Stars bring unlikely audiences to arthouse pics

Tue Sep 16, 2008 12:51am EDT
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By Steven Zeitchik

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - In the early days of the Toronto International Film Festival, it was not uncommon to be stopped by groups of teenage girls asking whether you had seen -- or perhaps, blessing of blessings, knew the whereabouts of -- one Zac Efron, in town to support the premiere of his as-yet-unsold movie "Me and Orson Welles."

Some didn't even mention Efron by name, as though to do so would be to jinx the whole quest. They just held up celebrity magazines that carried his picture and asked "Do you know where he is?" with the dead-serious inquisitiveness of a P.I. trying to locate a missing suspect. When the answer came back no, the teenagers would say they remained hopeful because they'd scored tickets to the premiere.

Few stories, it would seem, would illustrate so well how the power of celebrity can broaden an audience. "Orson Welles," a theater-themed, banter-filled dramedy set in the 1930s world of New York intellectuals, typically would not be considered a preferred way for teenage girls to spend a Friday night. But put the "High School Musical" heartthrob in the film, and suddenly its premiere is the Beatles coming to America.

Efron's presence was one of several star crossovers at Toronto. One of the festival's biggest conversation pieces was "Easy Virtue," a British comedy of manners set just after World War I. It's a pleasant, verbally dexterous movie starring Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and . . . Jessica Biel? The actress who made her name on WB Network's "7th Heaven" -- and whose recent media citations have included FHM's "100 Sexiest Women" and VH1's "100 Hottest Hotties" -- does her best Rosalind Russell slinking around an estate that's clinging desperately to fading Victorian standards.

Biel didn't inspire Efron's squealing hordes. But her turn clearly is meant to attract a young male audience more likely to see "The House Bunny" than an update of a Noel Coward play.

Even documentaries got in on the act. A screening of Adria Petty's "Paris, Not France" was filled with packs of teenagers giggling through the exploration of and apologia for the partying ways of Paris Hilton.

Of course, Hollywood is based on reinvention, and celebs have the historical precedent to seek out these film roles. And younger stars are in a particularly tough spot: They want to push their career forward with more complex roles but must do so in a world where "Access Hollywood" and OK! magazine are working harder than ever to define their off-screen personas.

The problem, though, is that these performances didn't work. Nevermind that Efron and Biel were the weak links among their respective casts. The real issue is that their presence actually distracted from the film. A teen idol like Efron might hope to change our perception of him by sinking into a challenging role. But the effect on moviegoers is the opposite: It only reminds us that the character we're watching is not the stage ingenue of the film's fictional world but the star of "HSM."   Continued...

<p>Actor Zac Efron arrives on the red carpet at the 2008 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, California July 16, 2008. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok</p>