The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

AND A FINAL WORD ON THE OSCARS: I like George Clooney. I am not saying that to be ironic or patronizing or to denigrate him; I’ve always liked him, ever since his days on E.R., and if the Academy voted him an Oscar I am sure he deserved it. I know that amongst a good many people on the right there has been some sniping about his acceptance speech, with some people saying that it was self-serving and that he was giving himself a big pat on the back. I did not get that impression; I found it the speech of a man proud of his profession and honored to receive the award that profession bestowed on him. Who would not feel honored in that situation? We all crave the approval of our peers and, God willing, we are all properly grateful to them and to the profession we share when we receive it. So it wasn’t George Clooney and his speech that brought on this little screed.

No, what is giving me a major case of agita was the montage Samuel L. Jackson introduced. That bit of film was one of the most meretricious pieces of malarkey I have ever seen. Hollywood, which doesn’t mind rewriting other people's history in the most egregious manner in order to make a better story, clearly tried to rewrite its own history in that montage and hoping that we wouldn’t notice. Mr. Clooney’s remarks were off the cuff; this montage was not—this is how Hollywood really sees itself, and like so many things in Hollywood, what we see on the screen has very little to do with reality.

Both Mr. Clooney and the montage brought up Hattie McDaniel and how the Academy honored her in 1939 with the first Oscar ever awarded to an African American. Ms. McDaniel won the Oscar that year for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy, the black slave maid to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. In fact, although she was a talented performer—one can read about just how talented she was in Jill Watts’ new biography of her, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood—the only work she could get in Hollywood was portraying a maid. She didn’t like it, but as she once put it, she’d rather make a thousand dollars a week playing a maid than ten dollars a week being one. Hollywood did little or nothing to end Jim Crow in America; it simply catered to the prejudices of its audiences, limiting black performers to minor roles as domestics, to the occasional all black feature, or to easily removable musical numbers so that the film would not lose money in the South. And nowhere in that montage did I see any clips from The Birth of a Nation, which actually did bring about tremendous social change in this country, but not in a way that Hollywood now finds it congenial to admit.

Today, with the release of such films as Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood proclaims itself on the forefront of the struggle for equal rights for homosexuals. Indeed, the montage pointed out that in Philadelphia Hollywood proclaimed the truth about AIDS when no one else wanted to bring the matter up. This, frankly, is a rewrite of recent history. Philadelphia was the first major Hollywood feature film dealing with the AIDS epidemic—it was the film that won Tom Hanks the first of his two Oscars for best actor—and Tri-Star Pictures released the film in 1993. By 1993, the AIDS epidemic had been raging for twelve years. In that time, the disease had killed tens of thousands of gay men, including hundreds in Hollywood, the most prominent victim being Rock Hudson, and yet Hollywood only got around to making a movie about the disease and its effects on the gay community some twelve years after the doctors realized that there was a new and untreatable disease abroad in the land. This is not being ahead of the curve; this is following the pack, and following the pack is something Hollywood is very good at. But such cowardice is not new in Hollywood; it is the norm, not the exception.

During the movies’ Golden Age, stars and studios routinely toadied to the likes of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, knowing full well that either woman could effectively end a star’s career with allegations of sexual impropriety. Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn were just two of the many whose careers took major hits when Parsons and Hopper blared their sexual peccadilloes to the public through their newspaper columns. And when, in the 1950’s, Maureen O’Hara sued Confidential magazine for slandering her, the movie industry first rallied behind her and then headed for the hills, leaving her to fight the charges alone. It does not take a genius to figure out that the editors at Confidential had the goods on many of O’Hara’s original supporters and that the editors did not hesitate to let her backers know that Confidential could break their careers in a heartbeat if they didn't back off. In Hollywood, as in most areas of human life, career preservation and covering one’s ass trumped doing the right thing, a life lesson Ms. O’Hara learned the hard way and writes about in her memoir, ‘Tis Herself.

And when it comes to the 1950’s, there are few periods in recent history that Hollywood is more tendentious about. In 1999, when Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of work in the movies, many in the audience pointedly refused to applaud the old man, and when he died in 2003, whoever compiled the memorial montage placed Mr. Kazan’s clip after the clip for Leni Riefenstahl, a juxtaposition that could hardly be accidental. There is only one problem with that linkage: Riefenstahl was wrong and Kazan was right.

The reason why Hollywood loathed Kazan for so long was not that he named people he knew to be Communists in his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); other people did the same thing that Kazan did and did not have to bear the collective loathing of the industry that Kazan endured. From the time of his testimony until his death, many former friends routinely called Kazan a rat who’d sold out people he knew were harmless in order to save his career, but on closer examination these charges don’t really hold water. Kazan could have refused to testify and gone back to Broadway, where he’d established a reputation as one of the most brilliant directors of his generation, and where there was no blacklist to keep him from working. He might not have made the money he made in Hollywood, but he’d still be living quite well. As for Kazan’s being a rat, one must suspect a certain partisanship here; if he’d informed on the Nazis, he’d be a hero today, but he didn’t. He informed on the Communists, a party he’d been a member of in the 1930’s, as were many other people in the arts, and he’d left the Party because he could not longer toe the Party line on artistic matters.

Unlike many others, Kazan knew the Party very well and liked the Party very little. And it is important to remember that the American Communist Party was not some independent happy go lucky band of Marxist progressives wanting to improve the lot of the proletariat and free blacks from the oppression of Jim Crow; the Party, we now know, was a front run by and for the benefit of the Soviet Union. So why did Hollywood loathe Kazan for so long? The answer is simple: a bad conscience. Kazan took a principled stand against the Communists and spent the rest of his life paying for it; men like Dashiell Hammett and Ring Lardner, Jr. took a principled stand for the Party and went to prison for it, but what did the rest of Hollywood do? Nothing. Like the Vichy French, Hollywood looked the enemy straight in the eye and then promptly collapsed. The truth of the matter is this: Hollywood collaborated. Hollywood went along with the blacklist, went along with making schlock movies like I Married A Communist, and bent over backwards catering to the whims of politicians out to score political points by putting celebrities on the witness stand. That it was not illegal for anyone to be a Communist in the 1930’s didn’t matter; no one’s inconvenient political background was going to get in the way of maximizing studio profits or enhancing one’s career, which were then, are now, and always shall be the twin lodestars of Hollywood.

So Hollywood caved in, and when the era finally ended in the 1960’s the industry tried to ease its collective conscience; Lardner got an Oscar for MASH (he deserved it; that’s still one of my favorite movies) and Kazan became the scapegoat for all of Hollywood’s sins, bearing their resentment for their own lack of moral backbone for the rest of his life. And what caused this lack? I think it derives from the nature of film as an art form. Film is a collaborative art. For all the intellectual theorizing in film studies classes about the movie director as auteur, the simple reality is that no film director can be the author of his work in the same way that a writer or a painter can be. The vision of the latter is their own; the vision of the film director rests on the approval of producers, the infusion of a tremendous amount of cash, and the coordinated work of hundreds of people. One can argue rightly that the theater is also a collaborative art, but in the theater the technical demands of any given production are simply a matter of degree. As Thornton Wilder showed in Our Town, all the theater really needs is a bare stage, willing actors, and the text; everything else is more or less optional. Movies are the product of art, money, and technology, and the technology has always been expensive. A commercial venture the size of a standard feature film does not promote the prolonged examination of social issues unless a consensus about those issues already exists; there is simply too much money at stake. Hollywood will not take a financial chance on such a film unless they know they can make their money back, which is why the first major studio film about the AIDS epidemic came out twelve years after the doctors diagnosed the disease in gay men, and why the studios relegated blacks, Latinos, Asians, and American Indians to stereotypical roles well into the latter half of the twentieth century. In 2002, all of Hollywood fell over itself congratulating Halle Berry for being the first African American woman to win an Oscar in the leading actress category, and yet no one wanted to ask why only seven African American women had ever been nominated in this category and why it took until 2002 for one of them to win. For all the moral preening one gets from the movie industry about the race issue in the United States, I suspect that their record in this area is considerably worse than almost any other American industry you could pick out of a hat, including used cars, pharmaceuticals, and accordion manufacturing.

The fact is that literature can lead the way into a new and different way of looking at the world in ways that the movies cannot; one need only look at the effects of such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle or The Gulag Archipelago to know that a writer can get way out ahead of the curve and help bend that curve in another direction. As much as movie people want to do that, they can’t—there’s simply too much money and too much personal ambition and too many people involved. For this reason, the movies will always be the camp followers of culture, busily trying to keep up with literature and the other arts, and always willing to put aside personal qualms and scruples for a chance to make a larger profit or to make oneself look good. There’s nothing wrong with improving one’s bottom line; it’s the engine that drives the country, but I think the rest of us would prefer that Hollywood stop pretending that somehow or other it is the moral conscience of the nation and that all those anonymous people sitting out there in the dark who make Hollywood possible are a bunch of ignorant yahoos who need the preachments of a self-involved clique in order to live their lives properly .

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