Leonardo DiCaprio and the easy money of foreign commercials

“I’m trying to make movies in my life … that last longer than opening weekend. That’s it, that’s my whole goal. I don’t have to make money; I do films for scale and then, you know, I go do coffee commercials overseas, and I make a lot of money so I get to live in a nice house. … And I don’t give a sh-t. And people will go, ‘Oh that’s a sellout.’ And you know what? F–k you.” — George Clooney, 2012

Clooney wasn’t at his most eloquent as he justified starring in Italian coffee commercials during a Newsweek pre-Oscar roundtable last year, but his blunt assessment captures the bottom-line truth that lures many Hollywood celebrities. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Japanese commercial for Jim Beam recently popped up on the internet and instantly raised eyebrows. Why is Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably the most famous Hollywood celebrity in the world, making commercials?

In the United States, when a famous actor appears in a commercial, there are fears that it can undermine, or at least cheapen, his celebrity. (For example, what was your reaction when Adrien Brody pitched Stella Artois during the 2011 Super Bowl? “Smooth!” or, “Oof, did he already pawn his Oscar?”) American celebs are more willing to provide their voices to a commercial than their faces, and when they do lend their fame to a product in faraway places like Japan or Italy, they often have contractual reassurances that evidence of the corporate relationship never makes it back to the States. (To which the Internet says, “Haaaaa-ha!”)

So why do they do it? Duh, money. Lots of it, as Clooney admitted. ”I couldn’t believe the money they were paying me,” the late Dennis Hopper once told EW, after popping up in an unusual TV commercial for Japanese bath products. ”If I could do one of these every year, I could retire.”

Dennis Hopper? Playing in the bath with a rubber ducky? Yes, that really happened — and David Lynch was not involved. But don’t look down your nose at him or the other celebs who’ve turned two days of work in Tokyo into a bucolic vacation home in the south of France. Celebs have sold their fame in foreign commercials — typically in Asian markets — for decades. Orson Welles and Sean Connery were peddling Japanese whiskey long before Bill Murray’s fading movie star in Lost in Translation went East for a quick payday. It makes you wonder what a beloved Hollywood icon like Paul Newman would have said about all this trading on fame. Fortunately, back in 1980, he addressed the issue directly. Click below for Newman’s refreshing take, and then peruse some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities starring in foreign commercials. (Quick! Before their legal minions force their removal from the web!)

Paul Newman for Maxwell House (Japan): Coffee… but no popcorn?

Jennifer Aniston for Heinken (Netherlands)

George Clooney for Nespresso (France)

…but I think this Spanish Clooney ad — for Emidio Tucci men’s clothing — is the piece de resistance.

NEXT: Julia, Brad, Scarlett, and Leo


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