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Only one man can save the budget (joss whedon mention)

Sunday 2 July 2006, by Webmaster

As an unknown Superman takes off, John Harlow asks why A-list actors can no longer name their price.

The first thing Brandon Routh realised as he stepped into the Superman suit is that it is an extremely tight fit. Christopher Reeve is still in there, and Tom Welling, the star of Smallville: Superman the Early Years, too.

That the 26-year-old ingénu from Iowa manages to soar at all above those ghosts in Superman Returns is a heartening lesson. And not just for him. Routh’s performance has been greeted with relief by Hollywood studio chiefs, who, faced with choosing between big-name casting or increasingly expensive special effects, are cutting stars back to size by “going virgin” or casting unknowns in serious roles.

Routh (rhymes with south) is a former high-school jock who cut his acting teeth with studmuffin cameos in Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace and a Christina Aguilera video. He was reportedly paid $1m for his role in the $183m+ film, making his fee less than the cost of a computer-generated sequence in which a stricken airliner plunges towards a baseball field. The special effects bill for creating later Peter Jackson-like dreamscapes could have rented all the acting talent in Routh’s home town, Des Moines, for a year and left change for a large ice cream.

Superman needs strength, integrity and, according to gay magazine The Advocate, very long eyelashes. However, it seems he does not, despite early plans to cast Superman fanatic Nicolas Cage as an ageing man of steel, need to be portrayed by a big name.

Robert Altman, accused of “stunt casting” for dropping big names into tiny roles, once joked he did it for one reason - he could write them out if they proved troublesome. Other directors have been forced into being more accommodating. When the actress Olivia de Havilland used slavery laws to end the studios’ seven-year apprenticeship system in 1945, she also unshackled actors’ egos. Ever since, Hollywood’s heavy hitters have insisted on being artists, deserving of the giant pay packets that spring from a film as a product.

However, Tom Cruise’s $100m slice of War of the Worlds may prove to be the high tide of star power. After that, Paramount battered him down over Mission: Impossible III, threatening to cancel it. As a result, Cruise may have banked a mere $50m for all that running and jumping, while the studio salvaged some of its spend from the so-so returns.

This brutal negotiation is not confined to the big screen: at the moment, the television network HBO is in a staring contest with the cast of The Sopranos, due to start filming its last 20 episodes this week.

Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico, who play the hunchbacked Silvio and the odious Paulie Walnuts, are demanding a 100% rise to $200,000 an episode; HBO has hinted their characters may be whacked before the cameras roll. Who are the tough guys now? Maybe they can be replaced by computer- generated hit men. Certainly, while this summer’s big spenders are the computer programmers, the big earners are animated hits such as Cars and Over the Hedge, whose cut-price celebrity “voice talents” are overshadowed by the visuals. In the straight-to-video sequels, they can be replaced by soundalikes. It says so in the standard contract.

Leaving aside the money, there is an artistic argument for casting virgins. Do Hollywood’s A-list talents surprise us any more? Most are overexposed, their tics too well known. In Cage’s forthcoming supernatural turn, Ghost Rider, he is eclipsed by both his fiery motorbike and his hairpiece.

In Boffo!, the Variety editor Peter Bart’s new history of the blockbuster, he recalls how studio bosses initially refused to cast Al Pacino in The Godfather because he was an unknown. Now, from elevating art-house favourite Tobey Maguire into Spider-Man, or even casting Daniel Craig as Bond because Pierce Brosnan allegedly wanted too much money, it is becoming the rule - let the film generate its own star power. Joss Whedon has learnt this lesson. In casting Wonder Woman, potentially the next big comic franchise, he has ruled out names from Sandra Bullock to Jennifer Connelly in his search for fresh (and cheap, and even malleable) talent. He is currently talking to the 23-year-old Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.

Brad Grey, the quietly lethal new Paramount boss who wrestled Cruise to the floor over Mission: Impossible III, has let it be known that that was just the start: he’ll dump stars who think they are bigger than their films. He plans to cast virgins in his forthcoming Marvel comic-book adaptations Ant-Man and Captain America. Talent scouts are probably scouring Iowa right now.

Of course, this sea change could be temporary, or even a bluff. As a world-weary Val Kilmer warned Robert Downey Jr’s wannabe actor in last year’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “You are not getting the part. All this stuff - flying you out here, the parties, the screen tests - you were being used to shave a couple of million off Colin Farrell’s price tag.”

For Hollywood, too, there are hazards in going virgin. Not all pretty faces spotted in a Sunset Strip coffee shop can act, for a start. Looking back at the first Harry Potter, it’s amazing the franchise survived Daniel Radcliffe’s first gurning’n’pointing effort. Not everyone is born Dakota Fanning.

And of course, today’s $1m-per-film paupers become tomorrow’s A-listers. So take comfort, Brandon: forget the totally unfounded rumours that they digitally altered your face to make you look more like Christopher Reeve. In the next sequel, due in 2009, not only might you get to act a bit more, your agent will ensure you’ll make out like a bandit. If you have to suffer for your art, it might as well be in comfort.