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Why are so many top-tier actors fleeing the screen?

You have heard, perhaps, of colony collapse disorder, the puzzling phenomenon in which healthy and productive honeybees in the prime of their careers abruptly ditch their hives and vanish to parts unknown, leaving behind their queens, their honey and pollen, their royal jelly. A similar syndrome is now afflicting major movie stars. Every few weeks, an industry icon either hints at imminent AWOL status or explicitly announces his or her retirement. Most recently it was Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman. Before her it was Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie, and before Jolie it was Oscar-loser (but two-time nominee) Joaquin Phoenix. Apparently it’s less fun than generally imagined to spend a couple of months in an exotic locale once or twice a year, eating catered food in luxurious trailers and having your hair styled for hours on end.

If Hollywood’s A-list deserters cited the constant surveillance and Internet heckling they endure as the reason for their professional malaise, it would at least be understandable. Like the price of gasoline, the price of fame has skyrocketed in recent years; in the same way that even the most loyal SUV drivers start thinking about riding a bike to work when unleaded tops $4 per gallon, even exhibitionists must begin to fantasize about the pleasures of anonymity when telephoto lenses are capable of publicizing their bad earwax days to millions of rabid voyeurs.

Surprisingly, however, the Perez Hiltons of the world seem less responsible for this trend than the Paris Hiltons. “I’m not doing films anymore ... I’ve been through that. I’ve done it,” Phoenix declared. “I don’t plan to keep acting very long,” Jolie exclaimed. “In terms of my future as an actor and stuff, I don’t know ... There are many things I want to do besides act,” Kidman echoed.

Paris Hilton, in November 2008.

Paris Hilton, in November 2008.

In short, their issue is with acting, not fame. They just don’t seem that interested in it anymore, and perhaps that’s because acting is an increasingly superfluous component of fame. In earlier eras, pretending to kiss and kill other beautiful people wasn’t just the most glamorous path toward getting autograph requests from strangers; it was also the main way the public experienced the famous. In the 1950s—in the 1980s, even—movie stars were relatively abstract deities. You could read about them every morning in Walter Winchell or Liz Smith. You could see an occasional candid photo of them in Confidential or National Enquirer or People. But to see them in motion, to hear their voices, to fully experience their living, breathing majesty for extended periods of time, you had to go to the movies. Or at the very least, stay up late to watch them on Carson.

Now, however, movies are just one of many ways to monitor stars, and not a particularly convenient one. Who besides professional movie critics and perhaps a stalker or two has seen even five out of Angelina Jolie’s last 10 movies? How many people can cite the name of the film for which Nicole Kidman won her Oscar? Jolie and Kidman are among the world’s biggest stars not so much for their iconic big-screen performances as for their famous marriages and divorces, their offscreen lives that are chronicled on countless infotainment shows, in dozens of daily blogs, on magazine covers everywhere.

Nicole Kidman: running from this film's bloated storytelling.

And while a top-shelf movie career may still confer an aura of glamour and entertainment-industry achievement, it’s also beginning to seem out of step with the times. This is the era of reality TV, YouTube and Facebook, after all, where the biggest draw is the spectacle of people being themselves. New-model celebs like Paris Hilton and Spencer Pratt preen and pose their way through Hollywood completely secure in the notion that they don’t need expensive explosions or outsourced bon mots to sustain fan interest; their naked personalities are enough.

In contrast, the Kidmans and Jolies of the world look a little weak and cautious—it’s as if they’re admitting they need narratives, costumes and fancy camerawork to hold our attention. In this respect, one has to give credit to Joaquin Phoenix, who is abandoning the movie business to pursue a music career. On the one hand, this seems roughly akin to booking a flight on the Hindenburg because you have a bad feeling about those tickets you bought for the Titanic. On the other hand, Phoenix has apparently hired a crew to document his efforts. If his songs are halfway decent, perhaps he can wrangle a series on E! or MTV; if he shows a flair for choreography during his performances, he might even land a gig on Dancing With the Stars.

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