The good stars exceeded the limitations of studio control to carve out unique careers, often by choosing roles out of type, struggling throughout long careers to defy the pigeonholing of the rogue, the tart, the Pollyanna, the heavy. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland were stars who lost their identities to the Hollywood system, playing caricatures of the sexpot and the girl-next-door. At the same time, actors like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo offered some of their most complex impersonations playing radically against type.
Laboring outside the rigid control of a since dismantled studio system, contemporary movie stars are free agents able to choose roles on a script-by-script basis and to craft their star identities into any desired form.
But rather than expanding their horizons, a group of Hollywood marquee headliners is choosing to play characters with an extremely narrow range in an effort to create an instantly identifiable celebrity persona. At times, this self-willed pigeonholing seems a marketing decision, a way of letting audiences know just what to expect with each new film. Just as often the adoption of a star brand-name seems a personal agenda, a desire to project an image that corresponds to the star's ego and lofty sense of self.
Three of the most glaring examples of such self-aggrandizing, Performance as Personal Agenda are Robin Williams, Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks, all of whom play roles flush with the kind of virtues the actors might like bounced back onto them by consistent portrayal of saints, stand-up guys, lovable innocents, cheerfulness-addicted doctors, noble AIDS victims, patriots and New Age truth seekers.
Like some holy trinity of actorly grace, Gibson, Hanks and Williams are the current cinema's Father, Son and Holy Ghost, consistently choosing roles that emphasize the performers', perhaps inflated, self-conception. Saints and martyrs are a specialty of Hanks, as with Forrest Gump, the "saintly fool" in critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's estimation. Gibson's tough-guy martyrdom is spelled out in title alone (The Patriot, Braveheart), while Williams chooses roles that find his screen alter-ego whether doctor (Patch Adams), robot (Bicentennial Man) or Jew (Jakob the Liar), bearing witness to the myriad human flaws which make you want to cry instead of laugh.
Like superheroes of sensitivity, they are: Gibson, the robust, buff, eyes-tearing-up-with-frustration-and-then-rage patriot and father pushed too far, the ass-whoopin' daddy in the Billy Ray Cyrus weave and biceps-flaunting armless T-shirts (Scottish weather be damned!) fighting the British in Braveheart. Lovable, huggable, all-American boy/man, Hanks is our own dewy-eyed native son graduated from bachelor party movies to "serious" bathos-drowned epics -- Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile -- that suggest the dogged individualism, dignity and pluck of this brown-haired Everyman will rise super sensitive-like above worldly graft and corruption. Woolly, manic Williams is the comedian-turned-human teddy bear with every smile line on his poster campaigns seemingly airbrush-enhanced. Williams is the New Age "What's-It-All-About?" chicken soup for the soul-searcher in What Dreams May Come and the perpetually conformity-bucking, effervescent, hirsute sprite in Patch Adams who saves humankind over and over again from its misery by the simple application of ... laughter. In keeping with the Reader's Digest creed, it really is the best medicine.
The frequency with which these actors traipse out these noble virtues of sensitivity, decency, moral backbone and the occasional necessary cold-cock to the happiness-foilers in role after role makes one wonder what, exactly, they are trying to prove. Sure, pure-at-heart cripples and history book heroes give one a better stab at an Academy Award. But something more crucial seems at stake: a desire to use performance as a kind of subtle self-promotion, to enhance one's public image and collapse the difference between self and role until the two are inseparable, and the actor is the role he plays.
It is no longer enough that Williams entertain with a pratfall, an imitation, or yet another degrading comic filibuster. Williams' new cinematic mission suggests he not only imagines himself a fine comedian, but that he sees comedy as nothing short of God's work here on Earth, the Ambesol that will numb our pus-inflamed cultural abscess. Comedy is not just a job, it's a calling. A clown nose makes pediatric cancer wards combust in life-affirming giggles in Patch Adams and ornery, bratty kids turn into pliable, love-drunk putty in Bicentennial Man. Williams seems to have made movie soundtracks with a trilling, sparkling twinkle a stipulation of every contract considering how many of his feel-good films feature this subtle dusting of aural fairy dust to set the proper sweet mood.