Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda. Bill is a man of many parts, a few of which go back to his days as a producer on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bill is back on the show biz beat with reflections on tonight’s Academy Awards show:
The Oscars are on this Sunday night. Aren’t you excited? No? Why not? Can’t you sense the excitement in Hollywood?
Of course, what I learned in working there is that Hollywood is always excited. In the “film colony,” excitement is any status short of death. If you’re on life support, in the hospice, with the tubes in, you’re still excited. If the gent with the collar comes to give last rites, you ask him, “Who got best supporting actress?”
But maybe the excitement is a little less this year. I get the sense from talking with friends in the trade that it’s finally dawning on America’s movie industry that it’s in serious trouble…in trouble with its audience. That’s the American audience, not the “international viewers,” the critics,
or other “filmmakers.”
When you realize that the most exciting thing about this year’s Oscars is the return of the semi-retired Billy Crystal, who hasn’t hosted the ceremony in almost a decade, you wonder what’s going on. When you realize that Billy is replacing Eddie Murphy, a falling star who hasn’t made a splash in years, and who pulled out of the Oscar ceremony in some dispute, you wonder where Hollywood is heading.
And then you hear Billy’s explanation for coming back – that he wants the girl at the pharmacy who gives him his prescriptions to know who he is. Well, that may actually be true. As Johnny Carson used to say, “How quickly they forget.”
And how quickly we forget how Hollywood has declined.
Consider this year’s nine nominees for best picture, expanded from five several years ago by the bean counters in the business: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse. They’re allowed up to ten, but apparently couldn’t find a tenth.
Now consider the best picture nominees for 1939: Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz.
I rest my case.
Oh yes, you say, but 1939 was a special year. Sure it was, but look at the quality, and the popularity of those movies. (There was a time they were called movies. As the audience appeal started going down, they began calling them films. When things really tank they call it “cinema.”)
A columnist made the point, about this year’s nominated films, that it would be nice if large numbers of the audience actually saw most of them. But most of this year’s nominated movies weren’t all that successful. (I know somebody who saw Hugo.) I saw three of the movies. I thought Midnight in Paris was delightful, Moneyball was pretty good until the last, dull half hour, and The Descendants descended. I look forward to seeing The Artist.
The educational level of the audience today is far higher than the level in 1939, a year in which the median was about the 8th grade. And yet, the movies made that year (see list above) were intelligent, mature, and yet remarkably entertaining. They showed respect for the audience. They didn’t demean it.
So what happened in the intervening 73 years? Okay, I grant you that television happened, that the internet happened, that DVD’s happened, that music changed, and that we’ve had some social revolutions. They are all factors. But listing these things is like The New York Times explaining its economic decline by citing online news services.
It was the content that changed. The New York Times is in trouble because it became a self-indulgent, left-wing newspaper that basically told a good part of its readership to talk a walk, or a ride in a green-energy vehicle.
And Hollywood did the same.
David Lean, the great British director of Lawrence of Arabia, said just before his death that Hollywood forgot how to tell stories. He was right. Darryl F. Zanuck, the genius behind 20th Century Fox, declared that three things made a good movie: “story, story, and story.” But where are the great stories today? They are everywhere, but Hollywood isn’t interested.
The Hollywood of the golden age, of Zanuck’s age, wanted to attract ticket buyers, and it didn’t care about their “demographics.” And it knew that the ticket buyers loved, as Americans do, wonderful stories. I recently revisited Zanuck’s The Longest Day, about D-Day. It doesn’t get better than that. A great story. A great pro-American story. Look at that 1939 list. All terrific stories.
In the mid-thirties, David O. Selznick, who would go on to make Gone with the Wind, previewed A Tale of Two Cities before an audience of ordinary U.S. Navy enlisted men, and they cheered. Today, if you suggested a remake of the same story, Hollywood “development executives” would wonder out loud whether the audience would understand it.
The great movie makers knew what business they were in. They were in show business, and when you’re in show business you’ve got to put on a show, and leave the audience wanting more. If anyone uses the term “show business” to the Hollywood crowd today, they turn up their noses. Why, they’re in “film,” and they go to international film festivals. And they’re glad to address periodic gatherings like “Yale in Hollywood” or “Harvard in Hollywood.” Some of the greats of that other age barely made it out of high school, and nobody cared. If I go to the movies, I want to see a movie, not a resumé.
When George Gershwin, arriving in California by plane after one of his shows had just opened on Broadway, was read a review, he learned that the reviewer had referred to him as an artist. No, no, Gershwin is said to have responded. He insisted that he was out to write hits. The show being reviewed was Porgy and Bess. Gershwin knew what business he was in. By knowing it, he wrote not only hits, but great music that has lasted to this day, including the music from that show.
Another reason for the decline in content in Hollywood is the catastrophic change in the structure of the industry. Say what you will about the moguls who founded the business – some could be vulgar, even snakes. They knifed each other. But, dammit, they were movie makers. Movies were their business. The “deal” was a means to get a movie made. It wasn’t an end in itself. The most powerful institutions in Hollywood were the movie studios. They had writers, directors, actors, musicians, under contract. They made movies. That was the business they were in.
The most powerful institutions in Hollywood today? Talent agencies. The people who make the deals. I don’t mean to ridicule what they do. They can do important work. But they don’t make movies. And the deal is not the show.
I recently met someone who wants to go into the movie business…who’s never heard of Alfred Hitchcock.
I recently met a young woman who dreams of being a dancer… who’s never heard of Gene Kelly.
How sad, how sad. We need a new generation that will remember, and dream great dreams again.
And maybe the audience will once again flock to the Oscar-nominated movies.