Sunday, January 30, 2011
The 2011 Sundance Film Festival ends today and I have this to say about it.
Actually I have nothing to say as I wasn’t there. But I do have a question.
What percentage, do you think, of the films screened for the first time at Sundance will be seen for the first time via DVD, VOD, Blu-Ray, Netflix Instant Watch, rented from iTunes or Amazon, seen on a free-with ads-site like SnagFilms or Hulu, or perhaps more significantly, downloaded as a torrent or from a Rapidshare-type service?
If that question intrigues or concerns you, then Sundance wasn’t the only significant film-related event of January 2011. Here are six others that will play a major role in the way people watch movies in the future.
January 6:: More than 80 iPad-style tablets are introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
Is the electronics industry is betting the bank on making the Tablet a mass market product like the DVD player and Smart Phone?
If they succeed, what will that mean for Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, as well as sites like SnagFilms, Mubi, IndiePix, etc.? Is this product going to be a game-changer for online video?
January 18: The FCC approves the NBCU merger. Comcast agrees to give up management rights of Hulu, while retaining their co-ownership with News Corp and Disney.
What does it mean to the way TV and films are watched online when a cable company owns such a monumental amount of content?
Even if Comcast doesn’t have management rights over Hulu, what’s to stop them from pulling out “SNL,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and the rest anyway? Will managing Hulu even matter? (see below).
January 20: Amazon buys LOVEFiLM, Europe’s Netflix. LOVEFiLM, has 1.6 million members and operates in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.
Amazon has the advantage of being able to integrate LOVEFiLM into their Amazon stores in the UK and elsewhere. With their vast resources they have the potential to be the dominant player in international online video.
This is not an easy business, as it is complicated to secure rights to major studio movies for a host of different territories. Apple has been selling online video through many of their international iTunes stores for years. Netflix expanded into Canada in September where it has been an enormous success, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings has suggested that he has plans to expand Netflix to other countries.
Online video outside the US is on the move like never before. Has its time finally come? What will this mean for a film industry that is still trying to figure out how online video will work here?
January 26: Torrentfreak reports that Google has begun censoring file-sharing-related terms. Per Torrent Freak’s story, search engine results for "BitTorrent," "RapidShare," "Megaupload" will be filtered out from its instant search and auto-complete search features. As of now, the filter does not affect full Google search results.
The Pirate Bay and the rest are pikers when it comes to finding Torrents and compared to Google. Will they extend their filter to full searches, which is the only thing that matters? Assuming they do and their filter is effective, will this provide serious assistance to the efforts of the MPAA and the RIAA to stem online piracy?
January 27: Netflix releases its fourth quarter profit report and subscriptions are up 166% (3.08 million) from fourth quarter 2009 (1.1 million). They end 2010 with 20 million subscribers, up 63% from the previous year. All signs are that this growth will continue. To put this in perspective, there are about 120 million households in the US with a TV.
January 27: The Wall Street Journal Reports Strife at Hulu
The Journal reports that Hulu founder Jason Kilar threatened to quit if the price on the “Hulu Plus” subscription service didn’t go from $9.99 monthly to $4.99. A compromise was made at $7.99.
While Comcast isn’t involved in decisions on Hulu’s future, Fox and Disney are increasingly feeling that Hulu, may be cannibalizing their cable profits. Disney has blind-sided Kilar by ”quietly” setting up their own Hulu-type service,
The Journal also reports:
In what would be a major shift in direction, Hulu management has discussed recasting Hulu as an online cable operator that would use the Web to send live TV channels and video-on-demand content to subscribers, say people familiar with the talks. The new service, which is still under discussion, would mimic the bundles of channels now sold by cable and satellite operators, the people said.
In other words, they are discussing killing Hulu as we know it.
If they really did this, instead of a site with free movies with very few commercials, it would be a subscription service with all the commercials you see on cable. Sound appealing to you? Personally, I’d rather watch my cable TV using my DVR.
Hulu is not the real issue. Worries about Hulu are basically worries about the future of cable TV. The real question is: can the studios hold onto the highly profitable cable business model they have today? Or will the January I’ve written about above be followed by a February and a March and an April and a May and on and on forever in a never-ending evolution of the way new technology, new business concepts and the internet affect the way we watch movies and TV?
Can the major studios and the cable companies catch all the fireflies that are buzzing around their heads?
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Robert Redford and the author on the set of “The Milagro Beanfield War”
It was the end of the summer of 1986. I’d only been back in New York City a short while after spending a good portion of the year out of town on publicity jobs, first in Belize for Peter Weir’s “The Mosquito Coast,” followed by a stint in Miami for Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I was exhausted, I had money in the bank, and I was making arrangements to pull up stakes in New York and move to Los Angeles. I wasn’t looking for work until I got a call from legendary publicist Lois Smith.
“Hello ducks,” she said. “Bob Redford is making a movie in New Mexico. It’s called ‘The Milagro Beanfield War.’ I’ve told him about you and I’d like to set up a meeting. Are you interested?”
So much for for my plans. I was going to meet with Robert Redford, and maybe even work with him! Woohoo!
Still, I was uncomfortable with this whole “Bob” thing. While I could see how Lois would call him “Bob,” as she’d known him for decades, I couldn’t imagine me calling him “Bob.” It made me think of high school, when my friends and I used to joke around like we were pals with Ingmar Bergman, and drop comments from our good buddy “Ing.” “Bob” seemed like the wrong name for Robert Redford anyway.
I only knew two things about Redford. The first was his reputation for being late. The second was that he had a playful sense of humor, as reflected in the series of practical jokes he and Paul Newman were always playing on each other.
When I arrived at his office at the appointed time, Lois put me in a tiny private office, and informed me that he might be—surprise!—a bit late. I pulled out my stash of reading materials from my shoulder bag: the latest New Yorker, my copy of the “Milagro Beanfield War” novel, that day’s Times, even a few sections of the Sunday Times I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. I spread everything out on the desk like a picnic blanket, enough stuff to keep anybody occupied for a leisurely weekend at the beach. And then I buried myself in the Arts & Leisure. I‘d barely read a few articles when I looked up to see a man standing in a doorway, grinning at me.
“Come on, I’m not that late!” he said.
I stood up to shake his hand.
“I’m Bob Redford,” he said.
“Hi Bob,” I said. (It just slipped out somehow.) “Good to meet you.”
I believe my little prank started my working relationship with Redford on the right foot. Yeah, I got the job, and even worked with him a few times after that. Some of working with Redford involved waiting; all of it was interesting, challenging, and fun. After all, if Robert Redford isn’t worth waiting for…who is?
Sunday, January 16, 2011
One of the biggest misfortunes of my life was being taught logic in high school. It provided an impractical and counter-productive foundation for the illogical world I’ve lived in ever since.
In logic class, I and my fellow ill-fated classmates were taught a series of formulas called “tautologies,” which are always true. There is no possibility of negating them. Ever. One is called Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. This means that it is always a fallacy to assume that because one thing happened, followed by another thing, then the first thing caused the next. In other words: if I clap my hands just before dawn, that’s not why the sun came up.
I will quickly apply Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc to the current controversy surrounding the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and then, as this is a movie blog, get onto my primary topic, “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”
As to the former, I believe a lot of people of various political persuasions are coming around to the idea that there’s no evidence that Jared Lee Loughlin was motivated by politics and uncivil dialogue. But the logic of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc takes us a step further than that and says that even if he regularly watched Limbaugh fan and watched FOX News, that alone is not enough to make the assumption that that was responsible for making him do what he did.
One of the things I usually like about Bill Maher is that he calls out the absurdity of people who don’t believe in evolution, global warming, or having a President who was born in the U.S. But in this case, like many politicians and commentators, he followed his preconceptions rather than logic, and blamed the right wing. In this he mirrors the illogic of conservatives who proclaim that President Bush kept the country safe. These things fly in the face of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, as do thousands of other suppositions that are the bedrock of conventional thought.
Okay, now I will proceed, with grandiose rhetorical overstatement, to “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”
A Ticket-Selling movie star is thought by many to possess a persona that is so appealing that people will go see a movie just because they are in it. If the actor doesn’t play the persona, then it often doesn’t work. Angelina Jolie’s star persona is said to be in action roles, and the evidence supports this: “A Mighty Heart” (9 M), “Changeling,” ($36M), versus “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” ($186M), “The Good Shepherd” ($60M), “Wanted” ($134M), “Salt,” ($118M), and “The Tourist” ($62M). Likewise, nobody is surprised when “Greenberg” fails to become a hit simply because Ben Stiller is in it. While the correlations of genuine movie star persona to grosses doesn’t always work, but it certainly happens enough so that most people make the reasonable judgment that one caused the other.
Reasonable, yes, and very possible true. But not logical.
But what other explanation or explanations could there possibly be? In fact it is possible to look at the information in the previous paragraph and draw a slightly different conclusion.
Perhaps we have it backwards. Perhaps it is the movies that draw the audiences and the movie stars are people who have successfully managed to star in those movies.
No matter funny Ben Stiller is, no matter how much people love his humor, if all he did in his career was “Greenberg”-type movies, he would never be called someone whose name could fill theatre. Likewise, “A Mighty Heart” and “Changeling” were not conceived as blockbusters, and if Angelina Jolie had solely followed that path, then she would also not be seen as a ticket-selling movie star.
Let’s say you are one of those two people, and have gotten to the point where you get sent scripts, walk into offices, and have lunches. If you choose project A, followed by B, C, D—you’re a star who puts butts in seats. You choose project E, followed by F, G, H—you’re not a ticket-selling star, and that’s that. For years, Robert De Niro chose the kind of artistic projects that weren’t likely to make huge profits, until one day, he decided to make different choices and now his films make a fockin’ lot of money.
John Travolta certainly found his winning persona with “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” He had it all, but he did not choose wisely after that. There are also many people who had a flash point of success of opportunity, or many years of being considered capable of putting butts in seats, but then dropped off the list, either because of emotional issues, or because they simply had no wish to be stars, and deliberately avoided those kinds of roles.
The commonly-believed perception that you sell tickets means you get offered projects of all kinds, including exploitatively commercial ones, as well as prestige films with great scripts, directors, and co-stars. Once you are in that position, what do you do? Are your instincts sound? Or do you listen to seasoned advisors who presumably give you sound advice? There are actors known for turning down a list of the some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, and there are also actors that are known for tying up scripts for years while they contemplate if they are “right.”This doesn’t mean that ticket-selling stars pick good movies, just commercial ones, as Nicholas Cage’s career demonstrates well.
I saw terror in the trailers of more than one of these presumed ticket-sellers. Some actors are not the most emotionally stable or confident people and it is often a very frightening thing for them to go to the set. While others see these people as money in the bank, for them stardom is like hurtling out-of-control down a highway, where one slip-up might take them over a cliff. They do not want to lose what they have. And of course, eventually most of them do.
If the notion of ticket-selling movie stars is in fact a puffed up illusion similar to the funhouse games of Wall Street—and I’m not saying it is—the hyper-inflation of actor’s salaries is lucrative for the people who live off of percentages. Larger actor salaries means larger budgets overall which increase studio overhead fees, also calculated by percentages. Many of the most powerful agents become studio heads, and the money is passed back and forth between members of the club.
The mammoth salaries are obviously very nutritious for the actors, and they also can be useful for producers, as they can often get the green light for movies simply by having a single person agree to play the lead role.
I could go on and on with the advantages for many people of this idea of the ticket-selling star, but ultimately, whether that idea is true or not is irrelevant to the subject of this blog, which is logical thinking, or more precisely, the lack of it. I believe I have offered a plausible secondary explanation for why certain actors always seem to be in high-grossing movies. My actual opinion is the real story is a combination of the two, and probably some other factors.
I believe—but logically do not know for sure—that Will Smith’s presence in a film will sell tickets. Still there’s no doubt that he also has impressive commercial instincts. It’s fair to say that he had something to do with selecting and developing “The Karate Kid” (worldwide gross $359M) for his son Jaden, and as a music industry pro, overseeing his daughter Willow’s chart-topping record, “Whip My Hair.” The kids are talented, but they are too young to make these kinds of judgments all by themselves. Will Smith has a magic touch, whether he’s in a movie or not. Since I worked with him on “Six Degrees of Separation,” I’ve thought that Will Smith was as likable and charming a person you could ever meet, but honestly I never dreamed he would have achieved the level of success he has. If people go to movies because he is in them, it’s because of all the hard work he’s put in to get to where he is.
Sunday, January 09, 2011
“With his naturalistic delivery and relaxed animal physicality Mr. Wahlberg doesn’t seem to be acting, while a twitchy, jumpy Mr. Bale all but pinwheels off the screen. Mr. Wahlberg’s acting seems more a matter of being, while Mr. Bale’s appears self-consciously performed.”
--Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
By what criteria do we judge the best acting?
Is it something we describe with words like bold, inventive, brazen, adventurous, commanding, fearless , and tour-de-force? Or…
If we are taken out of our immersion in the story by a conscious awareness that “this is a great, Academy Award worthy performance,” is anything lost?
What is the purpose of acting? If we notice ACTING, is it gone? I don’t know the answer to this, and maybe there isn’t one. But it’s a question worth exploring.
I have often wondered what would happen if all the critics, non-acting members of the film industry, all the evaluators of who is worthy of praise, and prognosticators of who should win prizes, if all these people took some acting classes. Would they see things any differently?
Ever notice how there is often a “surprise” nominee or winner of one of the acting Academy Awards? Someone that was barely recognized or even ignored by the critics and the award-giving groups? These appraisals come from the illustrious and very tiny list of actors who are in the Academy, not the 93,000 voting members of the Screen Actors Guild. What yardsticks do these very special people use when they judge acting?
Obviously, big budget movies need movie stars, and movie stars are weighted down by our memories of their previous performances and our knowledge of their private lives. It’s very hard for them to truly disappear into a role, and you certainly can’t blame them for that.
Likewise some very good stories are gigantic ones, as over-sized, featuring multi-layered characters facing extraordinary circumstances. Very few actors have what it takes to play characters like this, and for this, we give praise and awards.
But how big an achievement is it to look like you’re not doing anything? If you succeed, you’re fooling everyone, not an easy thing to do, and not a way to get noticed. If you’re one of the rare people who can do it, you bring something enormous to the power of the film…but no prize for you!
You could say, “I know all about Mark Wahlberg’s life and he is that guy in ‘The Fighter.’ He’s just playing himself.” I would ask you to go in front of a camera and say lines and play someone who is “just like yourself.” Good luck. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Could Wahlberg have played Bale’s part? Obviously he would pull the twitch factor down many notches, but I think he would have been sensational—absolutely real, just in a less theatrical way. And he might have gotten a nomination, as he did for “The Departed.” But could Bale play Wahlberg’s part? I don’t think so. That role requires a quietude that I don’t think a baroque actor like Bale can muster.
With a few exceptions, I love and admire the 2010 movie performances that are being touted for awards. My favorite is Jeon Do-yeon in Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine.” It’s a whopper of a role and she is astounding. But unlike all the other great performances I saw last year, hers is in my favorite movie. And I think it’s because of Song Kang-ho, who has a not terribly exciting role. He plays kind of a shlub, not too bright, nothing special about him at all. But without Song’s performance, the movie would be unbearable.
If you see this film knowing nothing about Korean cinema, I doubt you would guess that Song is a superstar, somebody whose name on a film guarantees an audience, the star of such films as “Joint Security Area,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” and “Thirst.” But at the height of his career, he takes this supporting role of a shmo and he plays him like a shmo. Perfectly. And the blend of his ordinariness with Jeon’s intensity makes for a masterpiece.
Unlike Lee’s previous films “Peppermint Candy,” and “Oasis” (maybe too culture-bound), I think this movie could easily be remade in the U.S. But if that happened, it’s unlikely that an American star on Song’s level would accept this role. And if they did, I doubt they would have the capacity to do it as modestly.
So… what’s my point? I certainly don’t want to disparage the actors who hit the ball out of the park this year, and gave me such movie-going pleasure. I’m just paying homage to the actors who made me forget there was a thing called acting. They tricked me, and I am very grateful to them for doing that.
I’d like to end with a quote from the exquisite Jeon Do-yeon, that I found in IMDb:
"I enjoy acting so much that I have no need or desire to be called a great actor. This is partly my personality, but also the fact that I get so absorbed in acting, to where I can't see or think of anything else. I can't tell you what great acting is, but for me, it is to give everything you have with honesty, sincerity and persistence.
Sunday, January 02, 2011
When 2009 passed into 2010, I didn’t have time to celebrate the new year. I spent those hours focused on a business project I finally was about to launch--a website called SpeedCine.
I had worked from six am to 11 pm six and a half days a week for a year and a half, and finally it was ready for my early January presentation. It was a complete realization of my dream. It worked perfectly. It did everything I had ever hoped it would do.
There was only one problem. Very few people were interested in the service I was providing.
It was a catastrophe. After briefly considering going all out and risking everything, I decided to face reality, cut my losses, and a month later I shut it down.
Since I closed SpeedCine, many wonderful things have come my way I did a lot of publicity writing, which I love (starting my fifth Woody Allen film now). I reestablished my friendship with Errol Morris, who I hadn’t seen in seven years. I reconnected with many other old friends when I went to Toronto to do publicity on Errol’s film “Tabloid.” I got a $1500 data bill from AT&T, and even that was great. Being overcharged by AT&T put me in contact with a lot of interesting people, from a guy at the FCC to a nice women who worked for AT&T’s CEO. And after the heavy traffic that my AT&T posts brought me, twice as many people now read my blog. And I had the honor of working with the brilliant Whit Stillman while he was making his new film “Damsels in Distress,” and met its star, Greta Gerwig, one of my favorite actresses.
Writing this blog was another highlight of 2010. I’ve gradually surrendered to the idea of it being more and more autobiographical. This was a big risk for me. I’d previously thought there would be no reason to read my blog unless there was something involving films or filmmaking in there somewhere, but oddly enough, I have received a lot more praise than criticism for doing this.
When I closed SpeedCine, I moved the clutter away from my desktop Mac and put my synthesizer back up there (it had sat on the floor for eighteen months). I could compose music again. I could fool around with making short films for YouTube.
And my wife appreciated my liberation from the computer monitor. We had a lot more time to enjoy life together.
So one door closed at the beginning of 2010 and many other doors opened. It’s a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they are often true. (Note that the previous sentence is an accurate cliché about clichés.)
The last few years have been very tough for myself and many of my friends, but I embark on 2011 with high hopes. I wish them for all of you as well.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Filled with holiday spirit, I’m re-running my Chanukah/Christmas post from 2009, one of my favorites. It’s my gift to my new readers who’ve never seen it and it’s my my gift to me, as I’m feeling pretty lazy at the moment. For everyone else, I apologize and hope your friends and family took care of you.
Let’s face it, Chanukah is a really lackluster Christmas substitute. For one thing, very few of us can even pronounce “Chanukah.” While both holidays start with the same two letters, their “Chr” sounds like “Cr” but our “Ch” sounds like a cat getting rid of a hairball. Nobody in my family knew exactly how far to go with their “Ch.” One aunt got so enthusiastic with her “chhhh” that she chhh-ocked a loogey right into the Kugel.
While Christians had scientific evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, even though that date had been a pagan celebration centuries before his B-day, Chanukah was based on a totally made-up event: Judah Maccabee’s alleged candle miracle. In case you haven’t heard, this myth was invented hundreds of years after Mr. Maccabee was pushing up the daisies. Even my esteemed Rabbi, Manfred Swarsensky, more or less admitted to me that we picked our holiday out of a hat. I’m sure we Jews would have turned Yom Kippur into a high-flying jubilee if it was in December.
No, Purim is the real gift-giving holiday for Jews, but it comes near Easter, when there are less sales. From a kid’s point of view, Purim kicked Chanukah’s ass. For my goy readers, on Purim you get these noise-makers called gragers that you swing around during the Purim service, every time the rabbi says “Haman” (the Dick Cheney in the Purim backstory). Of course my good friend Mark Harris would pretend he heard wrong and swung his grager every time Rabbi S. said “Esther,” which was a lot. This became contagious, and before too long, we were all giggly, and the Temple was filled with grager-delic pandemonium. As punishment for our horseplay, Swarsensky made us all stay late in Bar Mitzvah class and miss “Batman.”
But as much as I love Purim, I know it wouldn’t have held up against Christmas any more than Chanukah because it has no tree. Many of my fellow Hebrews coped with tree-envy by getting what they called a “Chanukah Bush.” For me that was like a bad toupee… who did they think they were fooling? Just show me one bush that looks like that…it’s a tree. And if you want to do anything Chanukah-related with it, you should buy nine and use one to set the rest ablaze.
If we had had a Chanukah Bush at our house I know it would have been lame. We would’ve trimmed it with all these Jewish chatchkes, little Menorahs, and six-pointed stars. That’s like putting Billy Graham’s picture under the Mezuzah on the door. If you’re going to have a Christmas Tree, don’t pussy out: go to K-Mart, get some Angels, Rudolphs and Frosties, and be done with it. Snowflakes would be nice. Snowflakes are non-denominational.
But the thing that gives most Chanukah-boosters an inferiority complex is our pathetic holiday music. There are a lot of good Yid musicians, but I guess that they couldn’t get worked up enough about Chanukah, aside from Adam Sandler. The Christians had all the best songwriters, like Irving Berlin. They had Mel Torme singing “The Christmas Song,” we had Allen Sherman singing a parody of “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
But don’t get me started on Dreidels. Am I the only one who thinks this is the dumbest game ever invented? You spin a four-sided top that has the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet on it. And then? How do you win? How do you lose? The game was too damned existential for me. Why was I was spinning the Dreidel? To learn how to spin a top better? That’s not exactly Monopoly. And in any case I had Dreidel-spinning mastered by the time I was five. Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing anybody over five engrossed in a scintillating game of Dreidel. Perhaps that’s why there are Chess tournaments, but no Dreidel tournaments.
So this year I was planning to celebrate Christmas the way Jews have done since ancient times—going to a Chinese restaurant. But my wife—the former Melissa Goldberg—is dragging me out for a hearty Christmas dinner with friends. Bah humbug, I say. I sure as hell hope that the occasion isn’t too jolly or merry or overloaded with a surfeit of good tidings. I don’t like to have Christmas shoved in my face.
But I am bringing my guitar and my Reader’s Digest book of Christmas carols. I sing Christmas carols all year round, not just because they are so beautiful, but also because so many of them are about people who can’t make it home for Christmas. I can relate to that. The only one I refuse to do is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I can’t get through that one without busting out bawling. The song is a wholesome Norman Rockwell portrait of a little kid who comes downstairs and is so sweet and naive that he doesn’t know what the f*ck is going on. I grew up in the Midwest and there was a time when I actually was like that kid, until I got to be nine and started getting neurotic. But little kids today will never have the opportunity to ever experience that kind of purity, the way I did. Instead of hiding down in the living room watching Mommy kissing Santa Claus, they’re up in their bedroom downloading porn.
But as you can tell, I love Christmas for it’s own sake and not just because Chanukah blows. Even when I was alone, thinking of suicide, drowning my troubles in Mogen David, “It’s A Wonderful Life” came on TV to brighten my perspective and make me understand what really matters.
Obviously, Frank Capra was not a Jew.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
When people dream of the awards they’d like to receive, some of them think of the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony, the Pulitzer, the SAG or AFI Award, the Golden Palm, the Sundance Jury Award, the Gotham, the Independent Spirit, the National Board of Review, the Booker Prize, the People’s Choice, or the Nobel. Not me.
I want a Golden Globe.
Here are my reasons why I believe that the Golden Globe is the most prestigious award in the world:
Each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has a snapshot taken with all potential nominees. How could anyone judge the worth of a potential candidate unless they pose cheek to jowl with them, grinning ear to ear?
The HFPA is the most independent thinking of entertainment awards groups. The other organizations in the prize-giving cabal bestow nominations to the SAME films, like “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” and “Black Swan,” raising legitimate concerns about secret covenants, and backroom deals made in smoky rooms. The HFP proves its autonomy is beyond doubt by nominating films like “The Tourist” and “Burlesque.”
Absence of Payola. Many so-called award-giving bodies give out cheesy handouts to their winners, like the MacArthur, which forks over half a million bucks, and the Nobel, which shells out a cool million. The members of the Hollywood Foreign Press take the millions of dollars they earn through TV rights and properly give it to themselves.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is the foremost leader in the fight for world rights. The HFPA is currently suing Dick Clark Productions, who has negotiated TV rights to their awards broadcast without their permission, a truly heinous act.
Cocktails are served at the ceremony. Other organizations are fuddy-duddies frozen in the pre-Prohibition era, with old-fashioned thinking that has no bearing on contemporary tastes. Just try bringing a Bud Lite to the the Nobel ceremony, even in a paper bag.
Finally, this is out of date, but still relevant to the illustrious stature of the Globes:
Every single member of the HFPA used to get a “gift” from all potential nominees. Sadly, this practice ended a few years ago, but it will always remain the historical firmament for the thousands of past nominations and awards.
Recently, The Wrap uncovered an angry letter from ex-HFPA publicist Michael Russell, flinging numerous accusations against HFPA President Phillip Berk, one of the most respected and best-loved members of the Hollywood community. Even more preposterously, Russell accused Berk and the HFPA of unspecified “unsavory business practices.” I have no idea what those so-called “unsavory practices” might be, and reject his complaints as the whinings of a disgruntled former employee.
Nothing Russell or anyone could ever say will interfere with my dream of getting a Golden Globe, or even being invited to the ceremony. If I could only hold that mighty icon of artistic achievement in my hands for a few moments, I know I would not only die happily, I would live forever.
The thought of being on stage with Ricky Gervais, one of my favorite comedians and actors makes me giddy. He is a genius at portraying clueless idiots with grandiose delusions of their importance.
Sadly, I must accept the fact that I am never going to get nominated for a Golden Globe. After all, very few people have the slightest idea who I am.
Maybe I should go on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Sunday, December 12, 2010
The release of the new 18-disc Elia Kazan box set, which includes Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” has got me thinking about the evolution of my thoughts about the director of such classic films as “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,”On the Waterfront,” ”East of Eden,” “America, America,” the interpreter and informal dramaturge for great American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and the elicitor of legendary performances from Marlon Brando, James Dean and so many others.
Kazan is all these things, but he is also a source of deep resentment from many, an anger that is dimly understood by a younger generation of movie fans.
As most people who read this blog know, in the early fifties Kazan was a “friendly witness” for the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), giving names of people in the film industry who were Communists. While there were dozens of others who did the same thing, people lost their livelihoods because of his revelations, although Kazan has always denied this. In any case he lost many long-time friends and was widely denounced.
But if he hadn’t willingly testified, the course of his life would have been irrevocably changed, and it’s impossible to say whether “On the Waterfront” (written by his fellow name-namer Budd Schulberg) would have ever been made, let alone “East of Eden,” “Baby Doll,” or “A Face in the Crowd.” What would not working with Kazan have meant for James Dean’s development as an actor? Would Kazan have still made “Splendor in the Grass,” a movie I loved, after the blacklist ended? In light of what he did, does this matter? It does to me.
In 1971, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo directed the film “Johnny Got His Gun,” based on his 1939 novel. As the blacklist officially ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas put Trumbo’s name on the script for “Spartacus,” the publicity for the film centered on the blacklist. This piqued my interest in the period and when I got to college I did some research and wrote an article, “Celluloid Sedition? The Strange Case of the Hollywood Ten,” for the local film magazine, The Velvet Light Trap. The more I studied it, the more the moral issues consumed me. What would I have done? It is so easy to judge people when history doesn’t force hard choices on you.
HUAC actually held two investigations, one in the late forties and one in the early fifties. During the first one, eleven men were called in to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" The first, Bertolt Brecht, left the country the next day. The others, one of which was Trumbo, who became known as “The Hollywood Ten” refused to answer, and went to jail. After their release, all of them—except director Edward Dmytryk, who agreed to cooperate--came out barred from working in from industry. The blacklist had begun.
I doubt these men had any idea they would face such harsh consequences. If he had known, I doubt that Ring Lardner, Jr. would have responded to the “are you now…” question with, “I could answer… but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.” With the possible exception of the pompous Communist bigshot John Howard Lawson, I believe the Hollywood Ten were essentially innocents. I don’t think they thought it was possible in America to go to prison or lose their ability to work simply by practicing their rights to speech and assembly.
By the second round of HUAC hearings in 1952, everybody knew the deal: cooperate or be totally screwed. But this time the deal was much more strenuous than simply answering whether you’d been in the party. You also had to be a snitch. Many of the accused had renounced the party—or had never even been a member--so they were actually eager to talk about themselves. But the new rules were that once you said anything about yourself, you had to name names. It was Kafkaesque. Academy Award-winning John Garfield was a left-winger who rejected the party, but as a non-party member claimed he had no names to offer, so his career was ruined anyway, and he died of a heart attack soon after. Unless you were a ranting reactionary like Adolph Menjou, it was either lose your career or, in the eyes of many, lose your soul. Arthur Miller, who stood up to the committee, later wrote about the cruel twisted logic of those years in “The Crucible.”
Still, there were a range of options within this inquisition. On one edge, you could deliver a fiery speech denouncing the committee, and seal your fate; and on the other margin you could really go to town like screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who identified a whopping 162 people. In the areas in between there were people who desperately struggled to cooperate but ended up being blacklisted anyway, like Garfield and Larry Parks. If you wanted to be absolutely certain that your career was secure, you needed to plant yourself firmly in the collaboration zone. And this is what so many people condemned about Kazan. He was thought to be too overtly friendly, an opportunist who gave it up without a fight. He saw it differently, of course. Why lose your life to protect people you disavow? The problem with this argument is that many people who had turned against the Communists still refused to turn any of them in.
The blacklist was a brutish, nasty thing which destroyed lives, often slowly, through alcoholism. Divorces, strokes and heart attacks were common. Whether you were able to work or not, the suffering could eat through your life like a fever, as you helplessly watched your friends crumble into despair and ruin. As Kazan would later say about himself, Hollywood folk define themselves by their jobs: without work, they don’t feel like they exist. In the face of all this misery, Kazan’s reign as the king of Hollywood caused the rage against him to fester. Of course, it was American hysteria, HUAC and the cowardice of the studios that created the blacklist. Kazan had nothing to do with that and he was only one of dozens who gave names to the committee. His unforgivable sin was being the most talented and celebrated person to cooperate.
Lillian Hellman, who was defiant to the committee, wrote a book on the period, which she entitled “Scoundrel Time,” but Trumbo, who paid a bigger price than most, gave a famous 1970 speech to the Writer’s Guild where he said there were no heroes and villains during the blacklist, only victims. His words made as many people angry as it pacified others, but it did signal a new era in thinking about the era.
As the decades passed, many of the blacklisted people died, memories faded, and the general consensus about Kazan became forgiveness. Still, when Martin Scorsese and Karl Malden lobbied to get him a special Academy Award in 1999 (when he was 90), Kazan’s icon Marlon Brando refused to present it, and Robert De Niro, star of Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” replaced him. The audience of his Hollywood peers gave Kazan a prolonged standing ovation, but the TV camera focused on Nick Nolte, grimly sitting on his hands. After almost fifty years, Nick Nolte was still pissed off at Kazan for something that happened when Nolte was eleven. I have worked with Nick Nolte and love him, but what the hell kind of choices did he have to make when he was eleven and in the years since? Would he readily walk away from ever being a movie actor again?
Shortly after I came to New York, I was at a party after a New York Film Festival screening. Somebody came over to me and said, “Reid, I have somebody I know you’ll like to meet.” I turned around and this gentleman extended his hand warmly. “I’m Elia Kazan,” he said. What ensued was a discussion about the movie we had just seen. I could use this space to invent something about how insightful he was, but the truth is I don’t remember a single word he said, only how courtly and dignified he was. I wasn’t nervous at all talking to The Great Man, even though I was in awe of the art he had created. He set me completely at ease, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. A man can be a genius, a legend, susceptible to human frailty, and many other things, but when he stands inches away from you, he is a human being, nothing more, nothing less. Any thoughts of the blacklist couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Sunday, December 05, 2010
I hesitate to add another syllable to the cluster of gossip, conjecture and rumor surrounding Ronni Chasen’s murder.
I worked with her on a few movies some time ago, but I didn’t know her well. But it’s definitely more shocking when someone you knew even slightly becomes a victim to something as heinous as this. I keep flashing back to what she was like, her unstoppable positivity. Why her of all people?
It’s tragic when someone dies in the prime of life, worse when it happens violently, but worse of all if it becomes a tabloid story. I went through this in an intensely personal way when Adrienne Shelly was murdered. She had been my best friend for many years (although we weren’t as close at that time), so not only did I and all her friends have to deal with the fact that our dear friend was gone in such a savage way, we also had the media nosing around for details. What would have been an anguished but private affair, became something tremendously more painful.
When you add some kind of show business connection to a real-life ongoing murder mystery, it’s irresistible to the media. If Ronni had been an accountant from Sherman Oaks, her case would obviously not have been subject to this kind of intense scrutiny. The media would report it and quickly move on, until the police found a suspect, and even then it would be a small local story. But with Ronni, who wasn’t even famous and only worked with famous people, certain parts of the media have laid siege to her story.
In one sense it’s a positive thing that the media is casting an intense spotlight on the case, so the pressure is kept on the police for the murderer or murderers to be found, but for me the reportage has stepped way over the line into exploitation and her privacy is being invaded in gratuitous ways. Subtle inferences are being drawn, and questions are being floated. Could Ronni have had some kind of secret life? Unless the police find out the murder had something to do with money, it’s none of our business how much she had, or for God’s sake, how much of it was in real estate versus investments or whatever. But this is the way things work in the age of TMZ and Radar.com.
The other night I watched a very young woman reporter on CNN outraged that she couldn’t see Ronni’s coroner’s report--or even worse—the coroner’s report of the “person of interest.” She was indignant, and argued that the people of Beverly Hills were scared and they had a right to know the truth. Her disingenuous claim of civic-mindedness disgusted me, as obviously it was all about her perverse sense of entitlement that the police owed her a meaningless “scoop.” (If there’s anything that’s not a mystery, it’s what technically caused Ronni’s death.)
I’m not going to say that all of the coverage has been disrespectful; many journalists have found a very good tone for covering this. But there are a lot of cynical people who are using the brutal killing of a really nice woman as a ratings grabber. Shame on them. And double shame on them because a lot of them knew her personally.
Ronni’s murder has become a media event, and there is more than a little irony in that because her life’s work was about handling the media, understanding the way it works and trying to control it for the benefit of her clients. Damage control can be a big part of the job. But one of the saddest things that every publicist learns is that there are some stories you simply can’t control, no matter how much you want to get your client out of harm’s way. We are trained to get the entire story out as quickly as possible, but if the story can be painted as lurid and the resolution to the story is unknown it just keeps going and going, no matter how clever or experienced you are.
I wish there was a publicist who had the magic wand to protect Ronni as well as she did so many of her clients over the years.
Monday, November 29, 2010
In my post on “The Naked Gun,” I wrote about Leslie Nielsen’s adventures with a rubber toy that made fart noises. It was called “Le Tooter,” and he always had it in his pocket, at the ready. He said it changed his life. It made people see him as a silly guy, not some kind of imposing dramatic actor. I never found out whether it predated his transition to comedic roles, but certainly the fact that he was deadpan funny was something that the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio revealed to the world, not something they created.
What can you say about someone who enjoyed standing straight-faced while making rude noises in elevators?
That he loved making people laugh, and he will be very, very much missed.