The Six-Million Dollar Men

Each of the movie stars named here earns at least $6 million every time he (that's right he) makes a picture. Considering that almost every one of these stars has one or more resounding bombs to his name, it makes perfect sense to ask--and we are not the first to do so--are these guys worth it?

There are two easy answers to that question. The first is: No, of course not, no one is, especially because nobody in the entertainment industry knows which movies will succeed and which will fail, regardless of who's in them. (Everyone modestly admits this in public while secretly believing the opposite in front of their own mirrors.) The second answer is: Yes, absolutely -- anyone whose agent is able to cut a $6 million-plus deal is, by definition, worth it. (There are no values on earth as relative as the values in Hollywood.) Now for the more difficult answers to the question of who among a bunch of good-looking and not-so-good-looking, talented and not-so-talented, young and not-so-young guys is worth $6 million-plus per picture. For the soberest possible perspective, suppose it's your $6 million-plus. Here are some helpful hints for figuring out whom you should shell out for, and whom you should leave to the next Carolco.

WARREN BEATTY

It's just one of Hollywood's little ironies that a star who built a reputation on being publicity-shy guarantees publicity for any film he appears in. Truth is, whether granting interviews or not granting interviews, Warren Beatty works the PR machinery like no one else. (Of course, not everyone wants to be bothered with the time-consuming fuss of having scandal-sheet romances with the co-stars of their current films, let alone marrying one of them.) The staggering amount of publicity that Beatty generated for his last three films alone (Ishtar, Dick Tracy, Bugsy) raises, however, the inevitable question of whether publicity sells movie tickets. Tracy, for which Beatty got $9 million, was passed off as a modest success (at least, till the Katzenberg memo suggested otherwise), but Ishtar was a notorious disaster and Bugsy was a box-office disappointment. Put this all together with Beatty's reputation for perfectionism and procrastination, and one comes to the conclusion that no, he's not worth the money he gets paid. Given his strong performance in Bugsy, there's always the chance he'll bring home the bacon big-time again-- but it's becoming more of a long shot with every passing film and year. I want to see his next movie, I just don't want to bankroll it.

STEVEN SEAGAL

Okay, okay, so Mike Ovitz created this guy one night during one of L.A.'s rare electrical storms. All movie stars have weird seams beneath their makeup. Fact is, if I had to put my money on any movie star, it would be on this totem pole of an actor. That's because no matter how much Seagal himself gets paid for gems like Hard to Kill, Marked for Death and Out for Justice (and that's up to $10 million, depending on what kind of percentage he's taking with his salary), the fact is, he's the only item in these films that costs over $10. And these dreadful pictures do make a bundle. They perform respectably well at home, incredibly well in all those other countries we're supposed to believe are culturally superior to ours, and do great on cable and video. Whatever you want, Steve babe. Just don't act.

BILL MURRAY

A classic case, alas, of the silly comic who damages his own career whenever his serious side arises. No, I'm not beating that dead horse The Razor's Edge, I'm talking about Scrooged, for which he was paid $8 million. Murray's insistence on wearing his sentimentality on his sleeve ruined the finale and single-handedly killed off that film's considerable chances for good word-of-mouth. But is Murray worth what he gets even when cast to zany perfection, as he was playing the loveable pathetic creature in last year's What About Bob? No. His inflated salary was a major factor in keeping that modest little flick from becoming the big profit-turner it ought to have been (it only brought in $64 million). Murray would be better off returning to the kind of deal he struck for Ghostbusters II: a low wage up-front, then--get this--15 percent of every dollar of revenue. (Even though it failed in the U.S. to be the $200 million hit the studio hoped for, at $112 million it still made money for Murray.) The problem is, even this strategy doesn't always work: Murray cut a similar deal to make his directorial debut, Quick Change (it had the insurance of also starring him), but that $18 million comedy only brought in a scant $15 million in the U.S., raising the question of whether he can "open" a film at all anymore.

MEL GIBSON

You can't really argue with Mel Gibson's career since he's making a bundle and you're not. But it's a pity his success with the Lethal Weapon movies (the second made over twice what the first did), following on the success of his Mad Max series, has created a schizoid situation in which we get to see him either as the best-looking guy who ever did Three Stooges shtick or as Hamlet (easy to understand why he needed to do it, and he had his moments, but come on). Not only is it a waste, but it makes him very hard to price when he's not sharing the screen with Danny Glover. Since Lethal Weapon 2, Gibson's reportedly been getting as much as $10 million a picture, plus a percentage, up from $4 million after the first Lethal Weapon. Fine, he is worth it for those movies, and an actor as good as Gibson should be paid a lot for making mindless stuff like this, since he himself is paying a price for not building a broader career like Costner's or even Ford's. The question is, what should he be paid when he's not in Lethal Weapon? The answer, if you look at the other movies on his resume, seems to be: not much. Bird on a Wire was just another Lethal Weapon with a much lower I.Q. (which hardly seems possible), so its $70 million take doesn't tell us much. Tequila Sunrise should have done better than $41 million if Mel is to be worth $10 million in a smart, serious film. Air America, at $31 million, is a warning flag that Mel can't save a movie the way a high-paid star must. Both Hollywood and Mel would be better off if Mel accepted $5 million or $6 million and a percentage for strong, adult dramatic material, and weaned himself away from the steady action diet. Since he doesn't practice birth control, a Lethal Weapon here or there is probably necessary to keep him in Pampers. Fine. But where are the pictures that will set him up as the next Sean Connery as he ages? Perhaps the upcoming The Rest of Daniel is a step in the right direction.

EDDIE MURPHY

It really is tough being one of the biggest box-office draws in movie history, and not just because few have ever managed to stay up there for long. The box-office bust of the Murphy-directed The Sting knockoff Harlem Nights, followed by the surprisingly so-so showing for Walter Hill's Another 48 HRS., put the comic into such an extended funk it looked like he might never film again-- while, all around him, a new generation of black filmmakers and comics were coming up fast and garnering the media attention that was once exclusively his. As Murphy returns to movies this year, the question becomes: Is he still worth the money he commands--$12 million plus a percentage? If you've ever had to cater to his outsized, impossible-to-please ego, the insider's word is a definite no on anything that doesn't soar well over $100 million. (Yes, certain stars can tax studios in ways that rival the dollar drain.) If you've got Murphy in tow for one of his "tent-pole" movies--say, Beverly Hills Cop III --the answer is a guarded yes (guarded because "tent-pole" Another 48 HRS. pulled in only $81 million). And if you have him in this summer's Boomerang? You'd better be cash-rich and a gamblin' man.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS

There was only one reason to pay Michael Douglas $14 million for Basic Instinct. He wouldn't do it for any less, and a lot of other big names reportedly wouldn't do it for anything. Even Michael Douglas, who is, after all, a very sharp producer, knows Michael Douglas is not worth this kind of money. When you pay a star ridiculous sums you expect him to rise above rank material when necessary and maximize minimal box office; Douglas chooses his material with savvy (if not taste), but never rises above it, as the unappealing Black Rain and megaton Shining Through demonstrate. Douglas's successful on-screen persona is a basically okay guy undermined by foibles, edges and meanness that audiences gleefully and/or ruefully identify with. And when he plays up his vices--greed in Wall Street and The War of the Roses, lust in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct --he's very good. But this is not the stuff of $14 million salaries, or for that matter, $7 million salaries. As good as Douglas is, there's hardly a film you can point to where one or another big star wouldn't be just as good or better in the same part. He deserves to be in the $4 million to $6 million range with a nice percentage as a reward for choosing the right roles for himself.

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