HAVING DILIGENTLY FILLED IN my Oscar nominations ballot this past week, I found myself at once gratified and impatient. In thinking about the year’s most accomplished movies, I realized that they were technically proficient but thematically uninspired. I wondered whether filmmakers of the past wouldn’t be wrestling with weightier subject matter at a time like this.
To Alexander Payne: I really liked “Sideways,” and was amused to spend time with your principal characters — a failed writer and failed actor who were pursuing two disconnected women. If William Wyler were around today, however, would he possibly be dealing with a story about veterans newly returned from Iraq — a contemporary “Best Years of Our Lives”?
To Clint Eastwood: “Million Dollar Baby” was an exercise in skilled filmmaking, but, candidly, women’s boxing doesn’t usually fascinate me. If Preston Sturges were shooting today, would he be telling us about the ever-widening gap between rich and poor — a Bush-era “Sullivan’s Travels”?
To Mike Nichols: There was a lot of pansexual sizzle in “Closer,” but if Billy Wilder were behind the camera, would he possibly be focusing his satiric gaze on the cynical manipulation of presidential politics?
So here’s what’s nagging at me: Today’s filmmakers can mobilize enormous budgets and arsenals of special effects, but they can’t seem to grapple with the society around them.
OK, Sam Goldwyn was right when he admonished filmmakers: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” I’m not talking messages here; I’m just talking about getting real.
So that’s the problem with filling out Oscar ballots: You end up thinking about Wyler, Wilder, Sturges — and even Sam Goldwyn.
* * *
Sealing the deal
Memo to Tom Freston: Now that you’ve assiduously consulted with some 100 industry people about the top job at Paramount, and deliberated with Brad Grey (your final choice) since Thanksgiving, perhaps you might ponder the more expeditious course of action pursued by Edgar Bronfman Jr.
When he owned Universal, Bronfman tried to negotiate a deal with Michael Ovitz to become president but found the terms kept changing as the talks meandered over many weeks. Finally he summoned his next choice, Ron Meyer, Ovitz’ former partner at CAA, to discuss the job. He told Meyer to come in with his lawyer with the understanding that, if they couldn’t reach terms in one business day, they would call the whole thing off. He even recommended an attorney to represent Meyer.
They closed their deal before nightfall. Meyer has been there ever since, even though Bronfman is long gone.
* * *
Surveying the box office charts at holiday’s end, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are two distinct movie constituencies out there, and the burgeoning overseas market has made that fact all the more glaring.
There’s the tentpole market with its hefty budgets and with foreign territories repeatedly bailing out films that stumble badly in the U.S. — witness “King Arthur” and even “Alexander.” And then there’s the specialty business, with few (if any) projects breaking out into the coveted triple-digit zone. “Lost in Translation” managed to bust free a year ago, but this year only “Sideways,” if it bags some Oscars, shows that potential.
Specialty films like “Sideways,” “Kinsey” and “Finding Neverland,” of course, were made on Spartan budgets. Thus the real casualties of ’04 were movies like “Spanglish” or “Stepford Wives” — specialty films that were shot on tentpole budgets. “Spanglish” and “Stepford Wives” were truly crossover films — but the wrong kind of crossover.