Hollywood Stays the Course

Even before recent debacles the movie industry has been criticized quite a bit. It seems like the old days are gone: there is much less creativity now, as Hollywood turns out profitable but hardly stirring comic books and Transformer movies, and continues its love affair with safety and with sequels.

So I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that some of the industry's most powerful traditions are still being maintained. The bad news is that these are cowardice and the ability to attract every kind of idiocy.

If you think Sony's recent withdrawal of The Interview is a rare example of knuckling under to pressure, the truth is, this represents part of a long pattern: Exhibit A would be the Waldorf Statement. Following close behind contempt charges leveled by Congress against writers and actors who refused to cow to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, forty-eight studio heads met in NYC to plan a response. Defend freedom? No, their December 3, 1947 statement began instead on a solemn note, that the signees "deplore the action" of those who refused to testify, claiming that their actions "have been a disservice to their employers and have impaired their usefulness to the industry....We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist." Among the immensely powerful figures who wrote this were Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, Spyrous Skouras of 20th Century Fox, Dore Schary of RKO Pictures, and Samuel Goldwyn.

Thus began the Blacklist. What was so nefarious was that the studios denied it ever existed, that any decisions were made on this basis. But suddenly certain people could no longer work.

The effect was devastating. Phillip Loeb had starred on The Goldbergs, a top tv show at the time. But now he couldn't work. His son was institutionalized, and unable to pay the bills, Loeb watched as they transferred the lad to a state facility. In 1955 he committed suicide and his sister wept, "He's been hurt so terribly. Now see what they did to him. They took his living away. They took his life away. A person can only stand so much." People died as a result of the blacklist.

So if you think crumbling in the face of threats is something new, in fact it represents only the latest example of a Hollywood trend going back at least half a century.

Next in our gallery of fools are the creators of the movie itself, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. In the past they have prided themselves on making immature (but highly profitable) movies that are hardly a credit to the industry in any sense other than the bottom line. In every other artistic endeavor they have displayed a similar lack of ability (Seth Rogen's acting chops are ably on display in 2011's The Green Hornet).

Their idea was to assassinate a sitting world leader, the first time a Hollywood film has ever done that. Hilarious, right? If you think that's funny I have some great ideas for a movie. In the first, a group of inept spies try and infiltrate neo-Nazi movements in Germany and wind up killing Angela Merkle. A real knee slapper, that one. But the best is this: bumbling Secret Service agents (torn from the headlines!) trying to foil crazies, wing up killing President Barack Obama instead.

If it disturbs you to read that, it turned my stomach to write it. And that's why you don't go there. Many other films have represented world leaders without having to be that unsubtle, ranging from the immortal (The Great Dictator) to the mundane (White House Down). It's called "creativity".

But movies seem to uniquely bring out stupidity from the thin skinned. North Korea reacted viciously to a dumb movie, which would have passed quickly from the scene. In 1965 Richard Crenna and Shirley MacLaine starred in another charmer, John Goldfarb Please Come Home. In a Cold War plot, Goldfarb is a former football hero and inept U-2 pilot who crashes his spy plane in a Middle East sheikdom. They threaten to turn him over to the Soviets unless he coaches their team to a victory. If you think this sounds lame, so did audiences back then; the film lost money.

But there was one other very public plot twist. The team they want Goldfarb to beat is the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. To clinch their victory, however, the night before they throw a party and get the opposition players drunk so they will perform poorly the next day.

I know what you're thinking. Unprecedented! Claiming college football players ever drink! To excess! Rise to the fore the ire of a certain university in South Bend Indiana. Notre Dame launched waves of national protest to a lame movie quickly and easily forgotten. North Korea's ridiculous overreaction to a dumb feature is also an old ritual.

The fact remains, however, that North Korea did something heinous. Our values insist that we stand up for rights with the utmost vigor, even if the subject is less than glorious.

And here the movie industry followed in the cowardly footsteps of their 1947 predecessors. There are plenty of knaves here, from all sectors. First, Sony cancelled the movie. In all fairness their hands were pushed. It was not just that movie theaters wouldn't show it; pressure was being powerfully rendered by the entire retail industry, who worried shoppers wouldn't even go to malls in danger of attack, and do all their shopping on line. After that, many commentators suggested the studio simply release it online, so anybody could see it, the whole world laughing at a dictator. But cable and web services, showing just as much backbone as Sony, the theaters, and the malls, refuse to carry it for fear of a cyber attack. Several studios are now dropping plans for movies that even mention North Korea. A small movie chain in Texas wanted to show "Team America: World Police" as a protest and Paramount pulled the picture.

The adventures of Sony, Seth Rogen, and North Korea are nothing new. Instead, they are simply part of a long and less than honorable Hollywood tradition.