Cary Grant was a made-up character according to—Cary Grant.
“I’m playing a part,” he told interviewer Jim Bawden. “It’s a part I’ve been playing for a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant.”
Gloria Swanson said Billy Wilder approached Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo before he finally cast her as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Roy Rogers admitted he had no idea how to act when he started in movies. Cast as a villain in his first picture, all he could think to do was frown.
Van Johnson remembered the day Clark Gable, MGM’s top box office star for many years, left the studio. “He was considered too expensive at $6,000 a week…(I) watched from an upstairs window as Gable drove his convertible right around that loop. Then he stood up and saluted and drove away and with him went the studio’s glory.”
These and dozens of other anecdotes and memories of a bygone age fill Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era by Jim Bawden and Ron Miller. The book, published by the University Press of Kentucky, gleaned from interviews both authors conducted with various stars over the years, is at once a delicious wallow in nostalgia and a sad reminder that movies no longer matter the way they used to.
I devoured Conversations with Classic Film Stars as the movie summer of 2016 wound down, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and Hollywood wondering if there was any future at all in the wake of the failure of so many blockbuster behemoths.
“Cinema Is Dead?” asked a recent New York Times headline, before hurrying to reassure that maybe it isn’t—maybe.
Now that September is upon us accompanied by the arrival of the Toronto International Film Festival, the start of awards season, and a clutch of films that don’t rely on special effects or comic book heroes in tights, there is a burst of optimism. Yet a shadow hangs over film; if the movies are not dead or dying, they are at least unhealthy and possibly on life support.
Wired magazine in its critical appraisal of this past summer’s offerings concluded that this could well be “the worst. Year. Ever.”
Referring to the avalanche of mediocre box office duds littering your local Cineplex over the past four months, Wired critic Brian Raftery wrote: “These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of immediately upon impact.”
Certainly the glamor and excitement that used to accompany going to movies has, for me a least, long since slipped away. The slippage began in the 1980s when I was writing about film. Those of us who covered cinema could see that something was going seriously wrong. The high profile failures of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate spelled the end of the autonomy many directors had enjoyed throughout the seventies and which produced what is generally regarded as the last great age of American cinema.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Hollywood studios, taken over by conglomerates, had begun to turn out mostly big, lumbering noisy industrial products that could appeal to everyone but in the end satisfied no one. As the years went on, things only got worse until now the studios have no interest in anything but expensive sequels, remakes, and animated features designed for family audiences. Most of the movies I grew up loving would never get made by a major studio today.
Even as I devoured movies, there was a great deal of talk about their death. The studio system that sustained Hollywood and nurtured and manufactured their stars through the 1930s and 1940s, was disappearing as theater attendance plummeted and television kept audiences at home.
Ironically, television is once again the culprit. This time, however, it’s because television, to the astonishment of a writer who used to write despairingly about the medium, has become the pop cultural touchstone of our time. Movies have been left in the dust of the dozens of special effects cities Hollywood blockbusters insist on destroying every summer.
Original writing, brilliant acting, cinematography that captures the light and shadow of contemporary life, all that is found on your home flat screen. Movies, on the other hand, have become impossibly difficult to produce and finance, and, worst of all, dull.
As I exited the task of writing about film at the end of the 1980s, I reported that the cost of the average studio movie had doubled over the decade to twenty-three million dollars. I was shocked—shocked!—that a new Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action movie, Total Recall, had cost an astronomical fifty-five million dollars.
I naively worried that “there was concern that even if the summer movies were hits, they could never make enough money to recoup their production and marketing costs.” I quoted one studio executive as saying, “What’s going on is insane.”
Ha. What little did he—or I—know of what was to come.
The latest X-Men installment was budgeted at over two hundred and fifty million dollars, and that’s not unusual in this surreal movie age.
Because pictures have become so expensive, the stakes so extraordinarily high, any signs of originality or unpredictability have been bled out by herds of writers and studio executives intent on making them palatable to the largest worldwide audience.
Ostensibly, it has been left to independently-financed films made outside the studio system, to provide the original and the unpredictable. But the independents, too, are often hobbled by a lack of the audacity that seems to come so naturally to television. The writing is better, the acting often superb, but everything independent appears to have to be based on a true story in order to get made. What the super hero movie is to summer, the true story has become to the fall.
Brian Raftery in Wired makes the point that it isn’t just television that has captured the cultural zeitgeist, it is unexpected phenomenon like Pokémon Go or the Broadway smash, Hamilton, that get everyone talking.
No one much talks about movies any more. Even so, no matter what they do to me, I can still be found most weekends at the multiplex with my popcorn and my optimism. I’m still yammering away about movies—these days extoling the many pleasures contained in Bawden and Miller’s delightful book about movie stars from another age who remind us of a time when movies really mattered.
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