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Celebrity hype: A numbers game that doesn’t add up

Hollywood studios make movies and, perhaps more importantly, they create hype. Often, it's disguised in the form of business stories. Most recently, there was a widely printed news story announcing that, in its 79{+t}{+h} poll of motion-picture exhibitors, the Quigley Publishing Company discovered that, despite its critical mauling, The Tourist "helped make Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie the biggest movie stars of the year."

This rating, we were informed, was "a good indicator of a star's real box-office draw."

Or, perhaps, it was simply proof that distributors are as gullible as the rest of us when it comes to celebrity hype. Sure, Johnny Depp starred in Alice in Wonderland, a movie that earned just over a billion dollars worldwide, while The Tourist, though generally reported as a flop, added another $162-million to his pile. But really, Johnny's no Sam Worthington. Remember Avatar? That movie earned about $1.7-billion of its $2.7-billion total in 2010, and Worthington also starred in Clash of the Titans (another $493-million worldwide), which would put the Aussie star easily in the lead.

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As for the top-drawing actress, Jolie gets credit for the same $162-million for The Tourist and another $294-million for her action film, Salt, for a total of $456-million. But again, what about Avatar in 2010? Credit Zoe Saldana with $1.7-billion, as well as her three other movies ($68-million for Takers, $49.1-million for Death at a Funeral, and another $29.4-million for The Losers) and she's solidly ahead. But all of them are clobbered by Helena Bonham Carter, who gets the same billion as Johnny for Alice in Wonderland, as well as another $900-million and change for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. Not to mention another $52-million for The King's Speech.

Arguably, I'm misinterpreting the report. People don't go to movies just to see Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana or Helena Bonham Carter, the way they do celebrities who appear regularly on magazine covers. But using a term like "box-office draw" is unprovable. Lining up actors according to the amount of money their movies have earned produces some unexpected results.

A couple of months ago, when David Letterman introduced Bruce Willis on his show to promote the action-comedy movie Reds, the talk-show host declared in apparent amazement that Willis had earned "more than $1.5-billion at the box office." But Letterman's researchers seriously low-balled Willis's impact. Counting Willis's credited roles in 49 movies, his total box office is in the $5.7-billion range. (All figures are from the movie sites, Box Office Mojo and The When you include Willis's many cameos and bit parts, the box-office total is about $6.7-billion, and he isn't even at the top of the box-office heap.

Ranking all actors according to total box office of movies they have been in, some surprising names pop up: Frank Welker: ($11.1-billion); Samuel L. Jackson ($9.4-billion); Tom Hanks ($9.1-billion); John Ratzenberger ($7.9-billion); Jack Angel ($7.6-billion); Eddie Murphy ($6.9-billion); Tom Cruise ($6.8-billion); Maggie Smith ($6.7-billion), Bruce Willis ($6.7-billion) and Harrison Ford ($6.6-billion).

Those surprise names – Welker, Angel, Ratzenberger – are all voice actors. Ratzenberger, the former Cheers star, is a fixture in Pixar films ( Toy Story, Wall-E, Cars, Ratatouille, Up). Both Frank Welker ( Alice in Wonderland, the Transformers movies) and Jack Angel ( Toy Story movies) have names who appear repeatedly in the animated and digitalized movies that regularly clobber the box office. Welker also appeared as a live actor, as Matt Damon's dad in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! – perhaps an in-joke about his anonymity.

If we insist on using arbitrary numbers to establish the importance of movie stars, why not at least have fun with it? The No. 1 star for math geeks, for example? That would be Black Swan's Natalie Portman, with her enticing Erdos–Bacon number of six.

The Erdos-Bacon number is a tongue-in-cheek math joke, dealing with the overlap between two different worlds – film actors with film connections to Kevin Bacon (their Bacon number) and mathematicians in collaborative chains that link to the late, prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos (their Erdos number). The designation was proposed after mathematician Daniel Kleitman, who collaborated on a paper with Erdos, appeared as an extra in the film Good Will Hunting (which included Minnie Driver, who acted with Kevin Bacon in Sleepers), giving Kleitman an Erdos-Bacon score of three.

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Portman's Erdos number of five came from collaborating with another student on a psychology paper while at Harvard; her Bacon number of one came from working with the actor in the portmanteau film, New York, I Love You (though Kevin Bacon's segment was cut from the final film). Natalie Portman doesn't have the lowest Erdos-Bacon number out there, but like Angelina and Johnny in the box-office game, she's the best magazine-cover candidate. And frankly, how many mathematicians can do a decent pirouette?

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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