Given the luxurious privilege of having my diary of life among the superstars, Starflacker, excerpted in The Huffington Post and in Saturday Evening Post, why would I instead choose to excerpt from another book not yet even on the market?
It is because readers have read between Starflacker's laugh lines to see that Hollywood's past was not only glamorously delightful, but also that it is the only sane way back to its future. This sharpens my sense of mission to annoy the moviemaking world into reconnecting with the conscience and brilliance of its past glory. And this brief reflection from a may-not-be-published book expresses my fear that Hollywood, without a change of attitude, may not be up to the job.
A weekend of gorging on the beauty and power of Patricia Neal and Marlene Dietrich on Turner Classic Movies has stoked my hunger for Hollywood to get back to great roles for great actresses. New actresses are here, ready to assume their legend, but where are the roles? Who is there today to give Anne Bancroft her Annie Sullivan, Greer Garson her Mrs. Miniver, Vivian Leigh her Scarlett, Meryl her Sophie, Jennifer Jones her Bernadette? They used to come by the score.
So I chose to excerpt not from Starflacker: Inside the Golden Age of Hollywood but from its yet-untitled sequel which will get published only if the first book does well enough. It seems to be holding its own, but who knows. In this already-written possible part two I found the contemplation below on why the movie industry today has such an embarrassingly low batting average of greatness. And here it is:
Let's talk reasons that we find refuge in the films of our past, that we find art and human contact and legends there.
That is not to say that the present is a time without art. There are marvelous, artful films every year. Every Oscar winner is deserving, even if I voted for or worked for another film. But the golden age was a time of PROFUSION of such films. And the profusion now lies elsewhere. During that different epoch and simpler morality, Bela Lugosi gave us what we needed of vampires. Today, every actor with acne is sucking blood.
Peter Ustinov spoke to me once with loving recall of a university essay test on "Who do you feel is the most influential classical composer of the early 19th century and why?" Peter said he'd written eloquently and at great length on the seminal contributions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The paper came back marked, "Wrong. Beethoven."
Who-do-you-think? or what-do-you-think? are tricky questions. Whatever answer you give, no matter how far from reason you fall, is correct. You're the only expert on what you think and on what you like. The Hollywood Reporter very few years back conducted a poll to determine the 100 favorite films of what I suppose was a representative group of Hollywood decision-makers. It was a powerful and meaningful piece of journalism because it was not a list of greatest films, mind you, but the ones which these influential persons of power like best. One must assume that each respondent, with due consideration, accurately reported his or her favorites. I know I did, and it was tough. So subjectively, this census allows one to judge the common denominator of taste of those who at this point control the green light and decide what will make it to our screens. And the resulting denominator was exceedingly common. These people seem to have become the intellect to which they are selling. If not, then it is not "selling" but rather "pandering." There were dozens of selections on the list which film historians and buffs might agree are fully entitled to our greatest favor. But, oh the dozens of exclusions and oh the dozens of just-another-movie inclusions..
This is not to fault the Hollywood Reporter or its survey. The quest did not seek to identify a greatest films list but, rather, to take the pulse of the film community's taste. The mirror is not responsible for what it reflects.
What was reflected was a community of tastemakers of dangerously dubious taste. Not a single true film noir from the great 40s period of noir amongst the 100 films established as most popular. Not a film by John Ford, inarguably high.. possibly highest, in the top tier of greatest directors of all time. NOT A FILM BY JOHN FORD?! Not a film by Lubitsch or Chaplin. Kurosawa made it in by the skin of his teeth with The Seven Samurai holding on for number 100. No Carol Reed who did Odd Man Out, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol back to back to back, as good a three-peat as any man in any game ever accomplished. Of foreign films, the charming French divertissement Amelie was safely in the middle of the pack, but not present was Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, one of the most humane and moving of all films. From what might be a film historian's list of classic war films, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Coppola's Apocalypse Now were there, yes, but not Lewis Milestone's All Quiet On The Western Front or Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory. And did they never hear of much less see D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation or King Vidor's The Big Parade or William Wellman's Wings, winner of the first Best film Oscar? Of course those were silent films, none of which made the grade in this measure of Hollywood's current state of "likes." There was some John Huston, but no Treasure of The Sierra Madre or African Queen? Not even ahead of Ferris Bueller's Day Off?... a nice and amusing laughfest by a significant director of the last decades of the golden age. But better than or funnier than or more topical than Modern Times? For films about entertainment, Almost Famous was included but not Vincent Minnelli's The Bad And The Beautiful.... "aargh!" which is the established gasp of horrified disorientation in comic books, now the favored source of new film subjects.
Ford's absence denies the clasp-to-your-heart brilliance of How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. The Informer, The Searchers. The Long Voyage Home. If we're talking favorites, why wouldn't these people have lapped up Ford's The Quiet Man or Stage Coach? The point of this squabble is that such questionable perception informs what is made today. Maybe that's why we call the past the Golden Age of Hollywood. Too many green-lighters today certainly have their brass.