Maureen Dowd: Hollywood’s bleak conveyor belt obscures the dream factory

This year’s Oscar contenders are less about escapism and more about our sad reality

Empty seats at the Alpine Cinema in New York in February. Photograph: Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times

Empty seats at the Alpine Cinema in New York in February. Photograph: Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times

 

People are talking about the Oscars this year. Namely, how they won’t be watching. A lot of people don’t even realise the show, once an edge-of-your-seat American institution, is on Sunday.

Movie stars don’t exist anymore. Movies have been swallowed by TV and streaming. The theatres are on life support; even the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard, one of the most beloved movie palaces in a town full of cinephiles, could not be saved.

Norma Desmond’s everlasting declaration – “It’s the pictures that got small!” – has never seemed more true. Sex, glamour, excitement and mystery are relics of a bygone era. Hollywood is now focused on worthy, relevant, socially conscious and lugubrious. As a Hollywood writer friend of mine said after she watched Nomadland: “That was not entertainment. That was Frances McDormand having explosive diarrhoea in a plastic bucket on a van.”

Not a crop of movies that make you reach for the Junior Mints. In this grim Oscars season, it’s pathetic that the show’s producers had to issue a memorandum to participants reminding them to dress up. No pyjamas or sweatshirts, please. “They’re over – who cares about the Oscars?” said André Leon Talley, the author of The Chiffon Trenches.

Steven Soderbergh, one of the producers of the show, which will be split between the Dolby Theatre and Union Station, defended the decision to curb Zooming, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not a webinar.”

Brooks Barnes, a Hollywood reporter for the New York Times, put it this way: “The Oscars forgot about its primary job – to sell Hollywood to the world, to be a big, fat commercial for the dream factory, the kind that makes financiers open their wallets and wannabe actresses get pinwheels in their eyes about the day they might be able to stand on that stage and give their acceptance speech.”

Soderbergh is trying to reset and drag the show back to the days when it wasn’t a drag, but it may be too late. Surveys show that small percentages of people who watch movies have seen, or even heard of, the nominated films. (A whopping 15 per cent are even aware of what the hell a “Mank” is.)

There’s a lot of change in Hollywood that’s thrilling, as content and talent finally start to reflect what the country looks like and lives like – stories not decided on by the fetid pool of replicant white guys.

This year, nine of the 20 acting nominations went to people of colour. Two women were nominated for best director, and Chloé Zhao is a favourite to win for Nomadland, which would make her only the second female winner in the ceremony’s 93 years.

Showbusiness

But you still need rapt audiences. What Hollywood is forgetting, to its own peril, is that it’s showbusiness, and it needs to find a way to marry its past storytelling chops with the exciting new forces of its future. Bill Maher made the point on his show that we could use more escapism in this year of plague and tumult.

“I don’t have to leave the theatre whistling, but would it kill you once in a while to make a movie that doesn’t make me want to take a bath with the toaster?” he said, adding, “Academy nominations used to say, ‘Look what great movies we make.’ Now they say, ‘Look what good people we are.’ It’s not about entertainment; it’s about suffering – specifically, yours.”

Leon Wieseltier, the editor of the literary journal Liberties, agrees that Hollywood has “traded playfulness and complexity and surprise and depth for virtue”. Ron Brownstein, who wrote the entertaining new book “Rock Me on the Water,” has a more sanguine view. He believes the current turmoil in our culture echoes the early 1970s, which resulted in a golden age for Hollywood, with classics like “Nashville, ” “Chinatown” and “Five Easy Pieces.”

There were movies by the likes of Robert Altman and Arthur Penn that swirled with ideas emerging from stormy social movements. Later in the decade, there was a backlash from younger directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg who were less interested in critiquing the culture than in entertaining the public; they wanted audiences to cheer at heroes and hiss at villains – or sharks.

American Graffiti

“Their goal was to thrill and exhilarate, not tear down the myths that Hollywood had created,” Brownstein said. Lucas said in a speech at the time he made American Graffiti that he did it because “I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theatre than when they went in. It had become depressing to go to the movies.”

With streaming, Brownstein said, filmmakers can do more personal stories because the movies don’t have to be tent poles with explosions and special effects, and they “don’t have to make $400 million to turn a profit”. But those stories are often less universal, more narrowcast.

Brownstein sees the same tension now as back then between filmmakers offering critical portrayals of the country and people who think it’s a downer. “The dominant impulse of filmmakers now,” he concluded, “is to show you stories and truths that Hollywood has obscured.” – New York Times

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