Back on the subject of Knight And Day for a moment, isn't it interesting how our buddy Tom Cruise gets top billing over Cameron Diaz, when Diaz herself is actually the protagonist of the movie? Has anyone else caught onto this?
Remember that a "protagonist" is the lead character of any work of fiction with a "noble goal" – and he or she goes about trying to achieve that goal all through the narrative, though they're blocked from it at regular intervals. The plot hinges entirely on the protagonist (or should), as any decision he or she makes actually drives the story forward. At the end, no matter whether the protagonist achieves that noble goal or not, he or she has been irrevocably changed – not the same person at the wrap-up of the story as they were at the beginning.
In Knight And Day, June Havens (Diaz) becomes an action hero. She also Gets Her Man in the process. June is a shy, single Boston-ite with a knack for restoring classic cars. She is initially intrigued by a mysterious stranger (Cruise) she meets on a return flight from Wichita, becomes slightly less infatuated when it turns out he's a spy gone rogue, then gradually learns to trust him as he drags her to various exotic locations around the world, trying to keep her safe from villainous forces out to kill them. Along the way, June (SPOILER) learns how to fight, finds her loyalties tested, and figures out how to play the spy game, so that there's a nice role reversal at the end, repeating earlier scenes in the movie from a different perspective.
Cruise, on the other hand (or "Roy," as he calls himself in the movie), is an action hero at the start of the story, and that's pretty much how he winds up as well, though he does need a bit of rescuing at the end. He undergoes no such dramatic arc, other than the fact that he actually (SPOILER) accomplishes his mission – which is not the same thing as becoming a "changed person," since he's basically the same from one end of the movie to the other. Roy even disappears for a large chunk of Act III, leaving June to puzzle out the plot all on her own. Cruise gets the showier role, of course, diving off motorcycles onto the roofs of cars, and shooting bad guys with typical Mission: Impossible aplomb. That was obviously a factor when it came to marketing the movie.
Of course, that's assuming we still lived in a world where Tom Cruise still mattered to us as a movie-going public. People don't care what a movie's actually about, for crying out loud; they don't have the time to figure that out. All they really want to know these days is, seemingly, a) what comic book character is it based off of, and b) if not based on a comic book, then who's starring in it? (In Knight's case, I'd say this particular marketing strategy had the opposite effect: it kept people away. "Tom Cruise is in that? Ugh. I do not want to spend nine bucks on a movie about Scientology." If anything, 20th Century Fox should have kept Cruise's involvement top- secret, promising instead a pseudo-rehash of Diaz in Charlie's Angels.)
With that in mind, this isn't the first time in the annals of cinema history where the protagonist failed to receive top billing in his or her own movie. It's just a recent example in a long line of titles that take the Star-Over-Story route. So for your reading pleasure, here are some instances where lesser-known actors - strictly for marketing purposes - had top billing wrestled away from them:
Title: Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman
Actual Star: Christopher Reeve
Reason: Director Richard Donner wanted a virtual unknown for the role of the Man of Steel, but he was smart enough to know that wouldn't help sell tickets. So, he locked in acting giants Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to lend the project credence and fan momentum. Suddenly, it wasn't "just" a Comic Book movie - with that kind of star power, it was now a big-budget epic with weight, and it demanded respect. Of course, there's no denying Christopher Reeve's performance is just about the best thing in the movie. A stage actor and former soap opera star (and one-time Scientologist), Reeve plays the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman with equal seriousness and a wink in his eye; he commands the movie even when Brando and Hackman disappear off screen.
Title: A Time To Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson
Actual Star: Matthew McConaughey
Reason: After bit parts in a string of early 90s films (including Angels In The Outfield and Dazed And Confused), Texas-born Matthew McConaughey beat out the likes of Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner, Val Kilmer and others for the role of Jake Brigance, a Mississippi attorney who defends a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) on trial for killing the men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Both Jackson and Sandra Bullock (as a liberal law student who assists on the case) add their acting prowess to the mix, but it's McConaughey who anchors this adaptation of the John Grisham novel. Sadly, McConaughey's squandered every bit of that blossoming star persona by coasting on his looks and lilting southern drawl ever since.*
* I stand corrected.
Title: Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey
Actual Star: Djimon Hounsou
Reason: Former model Djimon Hounsou stars as Cinque, a West African slave who revolts against his captors on board the Spanish vessel La Amistad and faces trial in the United States for mutiny, in Steven Spielberg's underwhelming depiction of true- life events that occurred in 1839. Hounsou learned to speak Mende for the part, and when the plot is focused on him, it's a singularly powerful experience. Cinque spends almost the entire narrative in chains, however, so Spielberg shifts the attention to the supporting players instead: Morgan Freeman as abolitionist Tom Joadson, Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin, and Anthony Hopkins as ex-President John Quincy Adams. Because of this, the movie feels oddly inert; individual scenes stand out, but its passive protagonist structure is a distraction.
Title: Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom
Actual Star: Keira Knightley
Reason: You can argue over the identity of Pirates' true protagonist all you want, but while Johnny Depp's iconic Captain Jack Sparrow definitely has goals - getting his precious ship back, for one - he's hardly the movie's driving force. Leave that to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann: she pockets the gold medallion as a 12 year old, she's the one who inadvertently alerts the Black Pearl to its existence eight years later, she opts into her own kidnapping and sets the rest of the cast about their various quests. (Her "noble goal," apparently, is to become a pirate, which she does by the end of the third movie.) Knightley's burgeoning career, though, couldn't really sell the movie, so Depp merrily steals it away from her.
That's four, but there's sure to be more. Can anyone think of other examples you can add to this list?