Thursday, September 17, 2009

The surprising and unfair cinematic demise of Orlando Bloom.

The man has a record six movies that have grossed $300 million+ in the US, plus another two $100 million+ earners. His popularity was actually a factor in the success of several of those pictures. He has worked with such directors as Ridley Scott (twice), Cameron Crowe, Peter Jackson (thrice), Wolfgang Petersen, and Gore Verbinski (thrice). Counting all of his pictures, his eleven films have grossed an average of $207 million (he's averaged $253 million if you only count the mainstream studio pictures). His average opening weekend for said wide releases is $61 million. From 2002 until 2007, he was a big-league heartthrob whose poster adorned the walls of many a teenage girl. He was one of People's 'Sexiest Men Alive' in 2006. Yet Orlando Bloom is nowhere to be seen in today's filmmaking landscape.

So what happened? Did he simply grow tired of fame and/or major scale Hollywood films? The back-to-back schedule of the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films allegedly took quite a toll, as I'd imagine did the back-to-back-to-back shooting schedule of the Lords of the Rings trilogy. Did he grow tired of the critical scorn and retreat to smaller projects that wouldn't be as much under a microscope? Yes he has a few projects on the horizon, and he has spent ample time with UNECIF (arguably a better use of his time than making movies), but it was still astonishing to see him go from the top of the heap to just another actor in a heartbeat. What is unusual about the rise and (relative) fall of Orlando Bloom is that his critical downfall was almost entirely due to two things: A) taking major roles in films that looked great on paper but ultimately floundered through no fault of his and B) becoming victim to critics' inexplicable expectations and/or inability to understand what a 'straight man' does in a big-budget adventure film. In essence, he was constantly attacked purely for doing his job, for being an actor first and a movie star second.

Quite a few stars have been burned in the past for signing up for disappointing films that looked like winners on paper. Alicia Silverstone may have been adrift as Batgirl in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, but would any teenage girl in her right mind have the foresight to turn down such a seemingly golden opportunity? And what of all those knuckleheads who honestly blamed Jake Lloyd for the flaws found in Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace? Did critics and geeks honestly expect young Lloyd to say "Well, as wonderful as the opportunity to play Anakin Skywalker seems on the surface, the script has pacing and exposition issues and I know Mr. Lucas is not the best director of actors, so I cannot trust him to properly direct me in a way that makes up for my inherent inexperience as an performer."? By the same token, no young male actor would consider for one second turning down the lead role in a coming-of-age story written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Yes, the film ended up being Elizabethtown, but is that really Bloom's fault? No actor could have survived a film that was filled with trite voice over and contained a first half which required the lead to talk to himself in monologue for nearly an hour.

Nor is it Orlando Bloom's fault that nearly every critic went into Kingdom of Heaven expecting a sequel to Gladiator. Countless reviews complained that Balin de Ibelin, the thoughtful, war-wary blacksmith, was not the brooding, muscle-bound, vengeful Maximus Decimus Meridius and that Orlando Bloom was not Russell Crowe. Whether or not Kingdom of Heaven is a better movie than Gladiator (I think it so, no matter which cut you're watching) is irrelevant. What was troubling was how few critics (and audience members, few that there were) could comprehend that it was a different movie from Gladiator. If Ridley Scott wanted a Russell Crowe-type character in Kingdom of Heaven, don't you think he would have gone ahead and just cast Russell Crowe again? They've worked together on four occasions (Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, and Body Of Lies), it's obvious that they get along.

This also ties into the other problem that Bloom has faced... being critically torn apart not because of his acting, but because of the content of the character he was playing. In summer 2004, Orlando Bloom took the supporting role of Paris in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy. Once again, would you turn down a major role in a big-budget sword-and-sandals epic that allowed you to cross swords with Brad Pitt, have sex with Diane Kruger, and share scenes with onscreen father Peter O'Toole? Yet, whatever issues the film does have, I cannot count the number of reviews that criticized Bloom not specifically for his acting, but for his portrayal of Paris as a spineless, selfish, cowardly idiot, a boy who started an epic war because he couldn't keep his pecker in his pants. But guess what people? THAT's the character of Paris. Rather than try to make Paris into a more heroic and sympathetic character, Bloom played him as exactly the sniveling loser that he was.

Bloom's tragic need to actually do his job haunted him even in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. What so many critics and audience members failed to understand is that it was Orlando Bloom's straight-man performance that allowed Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow to exist in the narrative in the first place. Yes, compared with Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, Orlando Bloom looked pretty dull. But that is the burden of the foil. A lesser actor would have demanded that he be allowed to be larger-than-life and crowd-pleasingly comedic as well, but Bloom knew that it was his job to counter-balance the off-the-wall antics of Johnny Depp. Because Bloom's Will Turner fulfilled the genre requirement of having a straight-arrow heroic figure, and his relationship with somewhat more-complicated Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) fulfilled the demand for sea-faring romance, Johnny Depp was free to run wild and do whatever he damn-well felt like. If Rob Marshall and the makers of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: At Stranger Tides think they can craft a story completely around Jack Sparrow, they are in for a rude awakening. A Pirates of the Caribbean sequel utterly and completely dominated by Jack Sparrow would be no less grating than a Shrek sequel starring only Donkey.

Even his star-making performance as Legolas Greenleaf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy speaks to his apparent onscreen generosity. After his screen-time-heavy and crowd-pleasing turn in The Two Towers, one might have thought that Legolas would have received more screen-time in Return of the King. Yet save for a single added action beat involving a single elephant, Legolas is barely featured in the third film. I certainly cannot say whether or not Bloom even tried to get more of his footage added to the final cut. But considering his track record, it is likely that Bloom knew that the third film was in no way about the Elfin warrior and thus added screen-time to appease the fan-girls would come only at the cost of the Frodo/Sam and Aragorn-centric narrative.

For playing the key component in a blockbuster trilogy, he was rewarded not with thanks but with Razzie nominations. For daring to star in a Ridley Scott period-action film and not attempting to retread the more crowd-pleasing predecessor, he and Scott were besot by critical scorn and audience indifference. For having the gall to play a sniveling, sympathetic and unheroic schmuck as sniveling, unsympathetic and unheroic, he was criticized as if that was the fault of his performance rather than the original character. And finally for having the terrible luck to star in Cameron Crowe's worst written and directed movie, he was tainted as the cause of said failure. Orlando Bloom may not be the world's greatest actor, but he has suffered the fate even worse than that of many like him (Keanu Reeves, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford) who dare to put the movie first and stardom second. By refusing to be larger than the character and larger than the narrative, he was tagged as a wooden performer and seemingly banished from Hollywood. For the sake of all who feel that serving the story should come before serving their own career, I hope to see Mr. Bloom back on the silver screen sometime soon. He may not have deserved Oscars, but he deserved more than just our scorn.

Scott Mendelson

For more essays of this nature, including defenses of Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage, as well as much-needed praise for Michael Wincott and Donnie Wahlberg, go to Mendelson's Memos.

6 comments:

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

Loved the article despite not agreeing with it. Apart from his brilliant send up of himself in Extras, I've never found him engaging even as a straight man. Troy? Your on the money about Paris but his display? Forgettable. It's interesting you bring up Mr Reeves because when he picks right he has a very strong screen presence despite his limited range. I enjoyed him in Constantine for instance.

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

I think that's the thing. Yes he's a straight man but not the best one. Well played on his choices but I watched Eliabethtown and really as a straight man....he's quite plain.

Christopher said...

Nice write up, I'm not as high on him as you are, but you make excellent points no doubt.

Anonymous said...

Scott,

Thank you so much for this article, I wholeheartedly agree with. (Read this on a forum-site) Though I'm a longterm fan of Orlando's I am not one of the fangirls. There might have been weaknesses in his acting - without doubt, which I saw as well - but for sure the way the critics jump at him always and for whatever he does - has always been unfair and rude.

Some simply forget that he just left film-school when he got the role as Legolas and of course he had not a longstanding experience in acting.

Then, having a big part in two of the world's biggest blockbuster trilogies right from that on, there have been those who expected simply too much of a young actor as him. He might have put the cart before the horse, but he could not reckon with becoming such a sought-after movie-star when he signed the contract for his role in LotR. He might not even have reckoned with the big success PotC 1 became. But face it: Those were his first footsteps he took on the long and bumpy Hollywood-movie-road and for that, he did just good.

The pressure that came with the high expectations then made him turn towards smaller movies like Ned Kelly, Calcium Kid and Haven - all of them hold fine acting and solid story-telling.

To Troy, I've got not much to say... Just that if critics focus on Orlando, then just because they need one to pick on. Because usually being a good actor, Brad Pitt did not manage to get much beyond the shallow bloodthirsty warrior either. After all, the whole storytelling and directing was as flat as Brad Pitt's washboard stomach. But that aside.

Orlando currently has finished three movies and a fourth one to be shot which all hopefully hit theatres in 2010.

So he will be back.

The question just is: How warmly will he be welcomed?

Me as a fan for six years, I will surely welcome him with open arms.

Alexandra

city_of_girl said...

Thank you ! Someone understand me (us, Orlando's fan) !

But you forgot to talk about Unicef and his new movies. He plays in a segment of New York I love you. He plays a singer in the new Ruffalo's movie, Sympathy for delicious. He plan a policeman with Colin Firth in Main Street. I hope he will receive better comment for his hard and good work !

Than you again !

city_of_girl said...

Thank you ! Someone understand me (us, Orlando's fan) !

But you forgot to talk about Unicef and his new movies. He plays in a segment of New York I love you. He plays a singer in the new Ruffalo's movie, Sympathy for delicious. He plan a policeman with Colin Firth in Main Street. I hope he will receive better comment for his hard and good work !

Than you again !

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