William Katz: Defining Hollywood down

Occasional contributor Bill Katz now posts daily at Urgent Agenda, though he saves his longer reflections on life and politics for us. Today he returns to the subject of Hollywood, where he spent part of his career working for Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show:

The news is filled with politics. So let’s avoid the subject right now and talk about Hollywood, possibly the one place that’s in more of a creative recession than Washington. But not to worry. Despite their crisis, the residents of Hollywood are not bitter. They haven’t turned to religion, except maybe some things out of East Burma, and the only guns they have are in the video games they play all day. I’m talking about the senior executives.

The recent deaths of Charlton Heston and Richard Widmark remind us of an age in American movies when actors were larger than life, and the pictures filled the screen. We even loved the bad guys like Widmark, for they made us feel that they could actually do the things the script called for. Today you get the sense that the bad guys would have a lawyer on retainer, and that the only thing they could do well is community service. If Hollywood recruits any more Ivy-League types, we’ll soon have villains saying “Stick ‘em up – unless of course you feel oppressed.”

The news that Hollywood will soon release what are called “post 9-11 comedies” reminds us of a lesser age – the one we’re sloshing through right now. “I am big,” said Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Boulevard.” “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Hollywood has gotten very small. It’s gotten so small that even the Oscars attract a fraction of the respect they once did. It’s gotten so minimal that there was a movement not long ago to abolish the category of “best song” because the entrees were so embarrassing. It’s been so reduced over so many years that, even when I was on the staff of The Tonight Show, at a time when electric typewriters were hot, we all knew that TV actors were more popular than movie stars, but we hated the thought.

We used to have movie palaces. Now the multiplexes are more like mobile homes with screens. You do get a bargain, though. You can usually hear six movies at the same time, and all for the price of one ticket. Imagine – four-letter words from six directions. Is that what they call surround-sound?

Even Gloria Swanson got small. She used to call me at The Tonight Show and ask how to buy linoleum. Imagine that, Norma Desmond had linoleum. Is this the decline and fall, or what?

You want to get depressed about Hollywood? Here are the Oscar nominees for best picture, 1939: “Gone With the Wind,” “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Wuthering Heights.”

Here is the list for 1999, sixty years later: “American Beauty,” “The Cider House Rules,” “The Green Mile,” “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense.”

Okay, okay, I cheated. The year 1939 is often considered the greatest in Hollywood history, and they allowed more than the five choices they now permit. But look at that first list. The word “memorable” comes to mind. Look at the second. There are some perfectly good movies on that list, but “memorable” is not a word I would use. I wouldn’t go for “entertaining” either.

And, starting with 1939, running five years, the winners for best picture were “Gone With the Wind,” “Rebecca,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “Mrs. Miniver,” and, yes, “Casablanca.”

Starting with 1999, running five years, the winners were “American Beauty,” “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago,” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

I don’t want to knock the second list. There are some good movies on it, especially “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago.” I enjoyed both of them. But look at the first list. It doesn’t get better. That is greatness, another word Hollywood has left on the cutting-room floor.

Some might say that the first list wasn’t typical because it included the war years. But, if you think 9-11-2001 was of some significance in American history, the second was a “war years” list as well. At least it should have been. Try sometime comparing the war movies made during World War II to the war movies made during the war on terror. In World War II, Hollywood knew who the enemy was. Today it thinks the enemy is George Bush. Or
fuel-injected cars.

I mentioned that some wanted to abolish the “best song” category. I wish they had, for there is a limit, even in Hollywood, to embarrassment. No, I take that back. I’ve worked there. There is no limit to embarrassment in Hollywood.

But let’s take those same five years, starting in 1939, and list the five Oscar winners for best song: “Over the Rainbow,” “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “White Christmas,” and “You’ll Never Know.” If you’ve not heard Alice Faye sing “You’ll Never Know,” you haven’t lived a full life. Correct the problem.

You don’t need me to tell you what those songs represent, but I will anyway. They represent the best of the Great American Songbook. They’re the top, they’re the Eiffel Tower.

Now, drum roll, the best song, five years running, from 1999: “You’ll Be in My Heart,” “Things Have Changed,” “If I Didn’t Have You,” “Lose Yourself,” and “Into the West.”

Boy, I can’t wait to hear those again. Quick, my iPod! Note the second song, “Things Have Changed.” Look at those lists. They sure have.

All right, you ask, what can be done to restore the greatness? The answer is, based on my decades of experience: I have no idea. Greatness is a spirit, a combination of many things we rarely understand, brought together in one moment. Sometimes we don’t even recognize it. While shooting “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart thought the movie was so bad that it would ruin his career. (His part originally was to go to Ronald Reagan.) Executives at MGM wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” because they didn’t like the idea of Judy Garland singing in a barnyard. Greatness has been threatened many times.

We cannot inject talent into young composers. We cannot wave a wand and have them write the beautiful melodies we used to enjoy. We cannot, by law, require film studios to respect America and celebrate its values. What we can do is keep the tradition of greatness alive by preserving and showing our best movies, and playing our greatest songs for young people – in schools, broadcasts and recordings. Maybe, just maybe, some kids in a new generation will realize that memorable movies start with great stories and great characters, not special effects or gimmicks, and that great songs last because they touch us, not because they match a demographic.

Recently, a new, superb production of “South Pacific” opened in New York. It’s sold out. One critic remarked that people lean forward in their seats to hear every word. What are they hearing? They are hearing the sounds of talent, craft, and respect for the listener, and they are hearing things that reach them inside.

And no amount of talk about “cultural change,” “cutting-edge concepts,” or “target audience” can convince me otherwise.

Victor Davis Hanson has related thougths here and here.

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