Gambling with the movie god

I have always believed news sources should have a right to check their quotes. Even old quotes. Even very old quotes.

So I asked William Goldman the other day whether he had ever really said, “Nobody knows anything.” The veteran screenwriter and novelist allegedly made this remark 20 years ago in describing the decisionmaking process of film studios, and it’s still being quoted with amazing frequency. Surely Goldman hadn’t meant what he said.

Well, it turns out that’s exactly what he meant. “Sure, there are a few sure things in show business.” he remarked last week. “Hire Baryshnikov in his prime and you would fill Carnegie Hall. But that’s about as far as you can take it in the ‘sure thing’ department.”

Goldman’s point, to be sure, is that you need the help of the “movie god” when you put together a pic. You need a confluence of good luck and great talent. There’s no way to pre-package magic. Even when you’re greenlighting a $200 million tentpole.

OK, so I decided to ask David Picker whether he had really uttered another time-hallowed commentary on the decisionmaking process.

According to his quote, if he had said “no” on all the occasions he had said “yes,” and “yes” on all the times he had said “no,” he would have come out in the same place. This comment, also made 20 years ago, carried considerable impact, since Picker had at one time or another been the production chief of just about every studio in Hollywood.

“Sure I said it,” Picker responded. “I was being a bit facetious at the time. I was reacting to some rather pretentious remarks by another Hollywood executive. But my opinion still holds.”

Two quotes, two non-denials, and two more seasoned veterans paying their allegiance to the movie god. Moviemaking is, after all, a religious experience.

In the deep end

A certain tension has always existed between New York’s critics and Hollywood filmmakers, and the commentary last week from Caryn James of the New York Times epitomized these coastal differences. Several films dealing with important social and political issues were about to be released, James wrote, and she wanted to warn filmgoers up front that, while these movies purported to have “Big Ideas,” they were actually mere “sound-bite-size thoughts.”

George Clooney’s movie about Edward R. Murrow, James wrote, reflected a “wholesale reverence…which is always the antithesis of complex thought.” David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” “is so deliberately hyper real in its picture postcard setting that it might as well be a fable.”

Other films such as “Brokeback Mountain” or “All the King’s Men” also are examples of “timidity” because they are “set in the past.” Hence, though they offer portentous themes, they deliver only “prepackaged schoolroom lessons.”

The trouble with movies, according to this Times pundit, is that no matter what they attempt, they cannot offer what she characterizes as “Deep Thoughts.”

I trust that Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Sam Mendes, Stephen Gaghan and all the other filmmakers who think they are about to deliver serious films within the next few months will take note of the Times admonition. It’s not too late to pull these releases back and recut them as comedies or even musicals. “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the musical, might make an entertaining piece.

Then we could refocus our attention and rely solely on the New York Times for our reservoir of Deep Thoughts.

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