Tiger Woods and the Iron Law of Stardom

Tiger Woods and the Iron Law of Stardom

No one can be a star for longer than three years. Tiger Woods proves it.


Fellow Overthinker Matthew Belinkie regularly comes up with some of the cleverest pieces on our site. I’ve always felt that way. That’s why it pains me to say he’s not quite right.

Last week, Belinkie wrote a post asking if the 2000s had heralded the end of movie stars as a commodity: the end of the bankable face.

But in the last 10 years, has Hollywood produced any new A-list talent? The Ulmer Scale is an anual ranking of the most bankable actors. Their most recent top 10 list was: Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Will Ferrell, Reese Witherspoon, Nicholas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Russell Crowe. With the exceptions of Ferrell and Witherspoon (who I’m not buying as the #1 leading lady, by the way), all of these people were huge stars more than a decade ago. Hollywood is standing still.

First off, that list strains a little. Russell Crowe was a huge star in 2000 – ten years ago – because of Gladiator. Prior to that, his biggest roles had been in L.A. Confidential (an ensemble picture) and The Quick and the Dead (a likable but small Sam Raimi western). And Will Ferrell wasn’t opening movies before Elf.

But his point is otherwise sound. Will Smith was huge in the 90s (Independence Day, Bad Boys) and the 00s (Ali, I Am Legend). Nicholas Cage got movie posters all to himself in both decades. Ditto Johnny Depp; ditto Tom Hanks. And the reason that’s stayed true is obvious: they can reliably play the same character.

Except that’s not quite the case, is it?

Let’s look at Johnny Depp. In the early 90s, Depp was playing heartthrobs. He was either the pretty boy with a bad edge (Cry-Baby) or he was the handsome outsider (Benny and Joon; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). Either way, he was getting by on looks. Then, in the mid-90s, Depp started playing more eccentric characters (Dead Man, Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). In the early 00s, Depp took on roles of cocky authority: a CIA agent in Once Upon A Time in Mexico, a legendary pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean, a police inspector in From Hell, America’s earliest cocaine dealer in Blow, etc. While none of these are a radical shift from the prior category, you can see how they’ve evolved. Imagine the soft-hearted juvenile delinquent Cry-Baby as a CIA agent ten years later.

Johnny Depp has stayed a star for the last twenty years, but not by being the same person.


I would not be intimidated by this man.

Consider also Will Smith. Smith started out as the smart-aleck kid, or roles where being smart-aleck and young would work to his advantage: a Bel Air teenager, a maverick Miami cop, a fighter pilot. He has since matured to take on more dependable roles: a date doctor, the last scientist in New York after a vampirizing virus, a father struggling to provide for his son. It makes sense that Smith would try more grounded roles as he got older, but it didn’t have to work out that way. Rob Schneider certainly hasn’t tried to get any more grounded, and we’ve grown tired of his schtick as a result. But Smith has changed and we keep rediscovering him.

So in order to retain your place in the spotlight, you need to reinvent yourself. That seems obvious enough. But how often do you need to reinvent yourself? How long can you stay a star before you need to become someone new?

Fortunately, that question has already been answered: three years. You can be a star for three years.

18 Comments on “Tiger Woods and the Iron Law of Stardom”

  1. Phanatic #

    “that a celebrity is someone who’d get recognized in a restaurant, but a star is someone who’d get talked about in a restaurant.”

    By this definition, Michael Jackson was a star during the years 1982-2009. I know you said not to do this, but he’s a clear counterexample.


  2. perich OTI Staff #

    @Phanatic: Michael Jackson underwent several reinventions. Plus, the restaurant example is meant to be illustrative, not definitive. My friends and I could talk about Uma Thurman at lunch tomorrow, but I’m going to play the You Know What I Meant card.


  3. pFranks #

    if we are going to ignore the “don’t waste your time” (i mean, this is Overthinking It, not Acept it as fact and live with It, it’s only right), i’d say a better counterexample would be the Rolling Stones, from Satisfaction in 1965, to around Sticky Fingers in 1971-72, hit after hit, being more or less the same guys. But, yeah, they are not the rule, just the exception, and it’s pretty hard to find others

    also, about the “name Clooney’s girl” example, that’s less about him not being that much of a star, and more about him not having high profile relationships (appart from that pig he used to have). I mean, can you name ANY girl he used to date?
    a better example is Ben Affleck. Bennifer was huge, but now? is he still with that Alias chick? didn’t they broke up like a couple years ago? did i dream that or am i thinking about someone else?


  4. Sylvia #

    @pFranks: If you’re really curious, Ben Affleck is still married to that Alias chick and makes videos about sleeping with Jimmy Kimmel.


  5. Darin #

    After reading of the Iron Law of Stardom, all I could think about was Steve Guttenberg. In the three years of 1985,1986, and 1987 he debuted/starred in 11 movies. Quantity does not make him a star, but there sure was some bleedover between fame and stardom in those years. Now, I know him from that youtube video of him doing his daily jog in his birthday suit.


  6. perich OTI Staff #

    @pFranks: You’ve got the right idea. Long-time readers will Overthink my pronouncements on “iron laws” and look for counter-examples anyway, which is as it should be. I’m just saying you can save yourself the effort. :D


  7. Jon Eric #

    “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” -Bob Dylan


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @John – Very interesting stuff! I suspect we’re both sort of right. I’m pretty sure that movies aren’t nearly as driven by star power as they once were, and that this may change the way stars are created over the long term. At the same time, you made me reconsider some of my arguments. For instance, I cite the most recent Ulmer Scale as evidence that Hollywood isn’t creating new stars. But after reading your piece, I dug up an Ulmer Scale from 1997. Here are the top 16…
    Tom Cruise
    Mel Gibson
    Tom Hanks
    Arnold Schwarzenegger
    Harrison Ford
    John Travolta
    Clint Eastwood
    Brad Pitt
    Kevin Costner
    Jim Carrey
    Robin Williams
    Sylvester Stallone
    Bruce Willis
    Michael Douglas
    Sean Connery
    Jack Nicholson

    The only name on that list that emerged in the 1990s is Jim Carrey. (IDEA FOR FUTURE OVERTHINKING IT POST: Why is it that comedians can attain superstardom much much faster than dramatic actors?) So yeah, the Ulmer Scale has ALWAYS seemed ten years out of date – that’s not a recent development.

    But I’m not sure I’m sold on the Iron Law of Stardom. It seems too convenient that you can explain people who stay famous for years by saying that they constantly reinvent themselves. Obviously celebrities go through phases and change in the public eye; young Britney Spears is a lot different than Britney Federline-Spears. But it seems like a force to argue that Britney actually went through two consecutive stretches of fame. She just GREW UP while famous – that’s part of being a celebrity.

    And I’m not buying the Clooney’s girl thought experiment. Quick, who is Johnny Depp with? Matt Damon (hint: it’s not Sarah Silverman)? Some stars don’t have high profile relationships, but it doesn’t mean they’re not stars.


  9. Jonh INgham #

    Answer: Johnny Depp is married to Vanessa Paradis. (She’s a French film star.) He has been for years.

    While the ‘reinventing’ angle is convenient, in many cases it also seems like a bluff. David Bowie – 1972 – 85/86, and don’t say he reinvented himself every 3 years – he was way faster than that! That was his whole schtick. Marlon Brando hung in there at least ten years after ‘Streetcar’ before he finally stabbed that fame monster to death. Kirk Douglas? Arnie? Sly? You could reliably argue that Sly had to de-invent himself to be a star again. Poor Sly, we only wanted to see him as a boxer.


  10. perich OTI Staff #

    @Matthew and @Jonh:

    Menand, in his original article, draws a distinction between a celebrity whom we still obsess over and a celebrity who’s still famous because they hearken back to that image. Scarlett Johansson’s still famous, for instance – Iron Man 2, anyone? – but she’s not in the tabloid press as much as she was at her peak.

    There is a distinction (albeit one I’m having trouble articulating) between someone who can stay famous for ten years and someone who’s an “It Girl.” Nobody maintains that level of all-consuming media fascination for longer than three years, four tops. Where absolutely everything they do, no matter how trivial, is the subject of news.

    Megan Fox is currently near the tail-end of that cycle for her; she’s still hugely famous, but the obsession is waning. Robert Pattinson is probably at the peak of his cycle. Lady Gaga is near the beginning of hers. And Colin Farrell’s is over.

    (A good test for whether a female celebrity is at the height of her “star cycle” is if people speculate on whether she has a “baby bump” or not. I don’t know if there’s a male equivalent)


  11. Lisa #

    “And if you’re already tired of hearing about Tiger Woods? Relax. This’ll only last for three years.”

    Three whole years? *sob*

    Interesting point of view. I wonder if this is somehow related to the teen-driven nature of much star-power? Junior high, high school, and college were all in the 3-4 year range for me. Each period was a set length, and I definitely grew and changed, but I was always looking forward to the next big thing. Is the 3-years thing purely an American phenomenon, or a Western thing, or is it world-wide?

    I remember being in Russian in 1997 and talking to some kids who were obsessed with Michael Jackson. He seemed to have some fame there, where all the attention he got in the US was for accusations of pedophilia. I would say clearly they were on a different celebrity list, but did his popularity last that long?

    Does the have an impact on how long we’ll watch a TV show? NCIS only started getting really popular in the last few years, despite how long it’s actually been on the air. Will it last through the burst of the popularity bubble, or will it be smart and leave on a high note?

    I tend to be a bit slow in picking up trends. I will be so sick of a song played constantly on the radio, and just when I finally start to think it might have some merits, it goes off the air. I seem to be behind the curve on who the hottest star is, even. My friends were drooling over Hugh Jackman for at least a year before I saw him in something that made me weak at the knees.

    I would try and overthink this some more, but my office is too darned hot right now.


  12. Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News #

    Perich, I think you’re dead-on with the three year “it” girl/guy shelf life, but I also think Belinkie has a point that a great number of the recent movie stars’, well, stars, have burned out. I think one could look at it as, oh you’re famous? Well then, here are your three free years, do with them what you will. And after three years’ time, only one thing can allow you to stay:


    Acting is a craft, and no matter how they achieve their fame, whether it be looks (Brad Pitt) or a timely marriage with special effects (Gerard Butler), actors must actually learn their trade in order for us to accept them past the initial welcome. Call it reinvention, or just call it what it is: getting good.

    Examples of those who flamed out: Jennifer Lopez, Colin Farrell, Steve Guttenberg, et cetera.

    Of those people, how many can you say were actually really good actors? Colin Farrell is passable, but passable doesn’t earn passage to eternal fame.

    Those who are flaming: Shia Lebouf, Gerard Butler, Megan Fox, Robert Pattinson.

    How many of these are actually _good_ actors?
    Again, Shia is passable, and he’s got a great range (great range = playing same quirky teenager with hidden confidence in every movie), but that won’t be enough.

    So who HAS enjoyed some fame recently and then said, “You know what? I think I’m going to learn how to do this, like for real”: Christian Bale. American Psycho, Equilibrium, and Dragon-whatever came and went, and then came The Machinist and Batman Begins, leading of course to The Dark Knight. Terminator is forgivable, since–as Belinkie noted–true stars survive bombs (though I’m sure T:S made money).

    I think the internet age has ramped up celebrity-power (read not star-power) for now, and we’ll read Kim Kardashian’s tweets or whatever for a while…maybe three years? But eventually things will come back around, and folks will tire of crap, and schlock, and a new stable of true talent will emerge that will knock our socks off, I’m sure of it. I think the pretty faces may die out though, and whoever mentioned comedians might be onto something (Ricky Gervais, Patton Oswald in Big Fan, even Zack Galifankis in Into the Wild), since they make themselves famous typically despite good looks (that talent thing again).

    I think the same sentiments were said of writing–old fogey authors have feared that they are a dying breed and that OMG LOL bloggers will take over and reduce literature to goo. But really it’s only (in my opinion) separated the greats from the rest, as we’re exposed to so much more mediocrity all day, it takes someone special to break through to us. (I don’t know why, but I can only think of fan fiction as an example, versus, say Neil Gaiman)

    So fear not. Like Perich said, they’re out there. They’re lurking in small theatre, on the CW, or doing standup in some smokey auditorium, but the sun will shine on Hollywood once more, and we’ll have more multi-billionaires available for nonsensical worship once again.


  13. Lara #

    “Nobody maintains that level of all-consuming media fascination for longer than three years, four tops. Where absolutely everything they do, no matter how trivial, is the subject of news.”

    How about Princess Di? Not a movie star, sure, but according to the New Yorker article; “The law governs every type of human endeavor, including politics and literature.”

    I’m certain that magazines were obsessing over Princess Di for a lot longer than 3 years in a row. Maybe not though, but it certainly felt like something that had been going on for my entire life when she died… and there are certainly other royal families around the world that are famous in a more lasting way than movie stars, with no need to reinvent themselves significantly. The monarchy of Thailand perhaps?


  14. Valatan #

    What about the old-style studio system stars? Jimmy Stewart pretty much played the same character in movie after movie for 20 years. Sinatra pretty much stayed a flashpoint of obsession, and at least until he came back in the movies, he just kind of stayed true to that slickster image.

    Now, you might argue that media bombardment has shortened timeframes today. And I don’t know much about the actual media obesessions back in the day, beyond just who is a recognizable name today, and how many movies they were in back then. But I wonder whether or not this rule applies before 1960.


  15. Valatan #


    Princess DI reinvented herself a few times, though. First there was the ‘storybook bride’ thing, then she was the ‘huge charity advocate.’ Then she was the ‘adultery/divorce victim’, and then there was the whole paparazzi controversy.


  16. Carlos #


    Have you done any number crunching, like Google hits or the like? That might be a neat way to quantify your arguments.


  17. DN #

    I think your point is being made over again by the attempts at counterexamples. Yes, staying power is nice and good, but the ‘it’ girl/boy phenomenon is palpable, if not definable.

    Michael Jackson: nevermind remaking himself, it wasn’t necessary. There are two phases: Young Mike, Thriller Mike. Everything else–everything–past Thriller hearkens back to one period or another. Even the ‘Mike becomes infamous by horrible accusations’ period had to be framed in terms of his past career. There was very little “Why did it have to happen now?” about it all. He was an established star, but not ‘it’.

    What we’re talking about here is in part the law of diminishing returns, and another part the fact that stardom/superstardom/it-ness has not a ton to do with talent, but with popular obsession.


  18. Tim #

    It’s an interesting post but I think because everyone defines “stardom” differently they all perhaps find this rather unpalletable. I mean I personally do not remember a time when I would have considered Tiger Woods a “star” but I definitely know him as famous…his fame doesn’t seem to have fluctuated, at least from my perspective, possibly because I’m more interested in movies than sport. Whereas, say, Tom Cruise (in my subjective experience) has been a star for well over a decade and he is still one of those names people talk about.

    Just a suggestion, but if we changed the words “star” or “it boy/girl” to “Flavour of the month” that might make it a little bit more universal. I think while most people define stardom differently, the phrase “flavour of the month” conjures up what you’r describing better. I definitely remember a time when Ricky Gervais for instance was flavour of the month here in Britian and it did indeed last about three years. He’s still famous and definitely still what I would call “a star” but he’s no longer flavour of the month.

    Although admittedly most people will probably define “flavour of the month” differently. I think the problem comes from using a very objective measure (the timespan of three years) to measure something subjective (stardom) it can cause confusion?

    Also, on a different point, some stars I think do not necessarily reinvent themselves, but are instead reinvented by the media and by the people interested in them.


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