HOW THE GRINCH STOLE HOLLYWOOD
Good blockbusters? Mission impossible.
This weekend, the sacrilegious Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas hurdled past Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark into 15th place on the list of highest grossing movies of all time.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the bestowers of Golden Globes, further defiled Seuss's memory by nominating Jim Carrey, the film's star, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy.
Director Ron Howard explains to e-zine Cranky Critic, presumably without a trace of irony, that Seuss "meant for this story to be a protest against the over-commercialization of Christmas."
I hate to break it to you, Opie, but "The Over-Commercialization of Christmas" could be your movie's alternate title.
The point here is not to criticize Howard. He's been providing us with bland, wholesome, fun-for-the-whole-family "entertainment" for years now. But why oh why are people paying good money to see this crap?
Of the year's five blockbusters, only Ridley Scott's Gladiator was worth the price of admission. Yet Mission: Impossible 2, The Perfect Storm, and the aforementioned Theodore Giesel blasphemy now stand among the 50 highest-grossing films of all time.
It's enough to make me nostalgic for Titanic. Worse, it's enough to make me excited for True Lies 2, scheduled for a summer 2002 release.
This has been one of the weakest years in the history of cinema. How weak was it?
It was so weak, Sandra Bullock, who is as good an actress as I am a salsa dancer, was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in Miss Congeniality.
It was so weak, a plotless Chinese kung-fu movie and a two-hour Bjork video will be on every critic's Top Ten list (including mine).
It was so weak, director Steven Soderbergh's two films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, will likely both get Oscar nominations.
A gander at the aforementioned highest-grossing movie list reveals, among the putrid Independence Days and Jurassic Parks and Phantoms Menace, some good films: E.T., The Exorcist, Tootsie, Gone With the Wind.
Why must the latest additions to the list be so bad? For the same reason that New York radio stations suck, and Geena Davis has a television show, and the Democrats and Republicans ran who they ran in the presidential election. When so much money is at stake, the least common denominator always wins out. Why cast a talented unknown when you can have Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford? Why spin Shagg or Stephanie St. John when you can play the new one from Tom Petty? Why mount a new musical when you can revive Guys and Dolls?
Once upon a time, the studios ran the whole show. Actors, directors, and writers were beholden to a single studio. The system was not unlike feudalism.
Certainly there were drawbacks. Directors could be told what to direct, actors could be told what to star in, and writers could be told what to write. Orson Welles, for example, clashed constantly with the RKO execs, who preferred conservative (read: profitable) formula fare to cutting edge pictures like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Others, however, thrived. There were no bidding wars on the latest successes; studios therefore had a vested interest in improving their own assets. Writers and directors were groomed into their jobs, and trained to be better. If your movie flopped at the box office, it was not such a big deal; you were likely three films removed from the project by the time the grosses were in.
Actors made far more pictures per year than their present-day counterparts. Spencer Tracy, for example, made eight movies in 1932. It took Tom Hanks, who like Tracy won consecutive Best Actor Oscars, five years to make eight movies.
Dennis Hopper's independent film Easy Rider did for the studio system in 1969 what the stock market crash did for the economy in 1929. The serfs were liberated from the lords of the manor and became, in effect, free agents. Success (in Hollywood, success=profit) meant more money. Failure, however, could be catastrophic. Michael Cimino did not work for five years after his Heaven's Gate bombed mightily at the box office in 1980.
Yes, Billy Bob Thornton makes more money than Billy Wilder did. But once All The Pretty Horses bombs -- which, if the critics are night, should be by next Tuesday -- studios will not be as quick to green light his next project.
Filmmakers tend to stick to what's safe. What's safe is too often what's bad. And by paying for pabulum like Grinch, we, the American moviegoing public, are in effect endorsing mediocrity.
It stands to reason that this year will be better than last. Quentin Tarantino and Todd Solondz are back at work after a too-long hiatus. Cameron Crowe, John Singleton, Julie Taymor, and the ever-reliable Soderbergh are releasing films in '01. Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, and Paul Thomas Anderson are not. Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes should be, if not good, at least worth seeing. And Spike Jonze is re-teaming with Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman on Adaptation.
It's up to us, who finance the pictures, to tell the studios what we want. Don't succumb to the pressure. Tell Steven Spielberg to take A.I. and shove it. Ignore John Woo's Windtalkers. And whatever you do, for goodness sake, don't give Ritchie Cunningham any more of your hard-earned money.
By Greg Olear