The veteran action star's newest film is the latest in a string of duds. How did this happen?
Gerard Butler is a terrible actor. I’m not saying this to be facetious, or as a precursor to presenting redeemable qualities that justify his continued presence in blockbusters. With a career spanning almost two decades, his performances have been as riveting as watching paint dry, with neither the charm nor wit to make them tolerable. Critics have consistently panned his acting chops, so why do film executives continue funneling millions into projects that have been proven to be critical failures and, at times, financial quicksand?
The bankability of the leading man has always been both predictable and capricious. Hollywood was built in the image of Clark Gable and John Wayne, and when obvious masculinity was swapped for quiet intelligence, Montgomery Clift became the actor of choice. As audiences started clamoring for something a bit more daring, James Dean made a fleeting yet memorably rebellious appearance, and Marlon Brando carried the cause that Dean never had the chance to truly explore.
Throughout the years, we have seen different versions of these actors picking up the mantle of a desirable lead: white, able-bodied, and physically fit heroes. To be a white leading man in Hollywood is to face expectations that everything you possess gets the Midas Touch—and yet Butler’s entire career stands opposite to this theory.
His latest film, Geostorm, cost an estimated $120 million dollars; according to The Wrap it looks set to lose over $100 million. According to A.O. Scott of The New York Times, when it comes to Butler’s acting, ”Consistency is his chief and perhaps his only virtue as an actor.” Indeed, sit through a Butler film and the two defining factors will be consistent mediocrity and implausibility. Anyone remember Gods of Egypt ? Many films rely on a suspension of disbelief, but Gods of Egypt featured a whitewashed cast and insisted on forcing viewers to sit through over two hours of Butler playing an Egyptian God. The film's budget was $140 million, and it barely broke even at a paltry $150 million.
Butler’s onscreen debut was in the British drama film Mrs. Brown, but his first foray into the leading man big-leagues was in the thriller-action film Dracula 2000—a breakthrough that wasn’t as titillating as Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, as contentious as Denzel Washington in Carbon Copy, or as captivating as Russell Means in The Last of the Mohicans.
Dracula 2000 bombed at the box office, failing to surpass its $54 million budget, and critical reaction toward Butler's performance as the Count foreshadowed the lukewarm reception his acting would receive throughout his career. Writing for Variety, Joe Leydon said, “Gerard Butler’s Dracula seems more like a peevish male model than a true prince of darkness”; Scott Brake at IGN.com called him “an amazingly uncharismatic Dracula.”
Four years later, Butler took on another well-known tortured soul in his role as the scarred and lovelorn Phantom in the onscreen adaptation of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The film was praised for its visuals and acting (particularly actress Emmy Rossum), but once again Butler failed to truly impress. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw said, “At least hidden mostly behind the mask, [Butler] can now try pretending he wasn’t in it.”
Throughout his career, Butler has largely remained in the action-adventure/thriller niche, churning out films such as 300, Olympus Has Fallen, Reign of Fire and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. What they lacked in substance, character development, and intelligent dialogue was made obsolete by the box-office dividends that come from the sheer viewing spectacle of CGI effects that require no thespian finesse. The few times Butler has tried to rely on his own charm—smaller-budget films like Playing for Keeps, P.S. I Love You, and A Family Man—has resulted in many critics criticizing his performances as uninspiring, dull, or unlikeable. A Family Man, in particular, made a domestic total of $0.
Butler has constantly offered sub-par work that has garnered him a level of financial security and fame, ensconced in the uncompromising safety of whiteness and male privilege. No person of color can afford to make a film that flops while hoping to be offered a place in a $100 million extravaganza. Artists of color are rarely given room to fail, but Butler has forged an entire career from being the guy who is usually bad and, at best, adequate.
Despite all of this, as well as Geostorm’s pitiful box-office performance, he has two more upcoming films in the pipeline: Hunter Killer and Den of Thieves, with the latter set for an early 2018 release. Even if they fail to garner favor with critics and come up empty on the awards circuit, chances are high that Butler will never find himself needing to fight for a seat at the table. Ultimately, white men are allowed to publicly fail while still emerging victorious.
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