Taking in the scene at Morton’s, a chichi West Hollywood restaurant crammed with celebrities and plants, the out-of-town guests of producer Al (The Godfather) Ruddy sat goggle-eyed as they spotted a Big Star through the ferns. Was it really him? they wondered. Sure enough, across the room was Jamie Farr, better known as Maxwell Q. Klinger from TV’s After-MASH. The producer was enjoying a private laugh of his own. Seated an entree away from them was the dashing star of four of Hollywood’s top 10 all-time money-making films. It’s not that Harrison Ford has a face only a mother could love; it’s that outside of his movies, he has a face only his mother can recognize.
Nothing makes Harrison Ford happier. “He’s a man who enjoys his privacy,” says a former colleague. Ford epitomizes a generation of Hollywood hot shots turned off by the star-making machinery that churned out Bogart, Gable, Monroe et al. “Actors today make it a point to avoid the glamour and trappings of earlier stars,” says high-powered agent Sue Mengers.
But that attitude can have curious consequences. According to a nationwide PEOPLE poll (see following pages), while Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was breaking box office records during its initial week of release, only one out of five respondents could identify Harrison Ford by name. Nor was Ford alone. More than half of those polled could not name such stars as Al Pacino, Debra Winger, Richard Gere, Meryl Streep and Robert Duvall. In fact, nine of the 25 stars in the poll were correctly named by less than 10 percent. Familiar faces such as Robert Redford, John Travolta and Goldie Hawn were identified by more than half. Astonishingly, they were the only three with that distinction. There was bad news for Mickey Rourke, the star of The Pope of Greenwich Village, whose asking price is $1 million per picture. Not one person knew his name.
This generation’s serious-minded actors want their work to speak for them. Yet the reality is that show business didn’t get its name by accident. By maintaining their low profiles and/or ignoring the once ironclad obligation to promote their movies, some new stars may be stonewalling their own careers. “Most of these guys pattern themselves after De Niro, not John Wayne,” says Marcia Robertson, publicity VP for MGM/UA. “These actors say to us, ‘Well, Robert De Niro doesn’t do publicity.’ We tell them that we’ll listen when they have De Niro’s Oscar on their mantelpiece and not before.”
Sean Penn and Elizabeth McGovern got away with it, but not without cost. Both were partially blamed by producer Sherry Lansing for the dismal box office of favorably received Racing with the Moon because both refused to promote the film. “Sean Penn hurt his career enormously,” says independent producer Peter Bart, formerly with MGM. “If a studio can’t get that publicity, it will back right off a performer.” Director Taylor (An Officer and a Gentleman) Hackford has made promotion a contractual requirement for the stars of his next film.
There are reasons other than Garboesque reticence for low recognition. Such chameleons as Duvall and Streep, who seem to undergo body and voice transplants from role to role, are less likely to be recognized as a result. For Hollywood’s current crop, “being able to change personas is the definition of a good actor,” says Bart.
Hollywood’s romance with special effects has also had its impact, as actors such as Ford end up playing supporting roles to robots and aliens. Outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones vehicles, Ford has fared poorly at the box office. “None of Lucas’ movies has stars,” observes director John Milius, “or if they do, he’s created them.”
Why are the studios willing to pay so much for so little name value among rising—and often temperamental—stars? It’s elementary school, my dear Watson: The majority of moviegoers are aged 14 to 24. For those young-guy leads, “you certainly can’t go to Clint, Burt or Redford,” says producer Ruddy. So non-movie-star movie stars are looked upon as investments. But, warns Peter Bart, “the inflated salaries for these young people are really speculative because their careers might be over tomorrow.”
The fact that the public doesn’t know their names seems not to bother many of these stars. But should the strategy turn sour for the no-name stars, who knows? A different approach may be necessary. Someday we may see Mickey Rourke on camera asking, “Do you know me?”