Last night on Twitter, Peter Suderman noted that “It’s actually kind of mysterious that [Guy] Pearce didn’t become huge after LA Confidential and Memento” after claiming that “It’s a damn shame that Guy Pearce isn’t a bigger star.” I happen to agree with his second Tweet—Pearce is usually the best part of anything he’s in—but I don’t think there’s any real mystery about the first.
Let’s compare Pearce’s and fellow Australian Russell Crowe’s careers, which intersected at LA Confidential. After that film—which was nominated for a raft of Oscars (including best picture) and grossed a respectable $64 million (not bad for a R-rated neo-noir)—Crowe followed up with an Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider (1999), Michael Mann’s epic look at the shenanigans during the congressional tobacco hearings of the early ’90s, and Gladiator (2000), for which he won an Oscar. Both were critical and commercial smashes; he was trending upwards and able to avoid taking any real fire over Proof of Life (2000), his first real stumble post-L.A. Confidential.* He followed up this string of hits with a pair of excellent, big budget prestige features: A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Master and Commander (2003), nabbing another Oscar nom for the former and getting shafted out of one for the latter.
It’s fair to say that his career has been somewhat uneven since then, but that seven year run between L.A. Confidential and Master and Commander firmly entrenched him in Hollywood’s A-list: He’s proven that he’s one of the few actors in the game who can a.) carry a picture pretty much all on his own, and b.) is a constant threat to turn in an Oscar-worthy performance. Audiences and critics alike love him because he’s made good career choices and avoided paycheck-driven missteps.
Contrast that to Pearce, whose post-L.A. Confidential career has been far more uneven. Yes, he was in Memento. Like Peter, I love the picture, but it’s one that didn’t exactly blow the doors off the box office at $25 million** or rack up Oscar nominations—in other words, it didn’t show that he could carry a picture over the finish line. What did he follow up Memento with? The Time Machine and The Count of MOnte Cristo, both in 2002. Yikes. Bombs, critically and financially, both of them. Hollywood wouldn’t touch him for a big picture after that; fair or not, he was deemed box office poison. This isn’t to say he went hungry; he has turned in good work in several features since then, including in Factory Girl, Traitor, and, briefly, The Hurt Locker. He wasn’t bad in Mildred Pierce, either. We’ll see if his latest, Lockout—described as Die Hard in space—can put him back in sniffing distance of the stardom he deserves.
The lesson, if there is one, is that talent only takes you so far—deciding what kind of work you do is just as important as how well you do it. We’ve all got to get paid, but chasing paychecks isn’t a surefire path to success.
*For the record, I think Proof of Life is a little underrated, but that’s a blog post for another day.
**Not bad for its budget, which was only $9M, but still.