Star Implosion

A few weeks ago, when I dismissed The Bodyguard and The Distinguished Gentleman as limp vehicles for "dwarf stars," I received voice-mail messages from annoyed readers. They weren't Mark David Chapmanesque, If-my-man-Kevin's-in-it-then-it-must-be-mannah-from-Heaven-so-you-better-put-your-grubby-hands-behind-your-head-and-get-in-the-damn-Chevette-type people. They were just confused as to exactly what, in my book, constituted a worthwhile, quality "star vehicle."

The answer reaches back to the golden age of Hollywood, when studios made megastars of individuals who possessed an unnamable something. I'm not talking about powerhouses like Lillian Gish, Spencer Tracy, and Laurence Olivier, who were always actors first and stars second. I'm talking about Bogart and Cagney, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, and later, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, and the early Jane Fonda -- actors of widely varying range who nonetheless blessed almost every film they appeared in with every drop of gusto they could muster.

What made their performances special was that their pictures usually fitted them with flair and dignity and class, like a three-piece-suit -- not lazily, like a ratty corduroy bathrobe.

But the Costners and Murphys of cinema seem to prefer projects they can slip into without getting their hair mussed -- think of the heavy-lidded, somnambulent Costner playing Robin Hood without bothering to attempt an English accent, or the smug, preening Murphy oozing his way through Harlem Nights and Another 48 HRS. Their honored predecessors had an unspoken contract with viewers: You pay money to see me, and I'll work my heinie off to make it worth your while.

Costner and Murphy break that contract with galling regularity. In an older, more professional Hollywood, their cinematic batting averages would relegate them to the minors. In this sense, they are dwarf stars -- essentially petty and small and inconsistent. Like little boats, they depend on the rising tide of entertaining, even challenging films to lift them up -- films like Bull Durham and JFK for Costner, 48 HRS. and Trading Places for Murphy.

But there are other kinds of stars out there, the obverse of the dwarf stars: actors who are so damned much fun that even their most ambitious films seem to constrict them. Like the astronomical definition of the term black hole -- a star that burns so brightly that it collapses upon itself, sucking in everything around it -- they often implode the movies they appear in.

Shirley MacLaine and Al Pacino fit into this class; their latest pictures are better-than-average entertainments yet ultimately fall short for reasons their makers could never overcome. Stars like MacLaine and Pacino seem to have gotten too big even for the gargantuan movies Hollywood has been making lately.

Brazenly theatrical and in-your-face funny, MacLaine is a venerable vet who steals scenes the way most people pilfer free samples at the supermarket. In the Nixon-era comedy-drama Used People ,she plays Pearl Berman, a Jewish matriarch from Queens who has recently lost her husband of 37 years. Pearl was a stand-by-your-man kind of woman, independent internally but not to the rest of the world. Her horizons were limited not by what she had to offer the world, but by the way our world pigeonholed her -- as cook, housekeeper, and mom.

She views her Queens brownstone as the nucleus of the universe. When her two unhappy daughters, Bibby (Kathy Bates) and Norma (Marcia Gay Harden), even toy with the idea of leaving the neighborhood, she fixes them with a blazing, bermom stare -- the unforgiving gaze of a forsaken God. It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that Pearl is scared of change, that her daughters leaving would confirm, in some part of her brain, the suspicion that she subordinated her true, romantic self in the name of marriage and sold her own life short. If they leave for greener pastures, they're not repudiating Queens; they're repudiating the Queen of Queens -- Pearl herself.

Director Beeban Kidron sets plenty of colorful bits swirling around Pearl, but none are as interesting as she is. Bibby's weight problem (a Kathy Bates cliche) and her conviction that her mom's impossibly high expectations ruined her life are so histrionic that they're more amusing than heartrending. Ditto the identity crisis of single mom Norma. Her young son, Swee'Pea (Matthew Branton), is so scared by his sibling's recent death that he has delusions of invincibility, wobbling along rooftops and throwing himself onto train tracks; Norma herself is another head case, dressing like glamorous pop-culture icons -- Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate -- to gain an elusive feeling of control over her life. These threads are never adequately developed, partly because director Kidron has the same problem we do -- she finds Pearl more worthy of her attention.

So does Pearl's suitor, an elderly Italian immigrant named Joe Meladandri (Marcello Mastroianni), who has admired her for 23 years, ever since he saw her through an apartment window waltzing with her husband -- "dancing," he coos, "with the ghost of her own grace." What ensues is familiar to anyone who has seen Moonstruck -- passionate gentleman lover tries to seduce a cloistered woman out of her self-imposed shell.

The problem here is, nobody in the audience really believes MacLaine as a repressed, old-fashioned widow; she's always been too perky for that. What makes Pearl's inevitable decision to give in to Joe's affections so delightful is the empowered spin MacLaine puts on it. She's clearly not giving in or giving up -- she's deciding, after much thought, to allow Joe into her life. Mastroianni, for all his Old World charm, barely holds his own. He's more cuddly than passionate; MacLaine looks like she'd break him in half in bed. (Of all her onscreen partners, only Nicholson in Terms of Endearment seemed mercurial enough to suit her.) The further away from it that you get, the more Used People seems derivative and somewhat confused -- a palimpsest of other, better movies. But MacLaine sticks in your brain through sheer force of personality. She's the closest thing to a female Nicholson we have in movies today.

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