Just When Did The Quality Of Hollywood Films Start To Drop?

To build the number of solid DVD recommendations on my site, for several years now I've been watching roughly fifteen films a week -- old and new, domestic and foreign. This process has yielded a broader appreciation of the scope of feature films beyond my pre-existing expertise, which was Hollywood's Golden Age (1930-1960).

It has also led me to a striking conclusion: though in revenue and distribution terms Hollywood continues to dominate the global film market, the most original, intelligent, and enduring movies today are being made outside this country.

It's a disturbing dynamic when the majority player in a global industry keeps turning out a largely indifferent product. Inevitably, parts of the traditional consumer base start to fall away. In Hollywood's case, the industry is gradually losing their educated adult (40 years plus) audience. As a consequence, they are working that much harder to keep our offspring hooked on a steady stream of comic book and computer game adaptations, brought to the big screen with lots of quick cuts, deafening noise, and whiz-bang special effects.

In pursuing this dubious strategy, a fundamental part of great filmmaking- excellence in script, character development and overall story-telling- gets sacrificed, because the bells and whistles, the sheer noise and kinetic pacing of today's commercial releases, would seem to render them unnecessary. I suggest they are never unnecessary.

True, even at Hollywood's peak, there was plenty of junk being made. But with the built-in efficiencies of the studio system creating much more product overall, there was enough quality work rising to the top to keep discerning moviegoers happy.

Also, studio moguls then consciously wanted to build industry prestige with what were then termed "important pictures". Today, "important pictures" in Hollywood represent only risk, a virtual death knell in a business driven solely by dollar signs.

For today's thinking adults, movies are being increasingly marginalized because there is less reason and excuse for us to make time for them as we did in the past. Technology encourages us to stay forever chained to our PCs and Blackberries, answering every email and phone call in real time, and looking up our old school chums on Facebook.

And if we're disillusioned with what's currently in theatres, we're unlikely to work that much harder to identify and absorb an older film or foreign release, even if we're promised a disproportionate reward in the end.

It's easier just to tune in to "Dancing With The Stars".

Maybe as a movie lover, I over-dramatize the situation. But to me, it feels terribly sad.

Just when did the mighty Hollywood movie machine really start to sputter? To find my own answer, I tried an experiment.

Though few outside the industry know of it, The Quigley Poll has annually tracked the top ten Hollywood stars at the box office since the early thirties. I decided to review their results every ten years from 1938-2008, and for each star listed in a given year, tally the corresponding number of their films featured on www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.

Examining the trend-line of total number of films contributed by the stars over time should help indicate when overall film quality started to decline, at least from my perspective. Since this in effect links the subjective notion of quality to my own personal standards, the results are hardly conclusive, but hopefully still worthy of debate and discussion.

I myself would have expected the thirties to produce a higher total, yet the top ten box-office stars of 1938 are only represented by 27 films on our site, with sixteen of those contributed by just two actors: Spencer Tracy (10) and Clark Gable (6). Beyond runners-up Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power (each with 4 films), most of the other stars have faded with time, including Alice Faye, Sonja Henie, and Jane Withers (a child star who'd go on to play Josephine in those memorable "Comet" commercials in the sixties).

Ten years later, and the number of Quigley stars' films on our site more than doubles. On the 1948 list with ten titles each are Tracy again, along with Bogart, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper. Ingrid Bergman scores with 9 titles, while Bing Crosby adds 4. With all other names contributing at least one title, the forties' total was 62.

The overall number for 1958 stars is down only slightly, at 57 titles. All the prior actors with ten titles represented are gone, replaced by James Stewart (10), Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor (each with 9), William Holden (8), and Frank Sinatra (7). As with the prior decade, each star listed in the Poll's top-ten contributed at least one title.

We hit our peak in 1968 with a record 75 titles, ironically not the best time for Hollywood itself, but in terms of stars, reflecting a vibrant, prolific new generation. Only Liz Taylor returns to the list, joined by late bloomer John Wayne (11 titles). They are joined by Paul Newman (10), Sidney Poitier (10), Jack Lemmon (8), Lee Marvin (7), Clint Eastwood (7), and Steve McQueen (6).

With the '70s' list, totals return to 1940s/50s' levels, with the top-ten stars comprising 61 total films on BMBF, and excepting Clint Eastwood, reflecting a whole new line-up of names: Peter Sellers and Woody Allen (at 10 titles each), followed by Diane Keaton (8), Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda (6 each). Also, newcomers John Travolta and Richard Dreyfuss appear for the first and only time (each with 5 titles). For the first time since the thirties, one name, Barbra Streisand, contributed no titles to the site.

As we then look ahead ten years and beyond, we note that a steady decrease in the number of memorable films begins in the eighties, with the actors from Quigley's '88 poll contributing just over half the number of films (32) from the prior decade. Dustin Hoffman appears, providing 10 titles, as does the up-and coming Tom Hanks (7) and Tom Cruise (5). Yet after Robin Williams (4), the number of titles contributed per star is minimal: Danny DeVito (2), Eddie Murphy (2), Bette Midler (1), Arnold Schwarzenegger (1), Paul Hogan (0), and Tom Selleck (0).

(Just reading some of these names, I feel the edifice starting to crumble.)

The erosion continues in the 90's, whose totals now drop below the thirties' level to generate just 24 BMBF titles. After Hanks, Robin Williams, Mel Gibson (5 titles), and Leonardo DiCaprio (3), we again have a slew of admittedly big stars who, in my view, have not made that many outstanding films: among them, Jim Carrey (1), Meg Ryan (1), Cameron Diaz (1), Julia Roberts (0), and Adam Sandler (0).

The top box-office draws for 2008 hit a new low, contributing a paltry 14 titles to our site. Harrison Ford leads the list with 7 titles, followed by George Clooney with 3. All others on the list contributed two or less movies, including Reese Witherspoon (2), Daniel Craig (1), Christian Bale (1), and with no titles contributed, Will Smith, Shia La Beouf, Robert Downey, Jr., Angelina Jolie, and once again, Adam Sandler.

In fairness to this last group, some of these stars have long careers ahead of them, but it won't do them (or us) much good if the industry doesn't start giving them better scripts. (In particular, Robert Downey, Jr. stands out as one actor who always comes off better than the films he finds himself in.)

Or... perhaps my idea of who or what constitutes greatness in film has become outmoded. Maybe I've been blinded by generational bias, and will justifiably receive a host of angry comments criticizing the absence of Will Smith, Adam Sandler or Julia Roberts on my site.

One request, though, before lodging your protest: first, look again at some of the newer, noteworthy titles from France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Korea, Denmark, Iran and the Middle East. Next, revisit a select few Hollywood classics from the forties, fifties and sixties. In doing this, you'll likely notice some of the differences in film-making emphasis and approach I mentioned earlier.

But with so-called progress and the passage of time, such differences are inevitable. Ultimately it all comes down to this basic question: are we in America making our fair share of great movies today, movies that will stand the test of time?

I for one dearly wish I could answer "yes".