I was really rooting for 'Cowboys & Aliens.' I have no financial investment in the film and, frankly, I didn't even think it was that great (though I did seem to enjoy it more than most). If I'm honest, I guess I was ultimately rooting for Harrison Ford -- an actor for whom I and many of my fellow children born in the '70s feel an unnatural bond.
Ford was my first introduction to what it means to be a Movie Star. I could turn on the television for free and watch Erik Estrada on 'CHiPs,' but to see Ford I had to persuade my parents to drive me somewhere and pony up some hard-earned cash. Even at a young age, I knew the difference: It was special treat to see Ford as Han Solo or Indiana Jones on the big screen and, by God, I'd better appreciate the small amount of time I'm getting with him. Now that 'Cowboys & Aliens,' in just its second week of release, has already been labeled a flop -- Ford has had a lot of those in recent years -- I'm faced with a stark reality: Harrison Ford is no longer a Movie Star. And he hasn't been for a while. I'm not sure whether it says more about me or about him that it took me this long to come to that conclusion, but it makes me sad either way.
There is an entire generation for whom Harrison Ford represents childhood itself. On my grade-school playground, I was never cool enough to be Han Solo when we played "Star Wars" (a game that basically involved running around and pretending that you're in a spaceship), but that didn't mean I didn't beg and plead to play the role every single time. (The closest I ever came was being tapped to play Chewbacca – who, in my interpretation, spoke perfect English, for some reason). In those days, there was not a cooler man alive than Harrison Ford. As for today, I wonder: Is this how fans of John Wayne felt in the late '60s? Trying to convince an 'Easy Rider'-loving crowd that, no, back in the '40s, this guy really was the best.
Ford has never really been comfortable playing the role of Movie Star. His interviews are almost impossible to watch (he's gotten better, but not that much) and his disregard for the 'Star Wars' franchise is palpable. Ford never bulked up in an effort to compete with the action stars of the mid-80s. Possibly due to age -- by the time he filmed the third 'Star Wars' and the second 'Indiana Jones' films, he was already in his 40s -- Ford steered away from the kinds of adventure and sci-fi roles that made him famous (save for 1989's 'Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade'), instead seeking out more nuanced roles like John Book in 'Witness' (which earned him what remains his only Academy Award nomination) and as deranged father Allie Fox in the very underrated 'The Mosquito Coast.'
What is interesting here is that if we take away the three 'Star Wars' films and the four Indiana Jones films, Ford's resume doesn't look quite as impressive. Since 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was released, in 1981, Ford has starred in 23 (non 'Star Wars' or Indiana Jones) films, but only four of those films have grossed over $100 million: 'The Fugitive,' 'Clear and Present Danger,' 'Air Force One' and 'What Lies Beneath' (in which Ford plays a supporting role). And for the record: 'What Lies Beneath, the least old film on this list, came out 11 years ago. So, not counting the terrible but inevitably successful 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' Ford has not had anything resembling a hit since 2000. (For the record, 'Cowboys & Aliens' will probably nudge past the $100 million mark, but that's still a huge disappointment.) Since 'What Lies Beneath' (and not counting 'Crystal Skull') Ford's films have averaged a dismal $26 million. Yet, with every new film, I get that, "Hey, 'Firewall,' this looks like it could be good," level of anticipation, based solely on Ford's 12-year career arc from '77 to '89.
For as much as Ford tries to disassociate himself from Star Wars, it's clear that he cared when he was on set. Under Irvin Kershner's direction, Ford gave a tremendous performance in 'The Empire Strikes Back.' And anyone who read J.W. Rinzler's terrific 'The Making of The Empire Strikes Back' knows from the taped conversations between Ford and Kershner just how much Ford did care. (Ford's performance in 'Return of the Jedi'? That's another story.)
I did a series of lengthy interviews with 'Cowboys and Aliens' director Jon Favreau for Wired magazine and this very topic was brought up. "Well, he cares about his job," Favreau told me. "I mean, he takes his job seriously. He's not one of those 'Send me the paycheck, show me my mark'-kind of actor. He's a collaborator." Favreau continued, "He's able to take something that could be two-dimensional characters and make them memorable archetypes in our culture. Whether it's Indiana Jones or Han Solo or what he was able to do in films like 'Witness,' 'Mosquito Coast,' 'Working Girl' -- it transcends genre. But he always brings humanity. You think of his characters, even playing the president in 'Air Force One,' he makes him a real person. He's in some aspects very distant and standoffish ... but very human and very vulnerable. And that's a very compelling combination."
And that what stings about the failure of 'Cowboys & Aliens': Ford may not care about how he comes off in an interview, but, for the most part, he does seem to care about his performances. And Ford may not realize this, but 'Cowboys & Aliens' really was his last, best shot. The most recent film even Favreau mentions came out in 1997, and Ford is going to be 70 years old next year. Somewhat surprisingly, until now, Ford hadn't starred in a true sci-fi movie since 1983's 'Return of the Jedi.' I had really hoped 'Cowboys and Aliens' would be Ford's return to blockbuster movie-making. Instead, it was just wake-up call that, yes, the Movie Star idol of my youth is about to turn 70 -- which maybe just bothers me because that means I'm getting older, too.
I still hope that Ford has one last surge in him before he's done. Personally, I'd like to see him take on a supporting role and really nail it -- perhaps even earn that Academy Award that has eluded him for so long. Remember, John Wayne finally won his Oscar, for 'True Grit,' in 1969 -- neither lead from 'Easy Rider' was nominated.
Harrison Ford will always be my favorite actor, even though I can honestly say that he hasn't made a movie that I've really enjoyed since the 1990s. But the influence he had on me as a kid living in a small town in Missouri helped me realize that there was a world out there worth exploring as an adult. Ford's Solo and Jones were both reluctant heroes, just like Ford himself is a reluctant Movie Star. I just hope, for the sake of my childhood and those of many others like me, that Ford can put away his own reluctance to stretch himself as an actor and give us one last great performance -- the performance that his once-impressionable fans deserve.
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