The good stars exceeded the limitations of studio control to carve out unique careers, often by choosing roles out of type, struggling throughout long careers to defy the pigeonholing of the rogue, the tart, the Pollyanna, the heavy. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland were stars who lost their identities to the Hollywood system, playing caricatures of the sexpot and the girl-next-door. At the same time, actors like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo offered some of their most complex impersonations playing radically against type.
Laboring outside the rigid control of a since dismantled studio system, contemporary movie stars are free agents able to choose roles on a script-by-script basis and to craft their star identities into any desired form.
But rather than expanding their horizons, a group of Hollywood marquee headliners is choosing to play characters with an extremely narrow range in an effort to create an instantly identifiable celebrity persona. At times, this self-willed pigeonholing seems a marketing decision, a way of letting audiences know just what to expect with each new film. Just as often the adoption of a star brand-name seems a personal agenda, a desire to project an image that corresponds to the star's ego and lofty sense of self.
Three of the most glaring examples of such self-aggrandizing, Performance as Personal Agenda are Robin Williams, Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks, all of whom play roles flush with the kind of virtues the actors might like bounced back onto them by consistent portrayal of saints, stand-up guys, lovable innocents, cheerfulness-addicted doctors, noble AIDS victims, patriots and New Age truth seekers.
Like some holy trinity of actorly grace, Gibson, Hanks and Williams are the current cinema's Father, Son and Holy Ghost, consistently choosing roles that emphasize the performers', perhaps inflated, self-conception. Saints and martyrs are a specialty of Hanks, as with Forrest Gump, the "saintly fool" in critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's estimation. Gibson's tough-guy martyrdom is spelled out in title alone (The Patriot, Braveheart), while Williams chooses roles that find his screen alter-ego whether doctor (Patch Adams), robot (Bicentennial Man) or Jew (Jakob the Liar), bearing witness to the myriad human flaws which make you want to cry instead of laugh.
Like superheroes of sensitivity, they are: Gibson, the robust, buff, eyes-tearing-up-with-frustration-and-then-rage patriot and father pushed too far, the ass-whoopin' daddy in the Billy Ray Cyrus weave and biceps-flaunting armless T-shirts (Scottish weather be damned!) fighting the British in Braveheart. Lovable, huggable, all-American boy/man, Hanks is our own dewy-eyed native son graduated from bachelor party movies to "serious" bathos-drowned epics -- Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile -- that suggest the dogged individualism, dignity and pluck of this brown-haired Everyman will rise super sensitive-like above worldly graft and corruption. Woolly, manic Williams is the comedian-turned-human teddy bear with every smile line on his poster campaigns seemingly airbrush-enhanced. Williams is the New Age "What's-It-All-About?" chicken soup for the soul-searcher in What Dreams May Come and the perpetually conformity-bucking, effervescent, hirsute sprite in Patch Adams who saves humankind over and over again from its misery by the simple application of ... laughter. In keeping with the Reader's Digest creed, it really is the best medicine.
The frequency with which these actors traipse out these noble virtues of sensitivity, decency, moral backbone and the occasional necessary cold-cock to the happiness-foilers in role after role makes one wonder what, exactly, they are trying to prove. Sure, pure-at-heart cripples and history book heroes give one a better stab at an Academy Award. But something more crucial seems at stake: a desire to use performance as a kind of subtle self-promotion, to enhance one's public image and collapse the difference between self and role until the two are inseparable, and the actor is the role he plays.
It is no longer enough that Williams entertain with a pratfall, an imitation, or yet another degrading comic filibuster. Williams' new cinematic mission suggests he not only imagines himself a fine comedian, but that he sees comedy as nothing short of God's work here on Earth, the Ambesol that will numb our pus-inflamed cultural abscess. Comedy is not just a job, it's a calling. A clown nose makes pediatric cancer wards combust in life-affirming giggles in Patch Adams and ornery, bratty kids turn into pliable, love-drunk putty in Bicentennial Man. Williams seems to have made movie soundtracks with a trilling, sparkling twinkle a stipulation of every contract considering how many of his feel-good films feature this subtle dusting of aural fairy dust to set the proper sweet mood.
And more damnable still, the actor has lately shown signs of reaching outside his comedy-saves-world shtick to undertake dour, straight roles which, in addition to not being funny, are also California Personal Growth and Inwardness creepy as in What Dreams May Come, starring Williams as a family man wandering the afterlife like a husband lost in Bloomingdales looking for his dead wife and children. Re-inventing himself as a father and as a husband, Williams uses heaven as a really intense form of therapy to sort out some of the "issues" he didn't attend to on Earth. In Dreams the lesson seems to be that you create your own reality -- as every thought and wish transforms Williams' visible world. It's a very therapy-oriented view, and the kind of individualism-melded-to-healing positivity that defines Williams' touchy-feely oeuvre.
While Williams plays the ethereal, gravity-can't-fetter-my-dreams holy ghost, Mel Gibson is the proverbially grounded patriarch whose boots of obligation, guilt and love are made of lead. Gibson has made his most recent foray into über-daddydom with The Patriot, which begins in typical form with an ambivalent, flawed hero unwilling to bear arms in the American Revolution, but who begins to see things differently when his family members are picked off by the monstrously coiffed British. Gibson rose to fame avenging the deaths of his wife and child in Mad Max and has yet to stray far from the formula.
The Patriot presents Gibson as an unrepentant rebel. Whether maverick airline C.E.O. in Ransom or warrior in Braveheart, he's a guy who plays by his own rules. Turning the tables on his son's kidnappers in Ransom or leading a ragtag band of militia against the British in The Patriot, Gibson is defined as a consummate nonconformist who will risk his life for higher principles and family, but won't trade his values for anyone.
A family man and unapologetic capitalist, Gibson faces down the union busters and greasy Gen-X kidnappers in Ransom with the über-American opinion, "I built Endeavor from the ground up and it's mine, and no bastard's taking it away from me -- no union, no government." There's reason to believe, with the actor's own brood of seven children, that for Gibson, such roles are a reaffirmation of his self-image, as with the daddy protecting his motherless brood of seven in The Patriot. "I'm a parent, I haven't got the luxury of principals," Gibson declares as his rationale for staying out of the Revolutionary War, a mantra repeated in the daddy-gets-mad thriller Ransom in which "any means necessary" defines his quest to liberate his son from a bunch of scuzzy kidnappers. But he's not merely any daddy, in role after role Gibson has crafted himself into a super-daddy driven too far and forced to use violence in revenge stories that make home and family nothing short of a holy war.
While Gibson works the patriarch angle, Tom Hanks has in recent years become Jimmy Stewart's successor as favorite son -- beginning with his vulnerable boy/man of Big, a role that foreshadowed the boyish vulnerability that has since accounted for no small part of Hanks' charm. A genius at picking film roles that become consensus-building, popular hits, Hanks has played roles that range from manipulative and superficial to more nuanced, carving out a niche as America's boy wonder. In recent roles such as Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile, Hanks has changed into a more experienced, older softie, though that air of childlike goodness clings, transforming any role he plays into something of a moral cause, of innocence battling corruption.
On one hand you have the racists, the homophobes, the retard-bashers, the mean kids, the sadists, the disingenuous peaceniks. And on the other, Hanks and his attendant seraphim co-stars. In a large number of these three actors' bodies of work, women play a significant role. They're either absent from the scene altogether, or they're cancer victims, incest victims, murder victims. This invests not the women with greater depth and humanity, but rather the men who must carry such grief on their heavy hearts, further ennobling their weighty humanity.
Hanks has proven especially willing to capitalize on his ability to transform questionable subject matter into middle-American digestible chow that makes homosexuality and AIDS in Philadelphia and an anti-capital punishment message in The Green Mile palatable. In a film like The Green Mile you can tell the bad guys by their slack jaws and ceaseless sadistic barrage or in Philadelphia by the homophobic executives' icy, soulless moneyed gleam. Such films elevate Hanks to the celestial higher ground in narratives that divide humanity into two camps: the extremely good and the extremely bad, with Hanks playing moral moderator.
As if to pluck more efficiently at the American audience's desire to side with the underdog while fancying themselves progressive, almost all of Hanks films have a significant part for a benevolent black man, an instant Hollywood armchair liberal shorthand meant to warm the cockles of American audiences who like to fancy themselves colorblind and freethinking. From the shrimp-obsessed Bubba in Gump and the homophobe-turned-homofriend in Philadelphia to the death row Christ surrogate in The Green Mile, these noble black men and their moral proximity to Hanks put the hero on the higher moral ground.
If the characters played by this thespian holy trinity have a weakness, it is loving too much, caring too much, wanting justice too much, "flaws" that reflect nicely on such "weaknesses" in the star's own character. As if stuffing the ballot box of humanity's yearbook election, the Williams/Gibson/Hanks Triumvirate of Decency strives for a place in the superlatives: Most Huggable, Most Concerned, Most Committed to Family Values and Most Reliable at the Box Office.