There’s a lot you can count on in Hollywood. You can count on Sarah Polley. On Catherine Keener. And on Parker Posey. They may take the occasional studio paycheck, but they are indie actresses, and you’ll never see any one of the three topline a theme-park franchise. Michelle Williams and Leonardo DiCaprio may take on big roles, but they’ll always be interesting. Nic Cage and Robin Williams and Morgan Freeman and John Travolta will take any paycheck they are given, and while you might consider them sell-outs — the occasional meaty role notwithstanding — they’ve always been sell-outs. They’ve never had much discretion when choosing film roles, while guys like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino have been basically forced into sell-out status by their age. There’s few roles left for them, and while the same is true of Jack Nicholson, he mostly just avoids shitty films by not acting at all.
What bugs me, however, are those actors and directors who start out as one thing — interesting, risky, ambitious — and then sell out that thing the second someone waves a million dollar bill under their nose. They’re not just taking a huge paycheck role, they’re changing their identity from someone we admire and respect to someone who is clearly doing to add an extension to their mansion. And while I certainly respect an actor or director’s decision to make millions and millions of dollars to support their family’s lavish lifestyles, in some cases they do it at the expense of their audience. They gain our trust with interesting movies, and then they draw us into their crappy family films. It stings to see an actor you admire not just take the occasional big payday, but give themselves completely over to the franchises and tentpoles.
But who has sold out the hardest, who has transformed the most from who they were to who they are? Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you Exhibits I - V.
Robert Downey, Jr: Don’t get me wrong, I still think an awful lot of Robert Downey, Jr., and if there have to be huge, empty spectacles, then I appreciate that Robert Downey, Jr. makes them watchable and fun. But on the other hand, once Robert Downey, Jr. became Tony Stark, we lost an interesting, introspective, and fascinating actor. He’s headlining two franchises now — Iron Man, which is already showing signs of fatigue, and Sherlock Holmes, a fun but ultimately trifling franchise that, as of this week, has already hired a screenwriter for a third film. And what does Robert Downey, Jr. do between filming these huge empty movies? He makes a huge (mediocre) comedy, Due Date with a director, Todd Phillips, who has been reworking the same idea in the decade since Road Trip. And what have we lost? We lost the guy who was nominated for an Oscar in Chaplin, we lost the guy with the amazing supporting turn in Wonder Boys, we lost the guy who tracked down a serial killer in Zodiac, we lost the guy who took on a small role in Good Night and Good Luck, and maybe most painfully, we lost an actor who would deign to star in a low-budget movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Now, his trailer costs more than the entire budget of that movie, and as long as he’s going back and forth between Iron Man/Avengers and Sherlock Holmes, we’re not going to get that guy back any time soon.
Owen Wilson: Wilson has been a sell-out for so long now that many of you may have forgotten where he originated. He wasn’t just Dignan from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket and Eli Cash in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, he actually co-wrote those films with Wes Anderson. He also co-wrote Rushmore. Wilson sold out at the first opportunity he had, and he’s barely looked back since. Yes, he’s continued to star in Wes Anderson’s films, but without his writing voice, those Wes Anderson projects aren’t as magical or as hopeful as they once were (Anderson exchanged Wilson’s sly whimsy for Noah Baumbach’s misanthropy, and his movies reflect the unfortunate change). Wilson sold out hard, too: Marley and Me, You, Me and Dupree the Fockers and Cars franchises, and fucking Marmaduke, people. Dignan became the voice of a goddamn talking dog, and he hasn’t written a thing in a decade, to boot. At least he’s got another Wes Anderson movie on tap (Moonrise Kingdom) before he sells out once again to provide the voice of a turkey in a time-traveling family film. Yes, a time traveling family film.
David Gordon Green: I saw David Gordon Green on a shuttle bus at Sundance back in 2007, where he presented the last interesting movie he’d make before selling out, Snow Angels. He seemed like a quiet, thoughtful guy who made quiet, thoughtful movies. He was an amazing talent, and he directed indie films that felt like good alt-country songs: George Washington, Undertow and All the Real Girls. His milieu was grey skies and blue collar folks. At one point, speaking of independent directors, he even said of Kevin Smith: “[He] the only one I don’t like particularly. I respect most of them. He’s the one I can’t identify with in any way. He kind of created a Special Olympics for film. They just kind of lowered the standard.” David Gordon Green’s last two movies were Pineapple Express and Your Highness, the latter of which lowered the standards for the Special Olympics. What’s next? Another dumb comedy, this one a profanity-fueled Adventures in Babysitting starring Jonah Hill called The Sitter. This is what’s become of David Gordon Green: He’s become the big-budget Kevin Smith. I hope he gets paid a lot of money for his crappy comedies because it’s cost him a small but devoted fanbase.
Johnny Depp: Everyone that grew up in the late 80s and 90s loved Johnny Depp: He did not give a shit, and that’s why we respected him. He didn’t give a damn about box office; he took on diverse and interesting roles. It took him 15 years to make a movie that made more than $100 million (and then, only barely: Sleepy Hollow made $101 million). I specifically remember him saying that he didn’t care about that money, that he wanted to work with interesting directors and take on roles different from the rest of Hollywood. He made Benny and Joon and one of my favorite movies of the 90s, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Also Donnie Brasco and Dead Man so he could work with Jarmusch, and Nick of Time, a bad movie with a cool real-time concept, and Chocolat and Blow and Ed fucking Wood. Now? Earlier this year, he said something to the effect of: “I’ll keep making these Pirates of the Caribbean movies as long as they keep making money.” So much for the Johnny Depp who didn’t care about box office. He even conceded that the second and third movies didn’t make much sense. No matter. He got paid, and he used that box-office clout to star in The Tourist with Angelina Jolie, one of the worst movies to come out of that much star power in recent memory. I appreciate that he’s doing Rum Diary this weekend to remind us that he once was a fascinating actor, but Hunter S. Thompson would’ve scoffed at the Pirates franchise (although, he might have tripped his balls off watching Alice in Wonderland). What’s Johnny Depp doing after that? More Pirates movies, Dark Shadows (which has potential) and the now greenlit again The Lone Ranger, a sell-out flick perhaps even bigger than Pirates. We may never see the actor from Gilbert Grape again.
Ice Cube: Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate and I had a lengthy debate during a long car drive about Ice Cube, and whether he should be celebrated for making the transition to family films and, thus, expanding his audience to a new generation or derided for selling out. And with all due respect to my wife, she hasn’t seen Are We Done Yet? or Are We There Yet?. From where Ice Cube began, in South Central Los Angeles rapping “Fuck tha Police” with with seminal hip-hop outfit, N.W.A, to starring in two family films about suburban assholes, I don’t think anyone has sold out harder than Ice Cube. This guy went from hardcore rapper to badly remaking a Cary Grant comedy. I had such immense respect for Ice Cube, for the way he transitioned from music to film with Boys n the Hood to the phenomenal Barbershop movies, and Friday in between (we won’t speak of the two sequels, one OK, one horrible). Somewhere along the way, Ice Cube gave up. The man who wrote half the lyrics to Straight Outta Compton and co-wrote Friday. The man who had albums called Kill at Will, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and Death Certificate . That man is now an exec producer on a low-rent TBS sitcom based on Are We There Yet?. Doughboy has a goddamn clothing line of hoodies with headphones built in, people. Does anyone remember he was in Higher Learning and the terrific Three Kings? No, because XXX: State of the Nation blighted all that out. That new generation of fans won’t know him for early work that pissed off Focus on the Family; they’ll only know him as that nice man who guest starred on in the “Are We There Yet?” TV series and the upcoming sell-out remake of 21 Jump Street alongside — who else? — Johnny Depp in a cameo.