Shia LaBeouf, star of this week’s “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen,” without meaning to do so, has become a metaphor for how youth culture — after decades of elbowing its way to the forefront — now almost entirely dominates the culture itself. One day, he was a Disney kid, starring on cable’s “Even Stevens” and in the movie “Holes,” and then suddenly, Steven Spielberg turned him into an action star.
In the not-so-distant past, the roles that LaBeouf took on in hits like “Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Transformers” would have been played by more seasoned leading men like Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Heck, next to the just-turned-23 LaBeouf, even Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves suddenly seem like grizzled old-timers.)
LaBeouf’s rise owes a great deal to his own charisma and charm, of course, but the actor’s ubiquity represents a slightly off-putting new paradigm in Hollywood: Young viewers want to see young stars, as they always have, but older viewers — the ones who can still be bothered to see movies in theaters, anyway — want to see young stars as well. The disturbing part is that those older audiences seem to have lost most of their interest in films about people their own age.
For the studios, this winds up as a win-win; younger stars with shorter careers don’t cost as much as a Cruise or a Willis, and when audiences vote with their dollars for the newcomers over the veterans, that ensures a healthier profit margin.
But is it healthy for the movies? Does this “Logan’s Run”-ization of pop culture, where over-30s are banished to “Law & Order” while Generation Y (and stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Alison Lohman, who look much younger than their actual years) runs rampant, bode well for mature storytelling?
When youth is valued over all else...As an article in Entertainment Weekly recently pointed out, the adult drama in Hollywood is going the way of Glorious Smell-o-Vision, with recent grown-up fare like “State of Play,” “Duplicity,” “The Soloist” and “Frost/Nixon” failing to get any kind of box-office traction. And while a case can be made that those individual films had flaws that had nothing to do with their target demographic, their disappointing returns are endemic of a larger cultural trend wherein youth is valued above all else and maturity is, well, boring.
Take a look at the faces of wealthy sophisticates in any major American city, and you’ll see the mania for reversing the clock. Just compare this year’s prom pictures to ones from 30 years ago — it used to be that teen girls wanted to look older and more sophisticated; these days, you’re more likely to see the chaperones dressing like they hit a last-call sale at Forever 21.
That same topsy-turviness is translating into the movies. If you’re under 25, you can watch LeBeouf fight robots in the new “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and hope that one day, you’ll be that cool and resourceful. Those over 25 can watch the same film and feel secure that they’re still down with the kids. If it were Russell Crowe or even Tom Cruise in the lead role, older viewers might shrug the whole thing off. (Would “Valkyrie” have been a bigger hit had it been about anti-Hitler Nazi teens? We may never know.)
Sure, there are exceptions: Two of the biggest hits of last summer were “Mamma Mia!” and “Sex and the City,” but both films were removed enough from real-world concerns and personalities to be, essentially, science-fiction. (The same can be said for “Marley and Me,” which softened its life lessons and bummer ending with nonstop adorable dog antics and a thoroughly bourgeois fantasy of big houses and cute kids.)
Is LaBeouf our version of Steve McQueen?It wasn’t always this way. Twenty-five years ago, the multiplex had teen hits like “Sixteen Candles” and “Footloose” alongside movies like “Ghostbusters” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the latter titles appealing to audiences of all ages despite having leading men old enough to remember JFK’s assassination. And did you know that, in 1980’s “Body Heat,” Kathleen Turner was a mere 26 years old, despite all the worldly maturity and va-va-voom she brought to that legendary femme fatale role?
By the 1990s, curves, and all other forms of secondary sexual characteristics, seemed to be verboten, with a new generation of stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder maintaining the eerily pre-adolescent appearance most commonly seen in Olympic gymnasts.
It’s treated as a joke in the indie movie “Camp,” about a performing-arts summer program for high-schoolers, that kids too young to have drivers’ licenses would star in mature plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or “Wit,” but that’s how Hollywood works now. Age isn’t the issue as much as an experience and worldliness that’s missing from so many youthful characters.
Compare the husky-voiced, seen-it-all Lois Lane portrayed by Margot Kidder in the 1978 “Superman” with Kate Bosworth’s wide-eyed waif in “Superman Returns,” or 21-year-old Carrie Fisher’s strong Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” to 18-year-old Natalie Portman’s fragile and girlish Amidala in “The Phantom Menace.” It’s no wonder LaBeouf is the new Steve McQueen.
More recently, actresses such as “Transformers” star Megan Fox, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Alba look as though they’ve stepped off the cover of Maxim magazine. The bodies have changed but the lack of onscreen gravitas remains: They’ve regained the curves but not the spine. They may look like Turner's “Body Heat” temptress but they don't have her maturity. Plus they don’t have adult-looking leading men to play against.
Older viewers that want to see movies about characters their own age do have options outside of Netflix and TCM, assuming they live in an area where theaters screen foreign films. French movies like “Summer Hours” and last year’s sleeper hit “Tell No One” are just a sampling of the international cinema that still has fascinating stories to tell about people who have dared pass the age of 30.
During an interview, I once asked Catherine Deneuve why she didn’t work more in the United States, and she responded, “Hollywood has a great love for girls, but when it comes to women … hmmph!” And there you have it. Catherine Deneuve said it. That means it’s true. So until such time as the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for young stars and young stories passes, it’s a great time to learn to love subtitles.