You know how certain actors become synonymous with certain decades? How when you think of the fifties you might think of James Dean’s red leather jacket? Or when you think of the seventies and an image of John Travolta dancing at the disco flashes through your mind? Lately I’ve been wondering what made us link these actors to their respective decades. Sometimes it’s a matter of box office success, like those who associate Burt Reynolds with the seventies. Sometimes it’s one iconic performance (like Dean and Travolta). Sometimes, it’s a combination of popularity and representing a type of star endemic to their decade, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger represented action stars of the eighties, or Julia Roberts standing in for nineties rom-com heroines. With all those things in mind, I have also been wondering: who will be the actors that will represent our decade? What actor will people picture twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now when they think of the 2010s? Well, I have a couple candidates…
Robert Downey Jr.
The biggest story of the decade -at least as far as Hollywood filmmaking is concerned- is the way in which savvy brand management became the most effective tool for guaranteeing box office success. There is no better example of this sort of success than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and no better representative of the MCU as a whole than Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, in 2008, revitalized Downey’s career, and his performance as Tony Stark was the backbone on which the MCU built itself into the colossus it is now. This is more than enough to consider RDJ one of the biggest stars of the decade, even if whether he can open a non-Marvel movie on his own is debatable. To be fair, who can open a movie these days? In terms of representing a trend, a brand, and genre that is likely to be forever associated with the 2010s, Robert Downey Jr. is a pretty safe bet to be remembered as a quintessential actor of our times.
If we consider reliable box office performance a metric for determining this question, then there’s a strong argument to be made for Jennifer Lawrence. She started the decade with incredibly critical success, an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone (and an eye-catching red dress that I believe played a role in making her a star). She continued by spearheading The Hunger Games franchise, winning an Oscar at the age of 22, and turning unlikely projects into box office hits. Proof of her stardom: she started in a supporting role, but was brought to the forefront of the struggling X-Men franchise because she was seen as such a powerful box office draw. Sure, her critical success and hit-making status has diminished quite a bit in recent years, but I can easily imagine the first part of the decade being remembered as the “Jennifer Lawrence moment”, forever tying the actress with the 2010s.
This is a tricky one. Chances are, no matter how hard he tries, that Leo will forever be associated with his star-making role in Titanic, thus making him synonymous with the 1990s. That being said, there is an argument to be made that he is one of the few -perhaps the only- true movie stars we have left in the sense that every movie he makes seems to be treated as a big event. He’s only had one flop this decade (Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar), which has otherwise been a string of successes. What’s more, there is a narrative around his success. The fact that Leo was able to turn such unlikely movies as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Revenant into big hits was partly fueled by the question of “when will Leo win his Oscar?” There is no doubt Leo is interested in building himself a legacy as a “great actor” by working exclusively with the biggest directors in town. At the end of the day, that kind of self-curation might pay off in making him the poster boy for 2010s stardom.
Let’s think outside the box a little bit and think of criteria other than box office success. Was James Dean the biggest box office start of the fifties? Far from it. He did, however, capture the essence of his time, by marrying a newly developing attitude toward teenage culture with a revolutionary kind of acting. He screams nineteen-fifties. Similarly, Kristen Stewart seems like the perfect avatar for a quintessentially 2010s kind of acting trajectory. At the beginning of the decade, she had amassed success as the girl from Twilight, but was widely dismissed as a bad actress. After a series of collaborations with independent and international auteurs, however, she reinvented herself as a critical favorite. The story of how she was able to use franchise success to migrate into arthouse fare such as Certain Women and Personal Shopper might become emblematic of what a successful acting career looked like in this decade, in which studio and independent cinema seem more polarized than ever.
Despite a successful career, I don’t really think of Adam Driver as a huge movie star. He seems, however, like the best option for synthesizing many of the arguments I’ve made for the other candidates. As Kylo Ren in the Star Wars movies, he is part of one of the most powerful brands in Hollywood. Like Kristen Stewart, he is deeply interested in independent productions and arthouse fair, only he is managing to balance arthouse and franchise movies at the same time. It also seems relevant to me that Driver first gained success as an actor on television (which I hear is experiencing a golden age or something?). What’s more, it wasn’t just any television show that made Driver famous, it was the highly controversial Girls, which will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most 2010s shows that ever existed. Finally, Driver is such an unlikely and weird actor that I can totally see future generations looking back and thinking “only in the 2010s could someone like him be a movie star.” I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more I like this argument.
But what do you think? Does one of these candidates strike you as a particularly strong choice? Or do you have another person in mind? Please sound off with your suggestions in the comments.