Why the golden age of TV isn’t producing more movie stars

Jon Hamm fizzles in "Million Dollar Arm," Cranston is an accessory in "Godzilla"--we're a long way from Clooney

Topics: Jon Hamm, George Clooney, Mad Men, Million Dollar Arm, godzilla, Editor's Picks,

Why the golden age of TV isn't producing more movie starsIdris Elba, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston (Credit: HBO/AMC/Galyna Andrushko via Shutterstock/Salon)

Poor Jon Hamm.

Sure, he’s famous, and blessed with a jawline that’s the envy of all who watch prestige cable dramas. He’s also about to headline his first movie, with a starring role in “Million Dollar Arm.” But, as “Mad Men” continues its long farewell march, what should be a celebratory moment for Hamm is looking like a strangely precarious one. Hamm’s current Vanity Fair cover profile — a coup for any actor — is premised on the question of what Hamm will do once “Mad Men” ends. “Is there life after Don Draper?,” the cover asks. (Sorry, Jon Hamm’s publicist!) And “Million Dollar Arm,” in which he stars as a sports agent who travels to India to pursue cricketers, surely won’t move the needle much for Hamm. The reviews, in aggregate, have been tepid (Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir described it as “too obviously trying to” mimic “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side”), and it’s unlikely to do much business opposite the first weekend of “Godzilla.”

This weekend’s box-office showdown between underdog “Million Dollar Arm” and behemoth “Godzilla” would seem to point out one shortcoming of the waning Golden Age of Television: It’s not producing enduring stars. Hamm has shone in small, non-”Mad Men,” comic roles on TV (“30 Rock”) and in movies (“Bridesmaids”), but so far he hasn’t broken through, or, better yet, broken away from his character Don Draper. Meanwhile, this weekend’s would-be box office smash “Godzilla” features Bryan Cranston, né Walter White, but it can’t really be said to “star” him; Cranston’s Emmy-bedecked acting talent might be a special effect of its own, but it pales in comparison to a giant lizard, not least because Cranston is only playing a supporting role and has seen his potential promotional energies consumed by his Broadway play. If television has become, since “The Sopranos,” America’s preeminent art form, it’s been a pretty closed circuit. Why aren’t our best actors doing movie work that’s worthy of them — and why aren’t they becoming movie stars in the process?



Whatever happens with “Godzilla,” Cranston can commiserate with Idris Elba, the “Wire” breakout who wasn’t really blamed for 2013′s “Pacific Rim” underperforming but wouldn’t have been credited with its success, either. Elba, a strangely marketed Mandela biopic last winter aside, has mostly stuck to TV post-”Wire.” The late James Gandolfini was struggling to find a foothold in movies for years post-”Sopranos,” while his TV wife Edie Falco has stuck to the small screen with “Nurse Jackie.” January Jones, of “Mad Men,” has seen her “X-Men” role cut out of the upcoming sequel, while her “Mad Men” costars, like Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery, barely work in mainstream movies at all. “Homeland” star Claire Danes, previously a movie actress, almost retired from acting in favor of interior design before she regained a foothold in series TV; two Best Drama Actress Emmys later, she has no upcoming projects planned, except for season four.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but it is a change. In the days of broadcast-network hegemony, it was presumed that all TV stars were aspiring movie stars, not unlike the way the U.S. Senate contains 100 people who mostly want to be president. George Clooney, a star with the same throwback look and true charisma as Hamm, didn’t start his movie career (with one Bat-sized exception) doing franchise fare or anything too cheesy. David Caruso and Matt LeBlanc are among those who flew too close to the sun, but we remember the successes: Clooney, a few “S.N.L.” folks, and Jennifer Aniston (sort of), with Bruce Willis and John Travolta before them. Television has, historically, acted as a farm team for the movies, and as recently as Shailene Woodley (imported from ABC Family purgatory into an Alexander Payne film in 2011, before “Divergent” stardom), it’s worked.

Maybe the problem is that, in our antihero and -heroine moment, TV stars can be idiosyncratic in a way movie stars can’t. Jon Hamm famously suffered throughout a lackluster acting career before the opportunity to play a Brylcreemed ’60s throwback came along. Bryan Cranston is a character actor, not a natural leading man. Steve Buscemi, Kerry Washington and the devious duo of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are among stars the movies left behind. The old TV-to-movies trajectory has been working in reverse for so long that it’s no longer news, but movies-to-TV is coming to seem like a trajectory that ends at a cul-de-sac.

As TV has gotten better, movies have accelerated in exactly the opposite direction — that actors as demonstrably good as Elba and Cranston are taking supporting roles in monster serials elevates those movies a bit, but just shows how few options exist for them. The same goes for seeing an actor as good as Hamm reheating old sports-movie formulas. The more legendary an actor’s TV role becomes, the more constrained his onscreen options are. How could a Cranston or a Hamm take on another series role after being so indelibly identified with one great, multi-year performance? The movies seem like the next step, but the options there are limited. As an audience, we can feel lucky we got to spend these years with them, perhaps, and mourn the era in which Hollywood film was more receptive to the sort of midbudget movies that would let stars like Hamm and Cranston shine.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...