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Hollywood's poison factory: the movies' twisted image.

America's long-running romance with Hollywood is over. For millions of people, the entertainment industry no longer represents a source of enchantment, magical fantasy, uplift, or even harmless diversion. Popular culture is viewed now as an implacable enemy, a threat to their basic values and a menace to the raising of their children. The Hollywood dream factory has become the poison factory.

This disenchantment is reflected in poll after poll. An Associated Press Media General survey released in 1990 showed that 80% of Americans objected to the amount of foul language in motion pictures, 82% to the amount of violence, 72% to the amount of explicit sexuality, and, by a ratio of three-to-one, felt that movies today are worse than ever.

In reality, you don't need polls or surveys to understand what is going on. When was the last time you heard someone say, "You know, by golly, movies today are better than ever!" Only Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, can make such statements with a straight face. There is a general recognition even among those Americans who still like to go to movies that their quality has declined. This has begun to register in disastrous box office receipts.

There is a dirty little secret in Hollywood. For movie attendance, 1991 was the worst in 15 years, the summer season the worst in 23. Forty percent of Americans report that they don't see a single film in the course of a year - a higher percentage than ever before. What Hollywood publicizes, of course, is total box office gross receipts, which look respectable, but are misleading because the ticket prices have been raised so much. If you actually count the number of warm bodies sitting in theater seats, movie attendance has declined markedly.

Major studios like MGM and Orion are teetering on the verge of collapse. Carolco, which produced "Terminator II," 1992's biggest hit, has scaled back all operations and fired one-third of its employees. This is clearly an industry in trouble.

Rather than searching for solutions, Hollywood looks for scapegoats. The most common line is: "It's the recession," but this ignores, among other things, the fact that, in the past, the movie business always has proven to be recession proof. Economic downturns generally saw the movie business profit as people sought escape.

What Hollywood insiders refuse to recognize is that the crisis of popular culture, at its very core, is a crisis of values. The problem isn't that the camera is out of focus, editing is sloppy, or the acting is bad. It is with the type of stories Hollywood is telling and the kind of messages it is sending in film after film. The industry is bursting with professionalism and prowess, but it suffers from a sickness of the soul.

Hollywood no longer reflects - or even respects - the values that most Americans cherish. Take a look, for example, at the 1992 Academy Awards. Five very fine men were nominated for best actor of the year. Three of them had portrayed murderous psychos: Robert Deniro in "Cape Fear," Warren Beatty in "Bugsy," and Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" (a delightful family film about two serial killers - one eats and the other skins his victims). A fourth actor, Robin Williams, was nominated for playing a delusional homeless psycho in "The Fisher King." The most wholesome character was Nick Nolte's, a good old-fashioned manic-depressive-suicidal neurotic in "The Prince of Tides. "

These are all good actors, delivering splendid performances, compelling and technically accomplished. Yet, isn't it sad when all this artistry is lavished on films that are so empty, barren, and unfulfilling? Isn't it sad when, at the Academy Awards - the annual event that celebrates the highest achievement the film industry is capable of - the best we can come up with is movies that are so floridly, strangely whacked out?

I repeat: The fundamental problem with Hollywood has nothing at all to do with the brilliance of the performers, the camera work, or the editing. In many ways, these things are better than ever before. Modern films are technically brilliant, but morally and spiritually empty.

Anti-religious bias

What are the messages in today's films? For a number of years, I have been writing about Hollywood's anti-religious bias, but I must point out that this hostility never has been quite as intense as in the last few years. The 1991 season boasted one religion-bashing movie after another in which Hollywood was able to demonstrate that it was an equal-opportunity offender.

For Protestants, there was "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," a lavish $35,000,000 rainforest spectacle about natives and their wholesome primitive ways and the sick, disgusting missionaries who try to ruin their lives. For Catholics, there was "The Pope Must Die," which was re-released as "The Pope Must Diet." It didn't work either way. It features scenes of the Holy Father flirting with harlot nuns and hiding in a closet pigging out on communion wafers. For Jews, there was "Naked Tango," written and directed by the brother of the screen-writer for "The Last Temptation of Christ." This particular epic featured religious Jews operating a brutal bordello next door to a synagogue and forcing women into white slavery.

Most amazingly, there was "Cape Fear," which was nominated for a number of the most prestigious Academy Awards. It wasn't an original concept, but a remake of a 1962 movie in which Robert Mitchum plays a released convict intent on revenge who tracks down his former defense attorney. Gregory Peck portrays the lawyer, a strong, stalwart and upright man who defends his family against this crazed killer. In the remake, by "Last Temptation" director Martin Scorsese, there is a new twist - the released convict is not just an ordinary maniac, but a "Killer Christian from Hell." To prevent anyone from missing the point, his muscular back has a gigantic cross tattooed on it, and he has Biblical verses tattooed on both arms.

When he is about to rape the attorney's wife, played by Jessica Lange, he says, "Are you ready to be born again? After just one hour with me, you'll be talking in tongues." He carries a Bible with him in scenes in which he is persecuting the lawyer's family, and he tells people that he is a member of a Pentecostal church.

The most surprising aspect of this utterly insulting characterization is that it drew so little protest. Imagine that DeNiro's character had been portrayed as a gay rights activist. Homosexual groups would have howled in protest, condemning this caricature as an example of bigotry. However, we are so accustomed to Hollywood's insulting stereotypes of religious believers that no one even seems to notice the hatred behind them.

The entertainment industry further demonstrates its hostility to organized religion by eliminating faith and ritual as a factor in the lives of nearly all the characters it creates. Forty to 50% of all Americans go to church or synagogue every week. When was the last time you saw anybody in a motion picture going to church, unless that person was some kind of crook, mental case, or flagrant hypocrite?

Hollywood even removes religious elements from situations in which they clearly belong. The summer of 1991 offered a spate of medical melodramas like "Regarding Henry," "Dying Young," and "The Doctor." Did you notice that all these characters go into surgery without once invoking the name of God, whispering one little prayer, or asking for clergy? I wrote a non-fiction book about hospital life once, and I guarantee that, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are none in operating rooms - only in Hollywood.

Religion isn't Hollywood's sole target. The traditional family also has received surprisingly harsh treatment from today's movie moguls. Look again at "Cape Fear." The remake not only changed the killer, it also changed the hero. This brings me to the second message Hollywood regularly broadcasts. The lawyer Gregory Peck plays in the original version is a decent and honor-able man. In the remake, Nick Nolte's character is, not to put too fine a point on it, a sleazeball. He is repeatedly unfaithful to his wife. When she dares to question that practice, he hits her. He tries to beat up his daughter on one occasion because she is smoking marijuana. That a happily married, family-defending hero - the kind of person that people can identify with - is transformed into a sadastic, cheating, bitter man says volumes about the direction of American movies.

Did you ever notice how few movies there are about happily married people? There are very few films about married people at all, but those that are made tend to portray marriage as a disaster, as a dangerous situation, as a battleground with a long series of murderous marriage movies.

In "Sleeping with the Enemy," Patrick Bergin beats up Julia Roberts so mercilessly that she has to run away. When he comes after her, she eventually kills him. In "Mortal Thoughts," Bruce Willis beats up his wife and is killed by her best friend. In "Thelma and Louise," there is another horrible, brutal, and insensitive husband to run away from. In "A Kiss Before Dying," Matt Dillon persuades twin sisters to marry him. He kills the first one, then tries to murder the second, but she gets him first.

In "She-Devil," Rosanne Barr torments her cheating husband, Ed Begley, Jr. In "Total Recall," Sharon Stone pretends to be married to Arnold Schwarzenegger and tries to kill him. When he gets the upper hand, she objects, "But you can't hurt me! I'm your wife." He shoots her through the forehead and says, "Consider that a divorce." The ads for "Deceived," starring Goldie Hawn, say, "She thought her life was perfect," and, of course, her model husband turns out to be a murderous monster. "Deceived" is an appropriate title, because we all have been deceived by Hollywood's portrayal of marriage.

The trend even applies to television. The New York Times reports that, in the 1991-92 TV season, there were seven different pregnancies. What did six of the seven have in common? They were out of wedlock. The message is that marriage is outmoded, dangerous, oppressive, and unhealthy, but is it true?

The conventional wisdom is that the divorce rate in America stands at 50%, a figure used repeatedly in the media. Yet, the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau report has a category listing the number of people who ever have been married and who ever have been divorced. The latter shows that less than 20% have been divorced. The evidence is overwhelming that the 50% divorce rate is more than a slight overstatement - it is a destructive and misleading myth.

Nevertheless, Hollywood has been selling divorce for years. Remember "The Last Married Couple in America," starring Natalie Wood? That may be a Hollywood prophecy, but it is not the reality of the American heartland. In this matter, as in so many others, by overstating the negative, the film industry leads viewers to feel terrified and/or insecure, and their behavior is affected adversely. I know many people who say, "I'm reluctant to get married because I know there's a 50% chance I'm going to get divorced." Wouldn't it make a difference if they knew there actually was an 80% chance of staying together?


Another negative message is America-bashing. The U.S. is portrayed on movie and television screens as a nightmarish land where nothing is going right and evil powers dominate. Consider, for example, that full-color, breathless guided tour of the fetid fever swamps of Oliver Stone's paranoid imagination. In "JFK," Stone suggests a conspiracy so grand, so enormous, so corrupt that it involves absolutely every conceivable American institution and organization except the Camp Fire Girls.

Oliver Stone's nightmare increasingly has become Hollywood's dream of America. One of the ways my immigrant mother and my immigrant grandparents on my father's side learned about America was through movies. They glorified the American past, and some of them were very good, like "Drums Along the Mohawk" or "Young Mr. Lincoln." Today, if Hollywood made a movie about young Mr. Lincoln, he would be an abused child and grow up to be corrupt and power-lusting.

The American past, according to Hollywood, mainly is about the rise of evil businessmen and the "exploitative" capitalist system, or, alternatively, about the supposedly glorious 1960s. There are a plethora of phony 1960s nostalgia movies clearly made by people who are determined to glorify all those who protested against the Vietnam War and insult all those who actually fought it. Is there a more maligned and abused group of people than Vietnam vets? They always are portrayed as weird guys. If a screenwriter needs to come up with an explanation for why a character is a crazed killer, it is, "Oh, he was in 'Nam." Remember, 3,000,000 Americans fought in Vietnam and a mere handful are crazed killers.

The other era the movies tend to focus on obsessively is the 1930s, with those wonderful dramatic elements of negativity - the Depression and gangsters. The glories of our history? Forget it.

In 1985, there was an attempt to make a movie about the American Revolution that cost $35,000,000 and showcased Al Pacino, his Brooklyn accent firmly intact, as a soldier in the Continental Army. However, this movie made the Americans the bad guys! Did it take a genius to tell Warner Brothers that, if you make a movie about the Revolution that runs two and a half hours and makes the Americans the bad guys, no one will want to see it?

In 1991, the U.S. rallied with unanimity behind Operation Desert Storm. Many commentators predicted that there would be a glut of movies about it. Wouldn't Hollywood be eager to exploit the Gulf War? Not one presently is in production or even in development.

By contrast, there currently are five major studio projects in development about the Black Panther Party - that tiny, briefly fashionable gang of thugs who murdered many of their own members. An industry that thinks the American people are more interested in the Black Panthers than in the genuine heroes of our armed forces is one that is profoundly out of touch.

What is the motivation behind the messages Hollywood is sending? Some people say, "Well, you know, the movie business is perfect capitalism; it's merely giving the people what they want."

However, an analysis of the controversial content of recent films and their corresponding box office performance shows that this is not the case. More than 60% of all feature films now are rated "R" - despite the fact that they consistently earn less money than those rated "G" or "PG." In 1991, PG-rated films drew a median box office gross three times larger than R-rated films, but Hollywood persists in making the majority of its releases as gore- and sex-drenched R-rated shockers. Is this an example of responding to the public?

The movie industry expresses its underlying values most clearly with those projects it considers serious "art" - films that make some philosophical or political statement. Consider the 1990 "Guilty by Suspicion," a dark, tragic tale of an idealistic, blacklisted left-wing director in the 1950s. How could Warner Brothers possibly assume it would make money on this very expensive Robert DeNiro project, especially when more than a half-dozen previous films about the horrors of the McCarthy era had failed miserably at the box office?

Or take a look at the three gigantically expensive film biographies that came out in 1992. One is about Jimmy Hoffa, played by Jack Nicholson. The second is about Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee. The third is about Charlie Chaplin, specifically his struggles with McCarthyism during the 1950s and how he eventually had to flee to a self-imposed exile because of his left-wing politics.

If we can assume that the primary purpose of these movies, each of which cost tens of millions of dollars, is not to earn money, then what is it? Why does Hollywood persist in making films that so constantly revel in the dark side, in gloom and despair, destruction and horror? I'll try to offer a brief explanation, but someone versed in clinical psychology might be able to diagnose the situation better.

People in the movie business are motivated by a tremendous desire to be taken seriously. They don't want to be thought of as just entertainers. They want to be respected as "artists," and the view today is that, in order to be a serious artist - to make a statement - you have to be removed from the mainstream in your own country.

This view ignores all of Western history. Was William Shakespeare alienated from the Tudor monarchy? He wrote play after play glorifying Elizabeth's antecedents and became a court favorite. He was part of the establishment and was proud of it. When Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the imperishable music for which he is known, he did so for Prince Leopold, the elector of Brandenburg, and the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. He composed more than 600 sacred cantatas and chorales, devotedly serving the religious hierarchy of his time.

In the past, most great artists served and respected the society they lived in. To be sure, they were not content with all its aspects, but they weren't off on the sidelines wearing black turtlenecks saying that life is meaningless and bleak or immersing crucifixes in their own urine. The "serious artist alienated from society" syndrome has ruined the visual arts, poetry, and classical music. It even has begun to destroy popular culture, which heretofore has been more in tune with ordinary people.

Today, to win the highest critical praise or receive Oscar consideration, you have to make a movie that says life is short and bitter and that it stinks. Mel Brooks recently made the least successful movie of his career, |Life Stinks.' Pretend for a moment that you are the head of MGM and Brooks comes to you and says, "Hey, I have an idea for a fun comedy called |Life Stinks.' Think that's gonna sell?" No, but it will help him get taken seriously as an "artist."

These are not bad people. They are very well intentioned. There isn't a single AIDS benefit that they will miss. If there is any kind of dinner to save the rainforests, they are there. They want to be loved. Nevertheless, they earnestly believe that the only way they will receive respect from those who "count" - critics, motion picture industry heavyweights, media, and intellectual elites - is to make brutal, bitter, America-bashing, family-bashing, religion-bashing movies.

What can the public do?

At a conference on popular culture and values, I was on a panel that included onetime Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. The question of regulating the content of movies came up. Interestingly enough, Bork generally was in favor of government intervention - i.e., censorship. He pointed out that all law is based upon moral judgments. Law exists to influence the moral behavior of its citizens.

This certainly is a convincing argument, but I don't think censorship is a good idea for one very simple reason: the government makes a mess of everything it does, and it would make a huge mess of determining what goes into movies! It always surprises me that conservatives, who understand that the government is remarkably inept, believe that state power somehow can be counted upon to raise the moral tone of our popular culture. Forget it; that is only wishful thinking.

This does not mean that we can't talk about values in movies. I have drawn a good deal of criticism over the years because, as a professional critic, I try to consider the values and the message in movies - not just their technical excellence - and I speak out about this in the national press and on television. It is vital that those considerations should play a more prominent role in our public discussions of contemporary cinema. That is alternative number one to censorship. No film is morally neutral, fails to send a message, and doesn't change you to some extent when you see it. Movies have a cumulative, potent, and lasting impact.

Another alternative to censorship is corporate responsibility. The great business conglomerates making entertainment have to exercise a more mature sense of social and corporate accountability. We are living in an age when we increasingly are asking corporations to be responsible for their pollution of the air and the water. Why shouldn't they be responsible for the pollution of the cultural environment around us? In the same way that other activists use boycotts and stockholders meetings and every sort of public pressure, popular culture activists must develop a new sense of determination and resourcefulness. The impact of popular culture on our children and our future is too important an issue to leave in the hands of a few isolated movie moguls in Hollywood or politicians in Washington.

There are many indications that the entertainment industry may be eager to reconnect with the grass roots and entertain an expanded notion of its own obligations to the public. The industry has behaved responsibly in some areas. In the past few years, it changed its message about drugs. No longer is it making movies in which marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances are glamorized. Hollywood made a decision. Was it self-censorship? You bet. Was it responsible? Yes.

We can challenge the industry to adapt a more wholesome outlook, to send more constructive messages. We can clamor for movies that don't portray marriage as a living hell, that recognize the spiritual side of man's nature and glorify the blessings in life we enjoy as Americans and the people who make sacrifices to ensure that others will be able to enjoy them.

The box office crisis has put Hollywood in a receptive mood. Already two film corporations have committed to a schedule of family movies for a very simple reason - they are wildly successful. Only two percent of movies released in 1991 were G-rated - just 14 titles - but at least eight of them proved to be unequivocably profitable. (By comparison, of more than 600 other titles, at most 20% earned back their investment.) "Beauty and the Beast," my choice for best movie of 1991, was a stunning financial success. We need many more pictures like this, and not just animated features geared for younger audiences. Shouldn't it be possible to create movies with adult themes, but without foul language, graphic sex, or cinematic brutality? During Hollywood's golden age, industry leaders understood that there was nothing inherently mature about these unsettling elements.

People tell me sometimes, "Boy, the way you talk, it sounds as though you really hate movies." The fact is that I don't. I'm a film critic because I love movies. All the people who are trying to make a difference in this business love movies and love the industry, despite all its faults. They love what it has done in the past and its potential for the future. They believe that Hollywood can be the dream factory again.

When I go to a screening, sit in a theater seat, and the lights go down, there is a little something inside me that hopes against all rational expectation that what I'm going to see on the screen will delight, enchant, and entice me, like the best movies do. I began this article by declaring that America's long-running romance with Hollywood is over. It is a romance that can be rekindled, however, if this appalling, amazing industry once again can create movies that are worthy of love and merit the ardent affection of their audience.
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Author:Medved, Michael
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Tracing the roots of sexual discrimination.
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