Imagine a young Marlon Brando starring alongside Johnny Depp, or Audrey Hepburn playing rival to Sandra Bullock as Marilyn Monroe stops by for a catty cameo.
Depending on how you look at it, this is either tantalizing ‘fantasy film making’ or else an utterly horrible, cash-in exercise in Hollywood excess. Whatever your viewpoint, it does seem likely that someone, somewhere will try this in the near future.
About three years ago, the news broke that George Lucas, the genius behind the ‘Star Wars’ merchandise (and a couple of related movies), was buying up the likeness rights to a plethora of iconic, yet deceased, leading men and famous actresses from Hollywood’s golden age. His plan? To use a concoction of existing footage, CGI and motion capture to create reasonable facsimiles of classic Hollywood stars and have them appear in future films, despite the notable handicap of being, well, dead.
Initially, it was just for one project, but it raised the prospect of other films being made, as well as a number of interesting philosophical issues.
The majority of critics reacted negatively to the notion of these ‘Franken-films’, some saying that the magic of an individual acting performance would be notably absent in the films, others upset that the actors themselves could potentially ‘star’ in projects that they may not have supported in life.
It really must be said, however, that blockbuster movies like 2009’s ‘Avatar’ and 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ already received plaudits for their use of motion capture techniques and CGI ‘acting’. It is an accepted part of modern cinema, like it or not.
Lest we forget, George Lucas’ own ‘Star Wars’ films also featured a number of purely CG characters. In our era, we are becoming very used to CG characters; even CG versions of real actors are commonplace. It really isn’t a huge leap of imagination (or available technology) to foresee deceased stars headlining blockbusters once again.
We are also living in a world that specializes in the glorification of deceased idols and recycled imagery (take a look at this month’s music magazines and count how many times you see Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or other dead stars on the covers). Look at the movie magazines as they feature young DeNiro as Travis Bickle, or Ray Liotta as Henry Hill. We, as consumers, are being conditioned to expect our stars to be able to do anything we can imagine, including coming back from the dead.
Why we want it:
The question here, to at least some degree, is ‘do we want it?’ but for now, I’m going to be positive and assume that we do…
Bringing classic actors back to ‘life’ would be a daring and controversial decision and would inspire all kinds of debates. It would also, no doubt, stimulate the film industry by providing literally hundreds of thousands of new prospects, pairings and casting choices.
On the downside, it would probably create an updated version of the old Hollywood studio system that would likely prove to be a legal nightmare involving no small amount of heartache for the families of the stars being featured. It could also have the negative effect of holding down upcoming talent.
However, many Hollywood actors do what they do for a shot at immortality and this is, frankly, the closest that they are likely to get to that goal. It would not surprise me at all if ‘likeness rights’ contracts started containing an ‘after death’ clause that specified use of the actor’s image in posthumous film projects.
Culturally speaking, in a world where dead musicians like Hendrix and 2Pac routinely release albums and where popular music is dominated by the ‘sampling’ (and in some cases, outright theft) of other works, or where film texts constantly, almost obsessive-compulsively, reference each other (in what has become the intertextual equivalent of an M.C Escher drawing), rehashing the stars of the past seems like an obvious choice.
Dead icons could spice up Hollywood by adding controversy, class and bankability to the summer’s contrived blockbuster selection. Plus, all their skeletons, secrets and shameful actions are already a matter of public record, so there’s no ill-timed revelatory ‘gossip’ that’s going to rear up and threaten the production.
Even those who oppose the making of such movies will still have to watch them in order to write the requisite bad reviews, this simply proves the old adage that controversy generates cash.
When can we expect it?
Oh snap, it already happened. In the year 2000, actor Oliver Reed sadly died during the filming of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’. In order for him to finish what would become his final role, the VFX team created a CG ‘mask’ of Reed’s face and used a body double to complete their film.
Remember that car advert with Steve McQueen? It has already begun.
Real, workable CGI stars are already a reality, but the technology does not yet exist to create a completely CG James Dean for a sequel to ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. I’d give it maybe 10-20 years before we start seeing the stars in respectful, tasteful cameo roles, or else old actors performing alongside their younger selves. After that, it’ll be 3-5 years before we see the screen idols like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Grace Kelly headlining movies again.
Cool factor 3/5 – It really depends on how these ‘stars’ are handled. The results could, potentially, be beautiful codas to a star’s career (which is how they could be sold to the audience), but they could also be horribly insulting, denigrating the work of great actors and actresses. Time is going to tell, as usual…
Tech We’d Like To See: The Dead Actor’s Studio