Who wants character development when you get to look at this? Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Who wants character development when you get to look at this? Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Via Outside the Beltway, I see that Men’s Journal has a lengthy article on what it takes to be a male movie star these days. The short answer: 3 to 4 percent body fat, an incredibly carved six-pack and lovingly sculpted musculature. Because that combination does not normally occur in nature, the long answer involves nutritionists, traveling weight trainers, and more-than-occasional injections of testosterone and human growth hormone.

In other words, a Hollywood star is not so much an actor, or a body. It is a nearly starving body that has been stripped of almost all its naturally occurring subcutaneous fat, then artificially bolstered with various supplements and medical technology to make it look like a statue rather than a famine victim.

The actors are being treated like actresses. And they don’t like it:

"Either you have it or you don't," says Fast and the Furious star Rick Yune, "It's not about Sean Connery's fitness, or Liam Neeson's muscles. You see Clint Eastwood point a gun -- and you believe it. It's not the physical. It's what you put behind it."

What Yune is really complaining about is this sense that studios see actors as bodies now -- interchangeable in a global movie business that's built more on brands than stars. More than ever, studios are building franchises around fresh, inexpensive faces with bodies that can fill a superhero costume.

"One of the reasons there are so few real movie stars is that there are very few who are distinguishable from one another," says Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Ryan Gosling in Drive and Only God Forgives. "Everybody can get a six-pack, so it has no value. Everybody starts to look alike. It's the soul that makes you a movie star. Not your body."

In today’s movie world, however, is this really true? More and more of the big movies today are franchises, in which the name and the character are arguably more important than the actor, who can change -- by my count, we are now on our squillionth Batman. This, in turn, is driven by fundamental changes in the markets. Movies are now all about international box office receipts. And the international box office doesn’t care about your personality.

Watching a movie with subtitles or overdubbing is a fundamentally different experience from watching one in your own language, which is why foreign movies used to be the taste of the minority of people who liked entertainment better if they had to work for it. Incredible amounts get lost in translation. If you’ve ever seen an American movie abroad, even with an English-speaking audience, you’ll probably have noticed a weird phenomenon: They laugh in different places than you do. One lonely Sunday in London, I went to see Eddie Murphy’s "Doctor Dolittle," and I was mortified to find myself cackling madly all by myself ... then sitting in puzzled silence 10 minutes later as the rest of the audience went into paroxysms of laughter over something that hadn’t even caused me to crack a smile.

Any sort of subtle verbal humor is, of course, entirely out. So are culturally specific references to things like history and geography. In fact, the more your movie relies on nonverbal cues, the better. Slapstick is better than jokes, explosions are better than exposition, and a cut physique is much better than character development, which might not translate across 100 countries.

As I said, the male actors are just going through what the women have long experienced. Of course, Hollywood has always had its starlets, and it has always been cruel to aging women. What’s remarkable now is that almost no one seems to make it past the age of 30. When good home video became available, women stopped going to the movies so much -- and as a result, Hollywood cut back on movies for women, so they went to the movies less and less. Now Hollywood produces one movie for adult women a year, maybe two in a very good year, and the rest of the field is abandoned to teenage boys. And when you name the top female stars, the ones who actually star in nonfranchise movies by themselves, you hear names like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton -- many of the same names you would have heard if you’d asked that question in 1995.

Now male movie actors are also becoming commodities -- bodies who occasionally speak lines. They’re not in quite as dire a place as female actors, but it’s not good for them -- or for those of us who like movies in which nothing explodes or dies and the characters actually talk to each other.

To contact the writer of this article:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.