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Jamie Foxx and the Redefinition of a Movie Star

Written by on May 1, 2014 

This is the first in a series of articles that will examine individual “movie stars” and the ever-changing mark they are making on both film and pop culture.

This weekend, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will swing into over 4,000 movie theaters, sporting top-notch special effects, intense brand recognition and one of the best cast of actors available. Among those actors is Jamie Foxx, a performer who’s never been easily definable as any one thing. When we think about Foxx, what do we think of? Or, perhaps, who is Jamie Foxx to us? Leading man? Oscar-winning actor? Comedian-turned-dramatic thespian-turned-musician?

Though he is the title character of the biggest hit of his career, it’s rather misleading. The name Jamie Foxx did not sell Django Unchained. The name Quentin Tarantino did. In point of fact, Foxx has never been much of a bankable main event when it comes to feature films. Over the last two decades, he’s evolved into an extremely accurate example of what it means to be a movie star in the Hollywood of today.

Foxx grew up in Texas and told jokes in front of crowds at a young age. Quick success as a stand-up comedian led to a prominent role in the seminal sketch comedy show “In Living Color,” a career move that would cement Foxx as an up-and-coming comedy actor. In 1996, the man got his own sit-com on the WB network, aptly titled “The Jamie Foxx Show.” The show ran until 2001 (and for 100 episodes), in which time Foxx went from bit player to leading man in film, anchoring one comedy flop (Help Up) and one modest success (Booty Call) before starring in Any Given Sunday, the film that would transition Foxx into the world of drama. Despite mixed reviews and mixed box office receipts, the film announced Foxx as a funny and charming performer with the capacity to anchor emotional arcs in big-time movies. The potential for the kind of stardom that makes money appeared on the horizon.

And yet, the beginning of the millennium found Foxx struggling to find his footing. The actor’s first film as a full-fledged leading man was the ill-advised Bait, a $50 million-budgeted action film directed by a pre-Training Day Antoine Fuqua, which found Foxx playing up the Eddie Murphy angle to nefarious results. The film grossed just over $15 million total and received very little positive attention. What followed Bait was an ensemble role in the little-seen crime caper Shade, which cost $10 million and made less than $500,000 in 2004, as well as a starring role in Breakin’ All The Rules, a Screen Gems picture that barely made its budget back. The one bright spot in the early aughts was 2001’s Ali, which featured Foxx as Muhammad Ali’s eccentric cornerman Bundini Brown, a supporting turn that earned him considerable praise. And though Foxx would go on to headline a handful of films over the next few years, it’s his performance in Ali that would serve as an indicator of where the man would find the majority of his success in the future.

Despite Shade and Breakin’ All The Rules, 2004 would emerge as the pinnacle year in Jamie Foxx’s acting career. August ‘04 brought Collateral and October ‘04 brought Ray, the former earning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod, the latter a Best Actor Oscar win. Only 11 actors have ever been nominated for two Academy Awards in the same year, and Mr. Foxx is one of them.

And yet, once again, it would be the supporting turn in the Michael Mann film (Mann also directed Ali) that would stand the test of time. Sure, he won for his Ray Charles performance (and also re-energized his music career), but it’s a film remembered more for its accolades than any iconic moments it produced. It’s his tit-for-tat turn opposite Tom Cruise that’s oft-remembered and quoted by movie snobs and movie fans alike.

In 2005, Foxx shrugged off Stealth, the infamous Rob Cohen bomb, and elevated Jarhead in a handsome bit of casting against type, both supporting performances. In 2006, he starred in the ill-fated remake of Miami Vice alongside fellow defunct lead prospect Colin Farrell, and took a supporting role in the musical movie hit Dreamgirls. It’s around this moment in time we see the actor begin to more readily embrace his emerging status as a well-liked, well-respected performer lacking in that star-making sheen that has become ever rarer.

Foxx served as part of a military ensemble team in the under-seen The Kingdom in 2007, then spent the majority of 2008 producing his third studio album IntuitionThe Soloist, a performance showcase for Foxx with a musical narrative at its core, was pushed from a cushy, Oscar-favoring November 2008 release date to early 2009, resulting in dwindling box office receipts that fell short of a $60 million budget. And while Law Abiding Citizen fared better in the fall of ’09, much of the success can be attributed to co-star Gerard Butler coming off his mega-hit 300.

Four of the Foxx’s top five highest-grossing films (worldwide gross, not counting his voice work in the Rio films) came out in 2010 or later, and three of those films featured Foxx slipping comfortably into a supporting role (Due DateValentine’s Day and Horrible Bosses). Perhaps it was this less-demanding period that caught the eye of Tarantino, but if we agree with Will Smith — who turned down Foxx’s role in Django Unchained because “Django wasn’t the lead” — then it was another supporting turn after all.

With Spider-Man coming out this week and the Jay-Z-produced remake of Annie arriving later this year (in which Foxx plays a version of Daddy Warbucks), it appears the performer, now in his mid-40s, knows where his strengths lie in the industry. This is someone who most people know and most people like. He’s also someone who most people don’t need to see in movies, but enjoy seeing in movies. This has become our loosening definition of a movie star.

Once upon a time, an actor’s name above the title served as a grand gesture of the power that name held. Less and less are upcoming blockbusters referred to as “the [Movie Star] film.” More and more are our movie stars defined by performers like Jamie Foxx, a very talented, charismatic screen presence who fits snugly into the Hollywood Machine.


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