Hollywood loses its zeal for the real

Substantive issues no longer fit under studio bigtop

Now that it’s a big hit, “Bridesmaids” has reminded the industry that women can not only be funny, but also down-and-dirty. Written by women, as a vehicle for women, “Bridesmaids” resonates as an important statement of female autonomy — except for one factor: It is burdened with a Hollywood ending. As with all “relationship” pictures, “Bridesmaids” is all about the girl getting the guy and settling into Ozzie-and-Harriet monogamistic bliss.

Hollywood endings seem increasingly anachronistic these days: Witness the Census data released last week which showed that a pathetic one-fifth of all households consist of married couples with children. Almost 80% of households consisted of married couples in the Ozzie-and-Harriet 1950s. Maybe the girls in “Bridesmaids” should zero in on a more realistic business model.

But if Hollywood’s relationship pictures reflect a flight from reality, so does the rest of Hollywood product — witness the fixation on superheroes or the preference for digital effects over dramaturgy.

The report last week that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were about to shoot another movie set in the Middle East stirred surprise at the studios. The reaction: Don’t these guys realize that audiences prefer pirates to politics? Bigelow hasn’t made a movie since “Hurt Locker” and her funding this time will emanate from heiress Megan Ellison rather than a major studio (her effort to shoot “Triple Frontier” stalled in studio hell). If a filmmaker has something serious on his (or her) mind, they should turn to cable, not film — witness HBO’s complex but utterly engrossing movie on the Wall Street meltdown, titled “Too Big to Fail” (the word “fail” in a title would give a studio cardiac arrest).

Film students are always amazed to learn that political movies were a robust genre in the 1970s. Films of that period dealt with political assassination (“The Parallax View”), the electoral process (“The Candidate”), labor unrest (“The Molly Maguires”), the corruption of political conventions (“Medium Cool”) and right-wing demagoguery (“WUSA”).

Filmmakers from abroad, such as Costa-Gavras, Bertolucci, Pontecorvo, Bo Widerberg or Lindsay Anderson also contributed vibrant, if occasionally shrill, statements on social issues. And movie stars, from both right and left, invested their prestige in political films — Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Sean Connery and John Wayne among them.

But there was a price to pay. Wayne caught a lot of heat for his support of the Vietnam War. I had a couple of arguments with the Duke, who was, in fact, an intelligent and gracious individual with whom to debate. I occasionally played tennis with Charlton Heston, and took the opportunity to tell him that I thought his position on the NRA was as lame as his backhand — Heston was not an angry demagogue. Newman, a fervent liberal, ultimately accepted the reality that the message overwhelmed the movie in his oddly titled “WUSA.” I respected the fact that he’d put a lot on the line to get the movie made.

Most stars today are wary about revealing their political positions and steadfastly avoid films with political subtexts (Sean Penn is an obvious exception). I empathize with their worries: Corporate Hollywood today demands sequels, not statements of conscience. Movies represent only a small slice of the revenue stream from their multinational operations and none of the hierarchs want political backlash to get in the way of their quarterly numbers.

Indeed, even during the ’70s, the majors occasionally backed away from controversy. Paramount chopped marketing support for “Medium Cool” in the face of powerful protests from Democrats (the film took a tough look at the 1968 Democratic convention). Even the gentle satire titled “The President’s Analyst” was undercut by a series of angry phone calls from J. Edgar Hoover, who felt the film besmirched the FBI.

Today’s relationship films represent no such threat, and seem intent on towing the line on accepted social mores. The girls talk obsessively about the guys. The guys talk obsessively about their dicks. Maybe the sequel to “Bridesmaids” will focus on a group of girls who conclude that guys are indeed dicks, and do something creative about it.

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