The Nine Stages of a Typical Movie Star’s Career

Dan Aykroyd in “The Oscar Bid”

This list is just for fun. (Like the others aren't?) Of course many movie stars owe their fame to the opportunities afforded to them from having show biz parents (Kiefer Sutherland, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal, etc.). Others get a break by being cast in a major role by a director seeking an unknown (Jennifer Lopez, Tom Cruise, etc.). But for those who start from nothing and slowly work their way to the top, here are the "chapters" of their professional lives:

  1. Total Obscurity. The hell of starting out. Failed auditions... Trying to land an agent... Going broke from the costs of acting classes and headshots... Most actors never get past this stage.
  2. A String of Small Parts. The people we call "working actors" wind up here. Short 1-3 day gigs in TV shows, commercials, and movies large and small. You can make a living, but no one will recognize you on the street.
  3. The Breakout Performance. What every actor longs for: a small but juicy part in a hit movie, where your work stands out even if you're not among the top-billed. Think of Steve Carell in Bruce Almighty, Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, or Sandra Bullock in Speed. This is when an actor becomes a star. (This also goes for those TV actors whose series becomes a hit, be they Tom Hanks or Jennifer Aniston.)
  4. The First Vehicle. Congratulations! You've earned enough "buzz" from your breakout performance that a studio is willing to let you headline a feature. Not everybody survives this stage. To wit: Carell's Office costar Rainn Wilson, whose first and so far only vehicle The Rocker was a flop. Back into the Supporting Cast box with you!
  5. Ubiquity in Studio Fare. This comes after a Hollywood movie starring the actor turns a profit. Suddenly, through a calculated plot hatched by various producers, managers, casting directors and agents, said actor is in everything, good and bad, big and small. This is designed to establish the actor as a "lifer", a bankable star who's going to stick around for years to come. That's why there are so many James Franco and Amanda Seyfried movies these days: they're at this stage right now.
  6. The "One Movie a Year" Phase. After the star's name and face have been ingrained upon the collective unconscious, and said star can now command salaries of over $10 million per picture, it's time to stop saying yes to every offer and focus on the annual big-budget "tentpole" release. This is the true domain of the A-list, where people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington dwell.
  7. The Oscar Bid. What do you get the movie star that has everything? An Academy Award, of course! While actors are arguably always ego-driven, this is the point where the star's desires for Oscar glory supercede the handlers' hopes for riches. If you're not really that good an actor, this means you get the "character" part in an Oscar Hopeful (Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls, Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy). If you're a decent actor, then it's a showy role in a Message Movie (DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, Charlize Theron in Monster).
  8. Post-Oscar Malaise. Not all Oscar bids are successful. But for those that are, a sense of "what now?" creeps in. This happens particularly with female stars. You're rich, you're famous, you're an Oscar winner... what's left? Well, this is when you "take time out to be with your family", perhaps accepting small roles in films that interest you, showing your "fun" side in a big studio comedy, or going for the Oscar again.
  9. Elder Statesmanship. Years have passed. You're now too old or passe to headline a tentpole release like you used to. Your credit usually begins with the word "and". You're often playing the kooky parent and/or mentor of today's hottest stars. But hey - you're working. This is the "I made the cover of AARP magazine" realm of Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and the like. Beats doing nothing!