Not only Directed by Ridley Scott and written by the Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor (2013) also boasted a beyond star-studded cast of Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, and yet, and yet still managed to comatose audiences and critics alike with what seemed to be an icy tribute to its own failure.
Not simply a film that fails to entertain or convince, but one that seems to unwittingly reveal the festering machinations behind its failure.
Each symptom of its oddly misjudged tone – be it zero suspense, the sheen of production, character inertia, or the stilted dialogue that communicates a little less than cold brevity with a little more than vacuous excess – each of these symptoms seem to reflexively turn into parodies of their buried cause. Consequently, The Counselor casts an involuntary and icy light on the ugly capital of ‘the star’ in Hollywood promotion, in addition to the symbolic potency and expectations that such ‘stars’ have historically delivered.
In a silent comedy from 1927, Clara Bow, one of the very first stars of American cinema became synonymous with the film’s title: It. She was the ‘It girl’, ‘Miss It, California’, the birth of ‘It’, a title and description originally suggested in a magazine article by the English writer, Elinor Glyn – who had a cameo in the film. The value of ‘It’, though mainly unmentioned as a mysterious quality, does surface in a couple of definitions: the male protagonist’s best friend reads out that ‘the possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely “un-self-conscious”, and must have that magnetic “sex appeal” which is irresistible’; in Glyn’s cameo she defines ‘It’ as ‘self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.’ Bow’s allure as a star came from her supposed ordinary-ness; an exemplary and working class background that ostensibly leant her energy a lively naturalism that distinguished her from other more consciously thespian modes of melodrama. It was an attraction that conveyed her plucky spirit as both relatable and in the currency of sex appeal, attainable – thus spinning off into another mythic toxin of male fantasy: ‘star’ quality in ‘the-girl-next door-syndrome’. By the age of 28 Bow had left Hollywood. Not because, as is suggested, through her incompatibility with talkies, but through exhaustion: she was overworked (completing 46 silent films and 11 talkies, all completed from the age of 16 to 28) and increasingly in the 30s attacked by the press. She retired to a cattle ranch with her husband and suffered from various psychiatric illnesses for the rest of her life
Rather than simply (or only) encapsulating a cautionary example of stardom, there is something telling about the supposed qualities of her objectified ‘It’ status and how that has changed. Described as ‘un-self-conscious’ and giving ‘the impression that you are not all cold’, Bow was celebrated for a spirit of naturalism in a medium that was trying to evolve beyond the artifice of a carnival attraction, or the emulation of theatre. Not far off a hundred years later and American cinema now has a history of ‘It’; manufactured naturalism and the impossibly glamorous, warped, undercut or consecrated idols of everyday have been through whole legacies of influence, reaction and growth. Alongside that cinematic change, inevitably the currency of the ‘it girl’ and having ‘it’ has become something very different. Now the ‘it girl’ phenomenon is usually attributed to a famous for being famous socialite, whose primary purpose or ambition seems to be courting the press. The ‘un-self conscious’ has become the consciously calculated and ‘the impression that you not all cold’ has been newly configured as a coldly performed version of warmth. Yet in The Counselor the performance has lost its currency, the potential ‘It vitality’ of its cast seems dislocated, remote and unsure.