Hollywood's biggest stars, in dollars and in deeds

Who’s the biggest star in Hollywood and who cares? I’m not talking celebrities. Celebrities are dull. Who can keep up with who’s in and who’s out and who married which Armenian-American princess?

Stars are different. Stars last a long time; stars have talent, even the ones who look like they don’t (like Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as The Rock). Stars helped to create the movie business, because the public demanded to know the names of the actors in silent pictures. The early production company heads in New York thought it was a bad idea, but the public won. That made stars powerful and they have never been more powerful than now. A studio head may greenlight a project, but the stars decide what choices the mavens can make, especially in a big, expensive project. That’s why I care. To understand why most movies are so bad, we need to look to the heavens, where the stars are busy making deals while eating grapes peeled by nubile slaves.

Or not. In the new David Cronenberg film Maps to the Stars, which should open in Australia later this year, Julianne Moore plays a fading star desperate to land a role playing her own mother, a long dead movie star whom she believes sexually abused her. Moore pays a large sum of money to a hands-on guru (John Cusack) whose makes her shriek and rant about how unhappy she is, and how she hated her mother. Stars are just like us, in other words, only richer.

So who’s the biggest star? That’s easy, if we measure it by money. Robert Downey Junior (RDJ) is number one. The Hollywood Reporter says he earned an estimated $US50 million for the third Iron Man film. That’s separate from what he got for The Avengers, and let’s not forget the $US12 million deal he signed with a Taiwanese phone company. To put that in perspective: Beyonce’s 2012 deal with Pepsi was worth $US50 million, and she didn’t have to show up to make no damn movie! Admittedly, it was a multiyear deal, but it shows that cinema is far from the only game in town.

In Hollywood dollars, there are at least three levels of star. RDJ is level one, by himself. The second level is for stars who regularly get $US20 million per movie. They include Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith, before he made After Earth. Washington is as safe as a bank:  every picture he makes goes past $20 million, unless he’s the director. He got that for Two Guns, while Mark Wahlberg got $US10m, but Wahlberg is getting close to the 20 club for his Transformers movies. Hugh Jackman is probably already there, when he’s playing Wolverine.

Some younger actors have got $20 million, but only for the final instalment of a monster franchise. The Harry Potter kids got that for the finale, as did Kristen Stewart for Twilight, the last. They’re all visiting members of this club, like Daniel Craig. If he’s playing James Bond, he’s in; if he’s playing Mikael Blomkvist (in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), he’s out.

What other women are in the club? Cameron Diaz got in the back door, taking a low upfront salary on Bad Teacher but a huge backend. She took home an estimated $US42 million. Angelina Jolie will go through the front door if  Salt 2 goes ahead (it’s listed as in development). Sandra Bullock, after Gravity and three hits before it, must be in there. Unfortunately, she is more popular with the American audience, whereas the big money now comes from foreign parts, by two to one. Increasingly, if they don’t like your face in China, you ain’t in the clubhouse. Jennifer Lawrence will be close after an Oscar and success in two franchises – X-Men and Hunger Games.

You might think that Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp are in the club, but not necessarily. Depp was in a bigger club for a while, the $350 million club (his reported take from the first four Pirates of the Caribbean series), but then he made a bunch of movies that took three bucks at the box office. He still got $1 million for a week’s work on Into the Woods this year, and he’s a bargain compared to Bruce Willis, who was widely understood to be available at $1 million per day for The Expendables 2. That may be why he’s not in the third one.

There is of course, another way to determine the biggest star in Hollywood. That is to look at how much they give away, or what they do with their millions. By that measure, DiCaprio’s environmental activisim puts him near the top. He has given $US10 million this year to ocean conservation, and another $US4 million to various tiger and elephant projects. Even more remarkable, in 2011 George Clooney and Don Cheadle got together with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, human rights lawyer David Pressman and producer Jerry Weintraub to put a satellite above Darfur in western Sudan, to gather evidence of the genocide. The Satellite Sentinel Project has now expanded to other conflicts, seeking to gather photographic evidence of what others would not like the world to see. That’s an unprecedented development in Hollywood activism, a redefinition of star power.  Turns out they really are up there, watching us.