Jude Law is one but Tom Hardy isn’t: what makes a movie star?

A true star isnt somebody film lovers rave about, but someone you could easily pick out of a lineup like Meryl Streep, but not Charlie Hunnam

Like many film critics, I started out to be a mortician, but got sidetracked. Yet vestiges of that childhood vocation linger on in my lifelong fascination with autopsies, particularly postmortems involving epic film failures.

In this context, I have thought a lot about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a colossal bomb. There are many things wrong with the film the story, the directing, the fact that the screenwriter forgot to include Merlin but the biggest problem is the casting. A few months before the film was released, I started noticing posters advertising a star I didnt immediately recognise. Somebody named Charlie Hunnam. Do you know him? I asked my son.

Hes the guy from Sons of Anarchy, he replied.

Well, precisely. Hes not Matt Damon. Hes not Brad Pitt. Hes not James Franco. Hes certainly not Denzel Washington or Jamie Foxx. Hes the guy from Sons of Anarchy, a reasonably popular cable TV show most people have never heard of, much less seen. Hes the guy most famous for almost being in 50 Shades of Grey.

Hunnam reportedly talked his way into the starring role in King Arthur, convincing Guy Ritchie that he could carry the ball. He could not carry the ball, as we now know. Ritchie should have written Lady Guinevere into the screenplay and asked if Gal Gadot was available. One of the most annoying things about King Arthur was Hunnams thoroughly predictable turn as a cheeky working-class lad. That worked well in Ritchies early movies because cheeky East End lads were in vogue at the time, and Ritchie had rising star Jason Statham on the payroll. Statham brought an affable roguishness to rollicking gangster movies, a quality he has never entirely lost; he was the glue that held the whole thing together. In King Arthur, Ritchie didnt have anyone to hold the whole thing together. He had the guy from Sons of Anarchy. So the cheeky medieval prole schtick fell flat.

Guy
Guy Ritchie should have written Guinevere into King Arthur and asked if Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) was available … Photograph: Clay Enos/AP

Hunnam is by no means a dud he is quite good in the art house film The Lost City of Z and he may yet avoid the fate of Jason Momoa, the large but ultimately ineffective tent pole around which the abysmal 2011 Conan the Barbarian was erected. Yet the similarities are startling: an actor best known for appearing on a popular cable TV show (Game of Thrones) gets into the ring with the big boys. And promptly gets his head handed to him.

Hunnam is a tad on the generic, nondescript side, especially compared to King Arthurs nemesis, played by the emphatically non-generic Jude Law, who upstages the putative star of the movie at every turn. Bear in mind that the basic structure of motion pictures has not changed in 100 years: a man has a problem, be it shark, alien life form, loan shark or fascist pig, and he has to solve this problem in less than two hours. If the audience is not interested in the man or the problem, the movie tanks. This is also true of films starring women.

In King Arthur, Laws problem Oh, will no one rid me of this cheeky prole? is more interesting than Hunnams problem because Law is more interesting than Hunnam. When the two share the screen, our eyes naturally travel to Law because our eyes arent stupid.

Hunnam comes off as a poor mans Tom Hardy. But here is an intriguing issue. Hardy, remarkable actor that he is, is not an instantly recognisable star like Tom Cruise or Vin Diesel or Sylvester Stallone or the Rock. He has never got top billing in the kind of career-defining film that absolutely everybody on the planet saw: Top Gun, Thelma and Louise, Forrest Gump, The Matrix, Rocky, The Hunger Games. So, is Hardy himself a movie star? Well, if the criterion for being a movie star is the ability to light up the screen as soon as you show up, then there is no question that Hardy is bona fide. But this is different from being a matinee idol or a living legend or an icon or Jennifer Lawrence or any of those other words used to describe our celluloid heroes. Hardy, who has made quite a name for himself by vanishing into assorted roles, has a Zelig-like quality. Hes here. Hes there. Hes everywhere. He can do anything, play anybody: a dimwit New York bartender, a Russian copper, a cruel, atavistic London gangster. Make that two cruel, atavistic London gangsters.

Hes
Hes everywhere … Tom Hardy playing two cruel, atavistic London gangsters in Legend. Photograph: PR company handout

Hardy has an amazing CV. He was brilliant in The Revenant. He was brilliant in Locke, where he spends the entire 85 minutes talking on a car phone. He was brilliant in Bronson, a tour de force about Britains most violent jailbird. He was brilliant in Child 44, Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He was brilliant in good films, brilliant in bad films.

But does that make him a movie star? Im not so sure. A movie star isnt somebody film lovers rave about. They arent even somebody the general public raves about. They are somebody the ordinary person can pick out of a police lineup. Can you do that with Guy Pearce? Ciaran Hinds? Hugo Weaving? Outstanding actors, all. But movie stars? Hmm. In a way, it all comes down to the vaunted Thespian Brothers Conundrum. Owen Wilson? Movie star. Luke Wilson? Not a movie star. Alec Baldwin? Movie star. Anybody else named Baldwin? Not a movie star.

Lets just leave the Quaids and the Afflecks out of this.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Every time I talk to someone about how much I enjoy watching Hardy and how much I look forward to his next film, I have to remind people who he is. Cmon, guys, work with me. Tom Hardy. You know, the bad guy in The Revenant? Didnt see it. OK then, the bad guy in The Dark Knight Rises? Oh yeah, him. But didnt he have a mask on the whole time? OK, the guy who played Mad Max the last time around? Oh, yeah, him. The guy with the mask on his face half the movie. But mostly I remember Charlize Theron. And the rest of the girls.

Definitely
Definitely a movie star … Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

OK, I continue, my hackles up because in my view not worshipping in the Church of Hardy is like refusing to genuflect in the Cathedral of Daniel Day-Lewis, did you see The Drop? No. Lawless? No. This Means War? No. How about the film where Hardy plays the Kray brothers so convincingly you cannot believe it is the same actor playing both Ronnie and Reg? Sorry, didnt see it.

I dont have to do this kind of stuff with Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney. I dont have to do it with Viggo Mortensen or Colin Farrell. I dont even have to do it with John C Reilly. I certainly dont have to do it with Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway or Angelina Jolie. So even though Hardy is a better actor than most of them, and in certain instances a much better actor, I never have to pull out my iPhone to remind people who they are. Hardy, like Mark Strong, falls into that category of actors that are simultaneously famous yet hard to describe from memory. Fans of these guys routinely imagine they are bigger stars than they are. They are like rock critics who want Alejandro Escovedo and Son Volt to be more revered than U2. But reality is reality, and reality bites. If you put Tom Hardy on the cover of People magazine, the public would say, Wait a minute. Wheres Johnny Depp?

Theres a term for people like this. They are all gods, but they are gods of a lesser order. They are the Working Famous.

Charlie Hunnam should be so lucky.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/08/tom-hardy-charlie-hunnam-king-arthur-movie-star-actor