How to save Hollywood from itself

The unbelievable George Clooney.

Everyone loved last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Descendants, starring George Clooney. Critics agreed that it was a well-made, realistically acted film. “Clooney gives one of his best performances,” raved Roger Ebert.

But while The Descendants worked well as a human drama, I couldn’t get past the lie at its heart: that George Clooney doesn’t exist.

I don’t mean George Clooney the person. I mean George Clooney the movie star. None of the characters in The Descendants has ever heard of the sexiest man alive.

When he walked down the street, no one did the one thing that you’d expect of them, which is to stop what they’re doing and say, “Hey, there goes George Clooney. Wonder what he’s doing in our neighborhood?”

Hollywood has long put its faith in our “willing suspension of disbelief,” the notion that when we enter a movie theater we agree to meet the flickering fantasy on its own terms. The world on the screen may not be an exact replica of reality, but it will be close enough that we will cut the filmmakers a break.

If the star walks away from a ten-car pileup without a scratch, we’ll just go along with it. If the three suspects in a murder case end up at the same ski lodge in Switzerland where the investigating detective happens to be vacationing—on the anniversary of the crime—we’ll agree to overlook the unlikelihood of it all. That’s the willing suspension of disbelief.

The problem is that we are all too familiar with the form. Movie magic hasn’t kept pace with our expectations. We want absolute realism. Nothing less can satisfy us.

You see where I’m going? I can sooner imagine a world where alien robots disguise themselves as tractor trailers and fight it out on the streets of Los Angeles than I can a world where no one’s ever heard of Shia LeBeouf. I am no longer willing to suspend my disbelief. They ask too much.

The good news is, there is a solution to this predicament. It’s a new rule—a regulation, if you prefer—governing how actors are cast in roles. I’m calling it the “fame out” rule.

Once an actor gets too famous to credibly play a regular Joe, he has “famed out.” From then on he can only play either himself, or a character in a film that takes place prior to his celebrity. Nobody in 1893 would recognize John Travolta, so he is free to star in The Grover Cleveland Story if the studio wants to greenlight it.

Here’s how it would work in practice. George Clooney could play Fred Friendly in Good Night, and Good Luck, but he couldn’t play Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve or Thirteen). Brad Pitt could play a mythical Greek warrior inTroy, but not the general manager of the Oakland A’s in Moneyball.

As the author of this revolutionary idea, let me add some important caveats. Television is exempt. There simply isn’t a steady enough supply of good actors to justify extending this fame out rule to the small screen.

Sequels are exempt, too. Harrison Ford could play Han Solo in as many movies as he wants. But he’d be forbidden to star in Blade Runner. The reason should be obvious. In that future world, everyone would wonder why the guy from Star Wars was jumping on the backs of cars and terminating replicants.

This rule would have two immediate and salutary effects on Hollywood. First, it would increase opportunities for unknown and underknown actors to play meaty roles in big movies. Second, it would incentivize better acting. Careers would depend on it. Actors on the verge of faming out would do what they could to lose themselves in their roles.

But you say, “Wait, under your rule we would never have gotten to see Marlon Brando as Don Coreleone.” To which I answer, “Yes, but we would have been spared most of Ben Affleck’s career as well.”

I think it’s a trade worth making. The movies have grown stale. They need a kick in the pants. Join me in my quest to make them work a little harder to earn the suspension of our disbelief.

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