Jack Warner's ghost haunts the movies

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: Clearly we are not witnessing a “normal” recession.

This downturn is global and gut-wrenching. It’s as though the bountiful 1920s have just collapsed and we’ve all been plunged yet again into the grim ’30s. That upheaval took a decade to unravel, folks. Also a world war.

The emotional response to the present economic debacle varies by generation. The 20- and 30-year-olds tend to be in total denial. They’ve never gone through anything like this and can’t believe it’s happening.

The baby boomers are in disbelief for another reason: Most smugly believed that governments were too smart and that the science of economics was too sophisticated to permit a disaster like this. Globalism would save us. The Arabs and Chinese would prove resilient. The Russians would kick in their energy billions.

Now all of us are standing at the abyss asking: Whatever happened to the survival instincts of CEOs? Why do the gurus of fiscal and monetary policy suddenly look shell-shocked?

The kids still believe that somehow, somewhere, a Big Daddy will save us. He will — if anyone can find him.

* * *

You don’t know Jack

One of the abiding anomalies of the movie business is that there’s little relationship between what studio suits want to release and what filmmakers want to create.

Virtually every filmmaker has his own wish list of projects — films that usually make studio chiefs shrivel. I can visualize that first meeting when Sam Mendes told execs at DreamWorks that he wanted to shoot a film based on “Revolutionary Road,” a 47-year-old novel about the tragic breakup of a marriage.

The project became more attractive when Mendes revealed his cast — his wife, Kate Winslet, would reteam with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since “Titanic.”

Studio apparatchiks had long dreamed of that reunion — perhaps to remake an old Tracy-Hepburn comedy, something upbeat and witty.

So I went to see “Revolutionary Road” last week. It’s a terrific picture. But even as the screening started, I realized I had a problem.

You see, when I go to movies these days, I keep hearing the voice of Jack Warner. Jack’s been dead 30 years and he wasn’t much fun to hang with even when he was alive, but I still hear him nattering at me. Maybe I spent too much time viewing Richard Schickel’s documentary history of Warner Bros. “You Must Remember This,” and that’s why the old geezer sticks in my mind.

I heard Jack’s voice when I saw “Revolutionary Road” this week. “Good movie and all that,” Jack was saying, “but why take these two great-looking kids from ‘Titanic’ and cast them as a quarreling married couple in 1955?”

“Stars are different now, Jack,” I tried to explain. “Guys like you can’t tell them what to do like in the old days.”

“I don’t get it,” Jack replied. “I wouldn’t cast Brad Pitt as an aging baby. I’m sure ‘Benjamin Button’ is a damn good picture, but I would put Brad into gangster films. Rough him up a bit, same with Leonardo.”

“Stars are their own masters, Jack,” I cautioned. “They want to stretch.”

“Stretch, kvetch,” Jack groaned. “I don’t want to see Angelina Jolie looking for lost children. She should be doing Bette Davis pictures. I want to see Sean Penn blow people away, not blow people.”

“The world has changed since you were around, Jack.”

“Not changed for the better. Actors are children. You’ve got to tell them what to do, like I did with Bogart and Bergman and even Cagney. The only guy I was wary about was George Raft. He had friends in bad places.”

“Isn’t there anything today that you approve of?” I asked Jack.

“The Heath Ledger schtick in ‘Dark Knight’ … that’s Hollywood,” Jack declared. “The vampire bit in ‘Twilight’ — kids find blood-sucking sexy. Always have. We need more of that.”

I thanked Jack but asked if I could go to my next screening without him.

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