I remember the thought occurring to me well into a screening of, believe it or not, Milos Forman's 2006 Goya's Ghosts. I was thinking, this is Forman's most interesting movie in quite a while, it's not working entirely, but he's making some bold choices, and it's going to get lambasted, and mainly because of Natalie Portman. It wasn't that she was bad, it was just that she was so...Natalie Portman that her character had trouble registering, and her character was the real key to the film. And I thought, I wonder how this film will play in 15 or twenty years, when Natalie Portman's Portman-ness isn't quite so nearly palpable in the zeitgeist. Will the picture be able to make itself felt more truly by then?
I recall these thoughts as internet film writers the world over go slightly batty tripping over themselves to agree with an individual who they'd characterize as either full of it or an insensitive boor 99 percent of the rest of the time. I refer, of course, to Sean Penn, who tried to express to the French publication Le Figaro his misgivings about Terrence Malick's recent The Tree of Life without seeming peevish or that he was speaking altogether from wounded vanity or ego (there is a slight distinction between the two). I refer you to Richard Brody's ruminations on the statement, as Richard's post is both admirably civil and sufficiently eccentric to have earned the impatient dismissal of the renowned esthete John Nolte.
Whether you sympathize with Penn or not, there is the fact that with both audiences and critics, the announcement of Sean Penn's presence in a movie brings with it an expectation that Penn will not only appear in a large portion of the film, but that he will do things in it other than sit or stand around looking deeply perturbed. That he will perform Feats of Acting that audiences and critics have come to expect from hi, whether they be chameleonic or merely steeped in emotional intensity. Penn's is the movie star iconography of the master thespian, and while Malick's film does many things, it does not honor Penn's iconography, at least not in any conventional way.
By contrast, Mike Nichols' 1965 film adaptation of Edward Albee's sensational play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn't just that, or maybe even that, at all; it's also or primarily a film about MOVIE STARS acting in an adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Specifically, about Elizabeth Taylor throwing away everything that makes her "Elizabeth Taylor" and still being Elizabeth Taylor anyway. How aware was Mike Nichols of this? Very aware, I'd say; aware enough so that almost 40 years later his film adaptation of Patrick Mawber's sensational play Closer was a film about Julia Roberts talking really, really dirty. People who complain about Judy Garland having been too old to play Esther Blodgett in Cukor's 1954 A Star is Born are missing the point in twelve different ways, as the film is about NOTHING BUT Judy Garland playing Esther Blodgett, everyone else's impeccable contributions notwithstanding. Just as North By Northwest is Hitchcock making the ultimate Cary Grant film by Hitchcock. And so on.
Ignore star iconography at your film's peril, as Joseph Losey learned with his almost impossibly muddled 1968 Secret Ceremony, in which he had La Liz and Mia Farrow enact proto-ur-Lynchian encounters with no regard for the extradiegetic resonances of the screen personalities, treating them as mere performers. Actually, Losey didn't learn, not right away at least, as he next made the ineffable Boom! with Liz and Dick entirely in sub-surreal earnest.
As for Malick, in his latter-day films he doesn't so much ignore star iconography as he behaves as if it doesn't exist. And again, there is a slight distinction between the two. It's clear that he casts for presence, and it's pretty clear in Tree of Life that he wanted what Sean Penn's got. He just wants it differently. Which perhaps inevitably (or is that so?) creates a disjoint with an audience conditioned to expect, or want, a certain Penn-ness. Something not dissimilar is in effect with Malick's ostensible comeback film, 1998's The Thin Red Line, which was so star-studded, and within which certain of the stars made appearances much more fleeting than one would expect from such names within the context of a "star studded" film. Hence, the first viewing of the picture one might ostensibly spending an inordinate amount of time noting, "There's Travolta! There's Clooney!" and so on. It's only with several viewings that one can break through that. Just as it might take several viewings of Tree of Life to fully get past the circumstances of Penn's manifestation in the film. Add to this the fact that Milick arguably needs these names in order to get his films made, and that talents of Penn's caliber are falling over themselves to work with Malick, and this particular conundrum gets knottier still.