I spend a lot of time talking about “the A-list”. Who’s A-list, who’s not, who used to be, who’s on their way, etc. When you say an actor or actress is on the A-list, most people know what you mean. But if you start analyzing who is or is not on the A-list, you’ll find that the term means different things to different people. There’s a lot of grey area there. In this article, I intend to nail down what it means to be on the A-list.
The first ingredient to being an A-list actor is fame. But being famous doesn’t guarantee a spot on the A-list. Kim Kardashian has a lot of name recognition. But she doesn’t have A-list power with Hollywood studios. Fame like that opens doors, but being on the A-list is about so much more than that.
Obviously, you have to consider an actor’s track record. No matter how famous they may be, an actor or actress can’t be considered A-List if they have never had a hit. It seems counter-intuitive, but there are actually a lot of big name actors who have very few hits to their name.
For example, look at the pre-Pirates Johnny Depp. Between Edward Scissorhands and Pirates of the Caribbean is a long, long dry spell. He had a few modest hits, but nothing that could establish him as an A-list movie star. I remember the first time I saw the poster for Pirates of the Caribbean. I assumed, being based on a theme park attraction, that it would be awful. And I thought, “So, this is what Johnny Depp’s career has come to.” I assumed the A-list would forever remain out of reach.
Shows what I know.
There are any number of actors who have had long Hollywood careers without ever actually reaching the A-list. Many of them are fine actors. Being on the A-list is not a reflection of quality. A-list status has eluded the likes of Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman and Tim Robbins. And yet Will Smith and Tom Cruise have topped the A-list with more charisma than talent.
You have to remember that “The A-List” is a Hollywood term. People tend to assume that any actor or actress they like is on the A-list. They take it as a measure of that actor’s popularity. But it’s really a measurement of how much power an individual wields. If an actor or actress is A-list, they can get a movie greenlit by attaching their name to it. For example, John Travolta‘s power to get a project like Battlefield Earth made is a testament to how much power he had in Hollywood at that time.
Which brings up the point. The A-List is always changing. We have had some commenters claim that certain actors or actresses are on a “permanent A-list”. But there is no such thing. They may be legends. But since the A-list is a measure of power and power is always shifting, no one stays on the A-list forever. It’s not possible and it’s not a realistic expectation.
Travolta is a perfect example. He has been on and off the A-list many times over the course of his career. In the 70s, he rocketed to the top of the A-list with Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Then in the 80s, his career cooled to the point where Hollywood all but wrote him off. In 1989, he had a brief career resurgence with Look Who’s Talking. But a few years later he was slumming it in Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now. And then, his career was resurrected again with Pulp Fiction. Travolta managed to ride that wave for nearly a decade before flaming out again in lame comedies like Wild Hogs and Old Dogs. Which, it should be noted were both hit movies.
But having hits isn’t everything. Look at Travolta’s Pulp Fiction co-star, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is the highest grossing actor of all times. He’s been in all three Star Wars prequels, Jurassic Park, and a lot of the Marvel movies since Iron Man. But appearning in all of those big Hollywood hits hasn’t made Jackson an A-List star.
Why not? Because people people didn’t go to those movies to see Samuel L. Jackson. They went to the Star Wars movies to see lightsaber duels. They went to Jurassic Park to see dinosaurs. They went to the Avengers movies to see super heroes. Jackson’s involvement in those films may have contributed to them, but it’s unlikely Jackson’s name sold so much as a single ticket to those films.
Take a look at Jackson’s track record outside of those successful franchises. He tried to reboot the Shaft series in 2000. It was a box office disappointment. In 2006, he starred in Snakes on a Plane which had huge internet buzz. And yet it was a box office bomb. Jackson is great as a supporting player. But he can’t “open” a movie. And that’s really what it comes down to. How much is your name worth? How many people will buy a ticket based solely on a star’s name on the poster?
Obviously, no one knows for sure until the movie is released. And by then, it’s too late. But the studio heads like to think they know who is hot and who is not. So they will look at a hit movie and try to determine how much credit for the movie’s success can be attributed to the actors.
Jeff Goldblum is another actor who appeared in a lot of big Hollywood hits. Goldblum had major roles in Independence Day and Jurassic Park (and its sequel). But the assumption is that the true star of those movies was the concept. It’s like an asterix gets put in the record books. You don’t get much credit for starring in a hit if the movie would have likely been equally big without you.
On the other hand, if an actor has a modest hit which they can take credit for, that can carry a lot of weight in Hollywood. An example of this would be something like Limitless. Most people probably don’t even remember this little action movie. But it grossed over $160 million worldwide based on little more than Bradley Cooper’s name.
That’s what it means to “open” a movie. If an actor gets an audience to show up on opening day, their job is done. It doesn’t really matter what happens after opening weekend. If bad reviews or word of mouth sinks the movie after a strong opening, that’s not the actor’s fault. All that matters is that they successfully “open” the picture.
Sure, Hollywood would prefer a spotless track record filled with hit after hit. But no one has a flawless batting average. About as close as anyone can get is Adam Sandler. Sandler reigns on the A-list because when he makes one of his trademark comedies, you can almost always count on it grossing $100 million even if people hate it.
This year, Sandler already had a $100 million dollar hit with Just Go With It in the spring. And this fall, he released the reviled Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill seems unlikely to pass the $100 million dollar mark. But that $25 million dollar opening shows just how much Sandler’s name means to audiences.
Another misconception about the A-list is that a movie that bombs can ruin an actor’s career. A-list stars all have their share of bombs. Most survive just fine. Hollywood is very forgiving of misfires. If they think an actor’s name on the marquee still has value, they will overlook a costly bomb and gamble again. Just as James Franco doesn’t get a lot of credit for starring in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, no one holds the disappointment of Green Lantern against Ryan Reynolds.
In future articles, I plan to look at the A-list on a case by case basis. Who’s A-list right now? Who’s on the rise and who’s time on the A-List is over? Do stars still matter at the box office?