gatsby. And he always nails it.

Now, suddenly, the criticism is: he's always playing it safe. Good grief, he just can't win, can he?

JD

I enjoy coming to this site from time to time for its blunt and (mostly honest) editorial content and less industry based than some of the competition but I've noticed recently how hard the Playlist team are pushing Lone Ranger as a must-see summer blockbuster seemingly, because you were invited to an early footage screening for the press.

Since when did it become a "sure to be tentpole hit"?. I'm sure what you saw was entertaining but the film itself remains to be seen by most so let's not get ahead of ourselves considering its only tracking to top out at 122 million domestically and critically its highly unlikely to be showered with praise. Can you at least wait till you see the finished package before making outlandish claims.

oogle monster

What about Matt Damon?

MBrane

Spot on about Brad Pitt, he has the most interesting choices. A bit harsh on diCaprio in the Aviator, I thought. Felt he worked there, though not in most of his other Scorsese adaptations. More like Django would be good (he was the best thing in it).
Depp has had a lot of good movies over the years and still attempts the odd interesting thing (Public Enemies, Rum Diary). His Tonto looks fun (ish) and nice to see a Native American lead character (even if he's only marginally Native). Transcendence might be good.
Think Will Smith is the most "evil" on your list – he's had very few interesting movies in his past, very few good performances, and seems to have almost no interest in playing non-schmaltzy or non-action roles. Pity as he has some charm and a bit of talent. Just terrible taste.

Tobi

Your assessment on Depp had me dying in laughter. Even funnier because it's all true. And I've been arguing that point with DiCaprio for a decade now; all of his roles have the same 'anti-hero, emotionally flawed' blueprint to them like you mentioned, just to various degrees and different settings. That's why Django was just a relief. I'm very interested in Jolie directing more films, especially smaller more passion driving projects as was mentioned here. And I was wondering where Clooney was in this, but your points (he's older and his projects are more cerebral then huge blockbusters) are spot on.

Cromby Mouse

There are kinda limited actors like Matt Damon who choose projects so carefully that they practically never have misfires. And on the other hand there is Hugh Jackman who, in my opinion, is more gifted artisticaly but prefers to participate in crap movies.

Ned

Leo really needs to try something new. So far he's been a one trick pony.

Noah

I mean, can you fault the guy for not wanting to star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” after the disastrous first attempt well-documented in “The Man From La Mancha?”

I do. It wasn't Gilliam's fault that Quixote fell apart the first time around. But what I really fault Depp for is developing his own Quixote project without so much as a courtesy call to Gilliam, who was supposedly his friend. He's the new Marlon Brando: A boring, money-grubbing sell-out whose best work is LONG since behind him.

Mitchell

Willow Smith isn't starring in Annie, Quvenzhane Wallis is.

Tom

Interesting piece! Indeed, it is disgusting to see Depp's awful track list from the last couple of years.. On the other hand, mad props for Pitt. His mishaps (Mr. and Mrs. Smith!) are easily forgotten when you have the Tree of Life, Moneyball, and the Assassination to counter it.

I maybe expected an "honorable mention" for Ryan Gosling. Drive would have been a generic piece of crap without him picking Refn to turn it into a masterpiece, and didn't he kickstart Cianfrance's career as well? Agreed, he does not have tha A-list allure or franchise to put him in the list as a full-on member, but being (at least partially) responsible for Refn and Cianfrance is not bad, is it?

SUP

I disagree about DiCaprio playing the same role in every movie. The only time that happened was in 2010 when he did play very similar characters in both Inception and Shutter Island. Whether he was too young to play Howard Hughes in The Aviator is a matter of opinion so that's fair, but as I understand it DiCaprio brought that to Scorsese, not the other way around.

AE

Do any of them really hold that much power? They earn a lot of people a lot of money, and I imagine those people are very careful their wards don't stray too far from 'acceptable taste' and the star's projected image.

Thomas

I have to disagree with your assessment of DiCaprio. I think it's a bit unfair and off base. There seems to be an underlying contempt masked as constructive criticism. He's the finest actor of his generation, one who has only gotten better with each role. There's nothing "boring" or "safe" about any of the choices he makes. He's constantly challenging himself and only trying broaden his horizons seeing how much more he can grow. Shutter Island is his greatest performance to date, in fact. He's never less than consistent, and is one of the more versatile actors on the planet. That you find them all to be a variation of the same character is perhaps more an unwillingness to get to the core of the characters he portrays (perhaps through a distraction by his boyish looks, or whatever), and the different complexities and nuances they carry, not through any problem of his own. He's been stretching his wings with quality projects and filmmakers, that maybe otherwise wouldn't have gotten the attention they deserve without his presence since 1993, but for some people, I guess that will simply never be enough. I see the out of place comment about the women in his life, and can't help but think you're letting his lifestyle color your perceptions of him and seep into your consciousness of him as an artist.

There was no miscalculation with The Aviator either. It's one of the best, most harrowing and accurate portrayals of OCD you'll ever see anywhere. That was a revelatory performance. And, judging only from the nominees that year, should've been an Oscar-winning one, too.

If there's one area in which he can improve, I would say that he perhaps takes himself and his work a bit too seriously and could stand a lighter approach once in awhile, which he accomplished in Django Unchained. But it's a minor quibble, at least as far as I'm concerned.

kitcon

Smith — Django showed how risk averse he is w/ his acting choices. He probably thought he was using his power for good in getting Shyamalan a job. He seems more interested in his kids and producing. The results of After Earth probably worry him more for Jaden's career than his own. Which means he'll next be focused on finding a film that will give Jaden a hit.

DiCaprio – All those directors are great but almost all of them would not have had much problem getting another star in his place and their films still green lit. It would be nice to see him work with lesser known directors in more intimate films.

Jolie – She's next directing Unbroken and got the Coens to rewrite the script which in itself shows her clout. Everyone knows she's a bit of an oddball ( and I don't mean that negatively). She either makes films she is passionate about or as a matter of expediency. She made your fav The Tourist because she wanted her kids to vacation in Venice. But now that she is no longer worried about her physical longevity perhaps she'll be more focused.

Depp – Perhaps it's a midlife crisis kind of thing where despite all he has, he's worried that it might not be enough. He complained about taxes in France too and asked for $15M to make The Rum Diary — his own passion project.

Cruise — I think he just loves being a star — perks, pay and all. And he sees action movies as his best bet to staying in the mix. Hence the back to back to back action flicks.

Pitt – Z sounds like its a decent Summer blockbuster. He can be forgiven for wanting his own franchise. He's got bills to pay and has not had the mega paydays that Smith, Cruise, Depp and Downey have had.

owdl114

“The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” is a near-abomination

Really? I think that's quite extreme. It's not up there with the best of Gilliam's work but I didn't think it was anywhere near terrible.

Chris

Sorry, but DiCaprio was fantastic in "The Aviator." He would have been a far more worthy Oscar winner than Jamie Foxx and his shallow mimicry in "Ray." (Though my personal choice of the nominated bunch, since Paul Giamatti wasn't nominated, would have been Don Cheadle from "Hotel Rwanda.")

Nolan

Surprised there was no mention of Pitt nearly putting "The Fountain" to bed. Then again, the film may have been better off with a smaller budget, but who knows. Honestly, though, I think Brad Pitt has done better work than most of the people on this list. Leo plays it safe (and Gatsby is awful,) and I can't remember the last time Johnny Depp was in a good movie. Oh, wait, he was in "Before Night Falls" for a few minutes.

Sexton Blake

Angelina's recent announcement regarding her double mastectomy far exceeds any film she could greenlit for 'good', no?

blahblah boo boo

Does Cruise really still have "greenlight power" In the Mountains of Madness and the Cameron Crowe Marvin Gaye film were shelved with Cruise attached. Disney even shitcanned Oblivion, Universal grabbed that in turnaround.

Dave

Downey has joined the dark side. Dropping out of Inherent Vice for Perry Mason and Pinnochio? Evil.

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