Wednesday, September 08, 2010

How TV stars become movie stars

I saw Jason Bateman in THE SWITCH last week. Cute little movie but he was really impressive. Okay, Jeff Goldbum stole it but Jason held his own. The point is Jason Bateman is a long-time television actor finally getting a chance to star in movies. Will he become a movie star? Too soon to tell. His co-star, Jennifer Aniston (playing Rachel for the ninth film in a row) so far is not. For all the hoopla in fan magazines and TMZ, Jennifer Aniston still can’t open a movie. THE SWITCHED is not doing well in the boxoffice… although it is worth seeing. But I can almost hear you. “I’ll Netflix it.” “Cable fodder.” “Maybe if I get a screener”. And I contend it’s more because you can’t channel surf and not see Jason and/or Jennifer on at least six channels any time of the day or night. Seeing them on a big screen is no big whoop.

But it got me thinking about other TV vets who crossed the great divide and made it big in features. The one that jumps to mind immediately is James Cromwell. Terrific actor. Can play anything. But for years he just knocked around as a goofy character actor on TV. He was “Jamey” Cromwell then. We used him a couple of times on MASH and he was terrific. But I remember once when casting a pilot his name came up and my partner and I said, “he’s good but Jesus, haven’t we seen him like a million times? Isn’t there anyone else more fresh?”. Today we’d be lucky if he’d read one of our scripts.

Anyway, there are many other examples from George Clooney to Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Goldie Hawn, Thomas Hayden Church, Woody Harrelson, and I'm sure you can list ten others. But for every one who makes it, there are also a hundred David Caruso's and Matt LeBlanc's who don't. Why?

I don’t know. The X-Factor. Movie stars have a presence, a danger, a glow. There is something riveting about them. They can surprise you. They can command the big screen.

And they’re incredibly lucky. They happened to be in a hit. Again, going back to Jamey Cromwell. He gets a call from his agent:

Agent: Listen, I think I got something for you.

Jamey: (excited) A guest spot on WEBSTER?

Agent: Better.

Jamey: Wow! What?

Agent: A movie.

Jamey: Really! Fantastic!

Agent: Yeah, it’s a great story. There’s this pig that wants to be a sheepdog and he goes to live with this…

Jamey: Wait, wait. Back up a minute. A pig?

Agent: Cutest one you’ve ever seen.

Jamey: Brother. And what do I play?

Agent: The farmer.

Jamey: Who does what?

Agent: Who enters the pig in a sheepdog contest.

Jamey: Do I have a lot of lines?

Agent: Yes, but not as many as the pig.

Jamey: See if you can get me a callback on that WEBSTER.

Agent: No, no, you’re not hearing me. This could be a huge mainstream movie. And of the humans, you have the most to do.

Jamey (wavering): Well… it would be good to be in a big summer blockbuster.

Agent: Great. They film in Australia.

Jamey: Huh? How mainstream can this be if we film it in Australia?

Agent: I dunno. They got a deal on the pigs.

Jamey: Don’t Levine & Isaacs have a pilot? I mean, if I’m going to stoop

Agent: Sorry. Nothing this season. I think the industry is starting to wise up about those two hacks. And I’m afraid WEBSTER isn’t going to happen. I’ve been holding this from you but Alex Karras doesn’t think you’re a good actor.

Jamey: Alex Karras? I’m not good enough for Alex Karras? Okay. Fine. I’ll do the fucking pig movie.

Agent: That’s great! Fantastic! Except…

Jamey: Except what? I lose the audience’s sympathy by eating my co-star?

Agent: No, it’s just that… you don’t have it yet. They’re going to want a screen test

Jamey: A screen test?! Why? They know what I’ve done. Just watch any episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I must’ve played eighteen farmers.

Agent: Yeah, but they… they kinda want to see if there’s any chemistry between you and the uh… your little pink co-star… who by the way, would get billing under you. I negotiated that. It wasn’t easy but I got it. (Off Jamey’s silence) Look, you’re right. I’ll find something else. Let me check the cop shows. See which ones you weren’t killed in and I’ll call them again.

Jamey: (resigned) No, no. What the hell? Set up a meeting with the pig.

Cromwell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in BABE and went on to terrific roles in many top movies including L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

I don’t think THE SWITCH is going to do the same for Jason Bateman. But who knows? He’s very talented, has a ton of promise and given the right pig, I have a feeling he’s got a good chance.

Tomorrow: An audience participation game!!! ... if it works.


Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Well if they ever make that damn Arrested Development movie, maybe Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor and Will Arnett will be the next Michael Ceras. And a comeback Vehicle for Liza Minelli.

Max Clarke said...

Since I haven't had a tv since 1990, my exposure to the likes of Cromwell and Clooney came at the movies.

I knew Clooney had it in his first lines of the Coen Brothers movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He and two friends had escaped from prison, and Clooney made a pitch why he should be their leader. His capacity for rational thought or something. I knew in three or four sentences he would be fun to watch for the rest of the movie.

The movie character actors are often fun to see in the reverse. Robert Prosky was charming and frightening in "Thief." He was also great in the episode of Cheers when he played Rebecca's Navy captain dad. Intimidating and goofy.

When Woody ran for the Boston town council, his opponent in the race was played by the great Philip Baker Hall ("Magnolia").

forechor said...

The one that came immediately to mind to me was Bruce Willis.

From "MOONLIGHTING" to "DIE HARD" with no time inbetween.

Hit series simultaneous with hit movie. Very rare. The only other one that comes immediately to mind is Michael J. Fox with "FAMILY TIES" and "BACK TO THE FUTURE", though Michael never really achieved full iconic "movie star" status.

How 'bout a post about WRITERS who have crossed The Great Divide, Ken?

I'll start you off: Aaron Sorkin...

Anonymous said...

Cromwell's Oscar nomination was for Babe, not L.A. Confidential, though he was great in that too.

Jon J said...

That'll do, pig.

blogward said...

Michael Caine (Sir Michael to us Brits) had something on this in his acting class tapes: on the movie screen, your face is forty or more times bigger in close up - the slightest movement, let alone blink, has forty times more significance than it does in live theatre, or regular single/three camera drama. Actors who successfully make the jump to movies recognize that it's a whole new technique. We who watch may not consciously notice the difference, but actors who do their TV turn on the big screen come across as caricatures of themselves. Literally: 'caricature' meaning 'overload'. God I love your blog Ken.

RDaggle said...

hmm... It's interesting how the definition of "movie star" is so slippery. Apparently it's not just enough to star in movies.

I'm no particular fan of Jennifer Anniston, but if she "can't open" a movie, she has not been "opening" them for about ten years now.

She'll probably keep on "not opening" movies until the age wall for actresses in Hollywood catches up with her.

Then I suppose it will be up to her if she wants to return to series TV the way that Candice Bergen, for example, did.

Max Clarke said...

Good point about Michael Caine, Blogward.

Michael Caine was on Fresh Air a few years ago, one of the best interviews the show has featured. Caine gave Terry Gross a few of his movie secrets.

Caine mentioned a way of looking at the camera with one eye and the person he was speaking to with the other eye. It gave the impression he was speaking directly to the audience. Something like that, a technique needed for the big screen.
On tv, it wouldn't matter so much.

Alyson said...

While I enjoyed the heck out of Thomas Haden Church on Wings, is he really considered a movie star? I can't think of a movie with him in it, besides the one about wine, and Smart People from a few years back (which was a good little movie, but not a box office success.)

Eric said...

Jason Bateman absolutely rocked Teen Wolf Too!

Steve said...

Jason Bateman is talented, but I think he is more of a character actor and not likely to end up a "star."

The most unlikely TV actor to end up a movie star would have to be Danny Devito, no?

Michael Zand said...

And let's not forget Michael Cera. The luckiest actor alive. You think he'll still be playing this wispy, tiny testicled characters when he's in his 30's? All I can say is he better save his money.

How this guy became a movie star is a tribute to this business' celebration of mediocrity.

mike in seattle said...

@blogward IMHO this is the same reason in reverse why Julia Roberts didn't do well on stage. How difficult it must be to project to the back row when you're used to that slight twitch meaning everything. This is why people like Alec Baldwin are so great at what they do.

And Clooney admits his good fortune. Heard him say in an interview that if ER had been on Friday night instead of Thursday his career would have turned out a lot different.

Dan Serafini said...

Cromwell, like everyone on the show, was great in Six Feet Under.

I still have my TV, and it is a point of pride to me as much as those that brag about NOT having a TV.

Tim W. said...

Not that I'm a big fan of Jennifer Aniston, the belief that her movies don't do well is actually false. Forbes recently had an article talking about the stars who are the biggest "bangs for the buck", or the stars whose movies make the most compared to their salary. Aniston was 6th. Her movies are rarely huge hits but they make enough money to make it worthwhile to hire her, apparently. I definitely think you'd call her a movie star, though, if you're going to call James Cromwell, Hayden Church or Woody Harrelson one.

Lee said...

There are actors like Bateman (Ted Knight was another) who fail to become movie stars because movies don't seem able to exploit the subtleties of which they are capable. Maybe Jason Bateman will have more luck as the awkward farcical hero, but up to now, the movies only see him as a smarmy villain or self-involved force of inadvertent destruction. In many ways, television rewards actors with more shaded, complicated personas.

Mac said...

Interesting to hear your take on "The Switch." It sounds not dissimilar to "Extract" - not a great film, just a fun watch, but Jason Bateman's very good in it.
A more pronounced example would be "Smokin' Aces" which was a total debacle, but the scenes with Bateman are great. I would imagine that given the right script and the right director, he could have a great future in cinema.

Brian said...

Didn't James Cromwell play "Stretch Cunningham, the Jerry Lewis of the Loading Dock" on "All In The Family?

Buttermilk Sky said...

On the subject of big screen vs little screen, I've always been amazed at the number of actors who played character parts in movies for decades before achieving TV stardom: Jackie Gleason, Eve Arden, Broderick Crawford, William Bendix, Walter Brennan, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman,
Richard Boone, Telly Savalas, Carroll O'Connor, Harry Morgan, and that's only up to about 1980. I assume it's because you need major acting ability to play the same role for several seasons and keep it fresh every week. Few movie stars have been able to do this. After years in TV, learning to be a movie star must be comparatively easy.

Andy C. said...

Jennifer Aniston is a brand who never changes her look. Unlike Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. Maybe it's time to change your look in a film, Jen. Between seeing that same look on the magazine covers that assault us at the checkout counter each week, and in your interchangeable movies, I... and maybe the rest of America... are bored. We're supposed to pay for something in a movie we can't get elsewhere. Jen, we already get it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Bateman fan. Never have been. I think someone else would've been perfect for the switch.

"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." -Don Vito Corleone, Godfather (1972)
Watch movies online for free here:Movies Online

A. Buck Short said...

When Zebras Attack continues…

In those days a lot of products coveted animal mascots. You had Tony the Tiger, who apparently left the Morris Agency and later went with Exxon. A friend’s dad apparently thought up the Sugar Crisp bears, etc. For some reason the Zarex totem was a zebra. What an inspired choice for a multi-colored line of fruit flavors. Like casting a nun for Life Savers. And yet, who can ever forget Ling Ling the NBC panda trying to get us all to buy color TVs, until that focus group came up with the peacock?

If you need a black and white picture painted for you before you can grasp the Zebraic nuance here, well here’s the Boston Herald story from a few months ago announcing that Zarex is on its way back from the Gulag. And if these guys don’t look like a couple of South Shore ambulance salesmen (“OK, you’ve got me over a barrel. What’ll it take to put you in a nice shiny new ambulance?”), then I don’t know who does? You don’t even have to ask how much they liked “The Departed.”

I’m excited because we‘ve had our sno-cone machine on the bar for years, tired of having to buy those flavors by the gallon, and best of all, I just figured out how to make those suckers with vodka (you have to keep it in the freezer just like all the Orthodox Jews who enjoy theirs with the consistency of phlegm.). I don’t know why the bars are not pushing these commercially. Gotta be better than those Jell-o shots? Which I’ve always found quite juvenile.

No idea where Zarex got the zebra. I think a lot of people in this country buy zebras for their kids, despite Jack Hannah always warning them these are wild animals and you can never really fully domesticate a zebra, no matter how cute they seem when they are little. Then before you know it, your zebra grows up, you realize it’s not the kind of thing you want around the apartment, unless, y’know, you’re Michael Jackson of Eddie Doolittle Murphy. Plus they always seem to screw up your home videos with a moire pattern.

Next thing you know you’re trying to flush Zippy down the toilet while the kids are at school. You’d turn it over to the animal shelter, everybody knows what a cliché it is to see something in those outfits behind bars. (We’re just guessing Mississippi still hasn’t opted for the orange jump suit ensemble.)

So anyway, I got no story about the shoot, and don’t even know if Justine was actually in the commercial or just an innocent bystander, but I do know the zebra bit her. Where? That’s another thing I was never told. But my joke was, “What’s black and white and red all over?” The Zarex Zebra covered in Justine Bateman’s arterial blood.”

Personally, I really do like J.B. in things all growed up. Especially when she gets that Lee Grant thing kind of going. I think even more than her daughter Dinah Manoff. Incidentally with Friday questions coming up, I can’t imagine Alan King or somebody like Alan King not having asked this in the 50’s-60’s, but do you think Lee Grant ever surrenders to herself? Come to think of it, Dinah Manoff also sounds like the sex act her mother wanted to perform on Warren Beatty in Shampoo.

And thus concludes another episode of “Don’t Get Me Started.” But seriously Ken, I really do enjoy it when you post these blogs about syrup.

Mark Murphy said...

Until a year or two ago, I didn't realize that James Cromwell is the son of John Cromwell, who directed many films, including "Of Human Bondage" with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, the 1937 version of "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."

rob! said...

"We used him a couple of times on MASH and he was terrific."

Times, plural? He was in the sixth season ep "Last Laugh." Other than that...?

normadesmond said...

did you just call jennifer anniston a pig?

gottacook said...

I'm as big a Cromwell fan as anyone - going back to his work in Norman Lear shows, not only as Stretch Cunningham in All in the Family (where his real surname was revealed to be "Coenheimer" at his Jewish funeral) but as the desk clerk in the short-lived TV version of The Hot l Baltimore in 1975.

But after success in movies in the '90s he did return to TV, this time in a starring role as an ex-senator in Citizen Baines, about 10 years ago; it didn't work out. My favorite of his movie roles has to be L.A. Confidential, although he was also good as the inventor of warp drive in the 1996 Star Trek movie First Contact.

As for Ms. Aniston and her career, I can only quote the second of Meg Ryan's three characters in Joe Versus the Volcano: "I have no response to that."

Shana tova.

Ray Heiden said...

Am I the only reader who automatically skips past any comment that begins with "A. Buck Short said..."?

Powerhouse Salter said...

Ray H - You're not the only one. Still, be happy it's not the guy on the NY Times website who posts all his comments in rhyme.

J S swanson said...

@ normadesmond: that was my 1st thought, too. Then I remembered that he was also a Co-Star on Easy Street. So he knows a thing or 2 about working with Sitcom Blondes ....

Unknown said...

Let's admit the obvious, Babe is a lot cuter than Jennifer Anniston, and a way better actor.

Bateman simply has to find a better pig.

Fitz said...

My wife and I were watching Spike Lee's Inside Job last night and had a similar discussion regarding stars.

Denzel Washington and Clive Owen have that star power. Whenever they are onscreen, everyone else is basically window dressing. Luckily for us the movie had a director that recognized this and gave them virtually no time together, preferring to make each of them master of their own domain.

LAprGuy said...

Started to post this yesterday: Jason Bateman has been terrific all the back to his supporting role in "Silver Spoons." His series "It's Your Move" is highly underrated.

Omnibabe said...

I saw Cromwell live at the Goodman Theatre in The Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehy. Now that was an awesome show.

Ron Blough said...

It's Your Move: featuring the wonderful Caren Kaye, star of "My Tutor."

D. McEwan said...

" blogward said...
Michael Caine (Sir Michael to us Brits) had something on this in his acting class tapes: on the movie screen, your face is forty or more times bigger in close up - the slightest movement, let alone blink, has forty times more significance than it does in live theatre, or regular single/three camera drama."

And that used to be true. However, about 80% of all movie viewing these days takes place at home, on the TV. Fewer and fewer people see movies in theaters anymore. And the movies that do draw audiences into theaters are all car crashes, space ships, and geologic catastrophes. Acting hardly enters into it.

"Ray Heiden said...
Am I the only reader who automatically skips past any comment that begins with 'A. Buck Short said...'?"

I didn't used to be, but of recent months, his comments have gotten unreadable, and go off on weird tangents only he understands. He used to offer interesting comments. Don't know what's happened to his head, but I've barely been skimming him for a long time now.

jbryant said...

Alyson: Re Thomas Haden Church's film career: SPIDER-MAN 3 made a couple of bucks.

Zoe Mehta said...

Do you wonder what happens if TV stars who successfully transitioned to the big screen ever run into their former TV costars?

For example, Hillary Swank did not have a huge part on 90201 and Leonardo DiCaprio was not the featured guy on "Growing Pains." Imagine being one of those series regulars and watching someone they likely snubbed at the craft services table accept an Academy Award....

ump902a said...

Jason Bateman is one of those actors I thought I didn't like until I started remembering some of his movies. His arrested adolescent in JUNO and sleazy con man in STATE OF PLAY were pitch-perfect.

Unknown said...

This guy is in a lot of different movies. I think he plays a lot of great roles. I was able to watch Babe the other day and I thought it was a pretty good movie.