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WHY OVERPAID HOLLYWOOD ACTORS AREN’T WORTH THEIR MEGABUCKS

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We want movie stars to be like us, and then we don't. We want them to inhabit a world of glamour, but we don't want them to be stuck-up. We want to gaze at their big faces on the screen, yet it's our own narcissism we're feeding. And one thing's for sure - we don't like to hear about movie stars making $10 million for lousy movies.

Or even great movies. Making $10 million or $15 million or $20 million for a movie is obscene. It's obviously obscene, because none of us is making that much.So "Striptease" went into the tank in its first week, making back only $12.3 million on Demi Moore's $12.5 million salary. (And don't forget that Castle Rock won't get all of that $12.3 million. The theaters take a hefty cut.) In the words of Stanley Kowalski, "I say, ha! Ha-a-a-a-ha!"

Two points about the Moore mega-salary. She's not worth it. And She's not worth it.

Contemplate this novice doing the hoochie-koochie for $12.5 million (and trying to pass it off as some kind of feminist statement in the bargain, as though the sight of her breasts could "empower" somebody). It's enough to make you sick.

Moore has never brought in big crowds on her own. Her most successful films have been those in which she has co-starred: "Disclosure," with Michael Douglas, and "A Few Good Men," with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Her star vehicles, such as "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Juror," have died the death.

Actors are getting paid more than they're worth all over Hollywood right now, and in a big way. Jim Carrey's astounding $20 million for "The Cable Guy" had the effect of raising salaries across the board. Now the box-office failure of his movie has created a rash of second-guessing.

You'd think, from the huge salaries getting dished out, that people are flooding theaters to see the stars. But star-driven movies are rare. Today's audiences flock to theaters for a good story. Or a puny (but catchy) premise. Or to see the spaceships. Or the tornadoes.

When all is said and done, two of the biggest movies of the year will be "Independence Day" and"Twister," which have no stars, just friendly, recognizable faces. Would you call "Independence Day" a Bill Pullman picture?

As for Carrey, here is the revised word: He's a safe bet in straight comedies, but audiences aren't ready to see him in something darker.

Stay tuned, because the Carrey saga should get interesting. Carrey wants to expand beyond funny faces, the way Steve Martin and Robin Williams did. But while there is a warm wistfulness at the heart of Martin and Williams' humor, the heart of Carrey's is a maniac screaming, "Love me, or I'll kill you!" If he follows his muse, he'll be making "Psycho 5" in a few years - at considerably less than $20 million a picture.

Also in the $20 million club are Harrison Ford (despite the failure of "Sabrina"), Sylvester Stallone (despite the dreadful "Judge Dredd" and "Assassins"), Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . and John Travolta - no wonder this man's smiling.

These are, perhaps, the biggest names in the business. But their salaries bring up the smaller boats. George Clooney now gets $10 million a picture. Alicia Silverstone, on the basis of one itty-bitty hit ("Clueless"), gets $3 million. And Sandra Bullock gets $10.5 million.

A few stars might seem worth it. Michelle Pfeiffer, who makes $9 million a picture, has been around for years, never gives a bad performance and consistently brings in audiences. And by current Hollywood standards, there's no question that class acts Holly Hunter ($2.5 million) and Jennifer Jason Leigh ($1 million) are underpaid.

For the most part mega-salaries are insane. Yes, decades ago such salaries might have made sense, when people said, "Gee, I'm in the mood for a Gable picture." Or "I wonder when the new Cagney is coming out." But very few people today go around thinking, "I can't wait for the new Sandra Bullock movie!"

The irony is that in the days when salaries counted, stars were paid less. At his peak - when he made classics such as "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Gone With the Wind" - Clark Gable was making $208,000 a year. That came to $50,000 to $75,000 per picture.

Of course, in those days a buck went a long way. But not that long a way.

No question, today's stars are making proportionately more money than they ever made, and their salaries are increasing at a rate that's unprecedented. When Greta Garbo was the highest-paid actress, she made $250,000 a picture. Ten years later, when Barbara Stanwyck was the highest paid, she made $225,000 a picture.

Compare that to today's Hollywood inflation rate. In 1988, Bruce Willis stunned the industry with his $5.5 million payday for "Die Hard." Now, just eight years later, that's what Christian Slater makes, while Willis' price has tripled to $16.5 million.

I'm trying, but I can't even imagine $16.5 million. But I can imagine that the next time I'm sitting in a room with one of these clowns, listening to just-plain-folks stories and touching tales of Buddhist spirituality, I'll be thinking, "Are you kidding or what?"

Movies are not getting any better. (They're not getting any worse either, but no better.) Meanwhile, places like the University of California at Los Angeles Film Archive have to go begging. Perhaps movie fans don't resent these salaries, but if the big-money stars really want to give a little back to their art, they might think of putting some real money toward film preservation.

Or they might take up Harvey Keitel on the idea he expressed at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. He suggested that studios and stars kick in money to finance a series of repertory theaters around the country that would show great foreign films that don't get distribution in the United States.