Josh Hartnett is fucking a decidedly glammed-down Hilary Swank, brooding deliberately at the corpse of a cut-in-half starlet and turning down the disrobed advances of a ’40s-era Scarlett Johansson, and I’m depressed. The Minneapolis-bred actor led still another great cast last weekend in still another dead-end movie (“The Black Dahlia”). It was an event the cheerful editorial crew at Metacritic.com found as ample inspiration for a not-so-nice juxtaposition poking fun at the star’s (former) career. At the top of the website’s columns for featured theatrical and DVD releases this past week is “The Black Dahlia” and “Lucky Number Slevin,” respectively, featuring side-by-side photos of a troubled-looking Hartnett with a “yellow” warning label, indicating that both movies were widely dismissed by critics.

Jessica Boullion
“Careful, I kill things very easily. My career, for example.” (Courtesy of the Weinstein Company)

In both films Hartnett plays the bewildered head of a large cast of more distinguished actors (who, of course, dominate the scene-stealing bit parts and throw the big dumb Midwesterner into a tailspin). Each film became a commercial failure, especially “Slevin,” and Hartnett’s two diligently clueless performances were so expected that few even saw fit to comment on them.

The somber tale of rising talent overrun by publicity blitzkrieg has become a familiar one for young Hollywood. Elegiac profiles (“Hey, remember him!?”) in magazines are now customary as nostalgic filler sandwiched between more prominent stories about The Next Big Things. Fellow hunk-for-the-highest-bidder Orlando Bloom infamously fits this mold, and most recently, Gretchen Mol – who finally earned muted praise for her disarming turn last spring as pin-up icon Bettie Page in “The Notorious Bettie Page” – spoke out against the ravenous media for slowing her career, launched by such films as “The Thirteenth Floor” (a flop) and “Rounders” (people like it now, didn’t then). In a recent interview she mused about out her 1998 cover shoot for Vanity Fair, which she points to as the chief cause for her career’s downturn: “I know how it felt in the moment, which was, ‘Uh oh, that was bad, it was wrong, it didn’t work and now it’s harder to get jobs.’ . I’ve certainly spent time thinking about it and analyzing it to the point where it feels like it happened to somebody else. It was just the timing, really. It was just funny that the (cover) would have so much impact.”

She may well be right, but in Hartnett’s case, he actually had something to lose from the overexposure. After a quiet debut as Jamie Lee Curtis’s son in “Halloween H20” (no less than the sixth sequel in the franchise), the handsome down-home boy with the disarming smile became hot property in Hollywood, and within a year he was garnering real praise as resident lady-killer Trip Fontaine in “The Virgin Suicides.” He didn’t turn enough heads as a prep-school Iago in “O” and turned too many as the least convincing third of the faux-storybook love triangle in “Pearl Harbor.” A parade of modest hits (“40 Days and 40 Nights”) and ugly failures (“Hollywood Homicide”) punctuated his early career, and now in 2006, his only two releases (both of which he headlined) have tanked. His future prospects aren’t looking so hot, either: He’s currently filming “30 Days of Night,” a movie about a killer gang of vampires who descend on an Alaskan town during the polar night.

Like Bloom, Hartnett has to find niche roles to stand out (Bloom does period well, Hartnett excels more at catalytic supporting characters), a fact that even he seems to recognize: Probably the most news he’s made in the past few years was his longtime shunning of Warner Bros. execs who had hoped to land him for the title role in “Superman Returns,” which he turned down because he didn’t want to be typecast. It would have been a defining moment in his career if it hadn’t come amid a string of flops that suggest he wasn’t making a statement, he was actively trying to sabotage his career. It’s easy to turn down roles when you’re not offered any.

Still, despite the apparent better judgment of the American audience, all of this comes from a genuine belief that Hartnett has shown promise, and, like his many, many contemporaries, has no idea what to do with it. You can’t self-righteously turn down the ultimate lead role in a movie like “Superman” (even if the movie turned out to be a bust) until you’ve earned a fraction of the kind of exposure it would provide. Don’t pick screenplays that would cast you as the story’s only constant in a movie defined by its inconsistencies. And Jesus, get a new agent. As Hartnett, once famously said to be the next Gary Cooper, continues to descend into irrelevance, his story is a case study for the next generation of 20-something hopefuls. Embrace the hype. Exploit it. There’s only one real way to get the work you want in this industry: become a star.

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