Movie magic trumps reality

Showbiz myths endure

Sundance begins Jan. 19, showcasing 36 feature-length documentaries. The TV networks are airing dozens and dozens of reality series, including plenty of midseason ones. Apparently Hollywood loves to serve up “real life,” but “real” is an elusive concept — especially when showbiz is talking about itself.

Some of films’ most immortal lines — “Luke, I am your father,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Greed is good” — were never actually spoken. But these misquotes have been repeated so often that most people think they’re the actual dialog. And they’re often better than the real thing.

And so it is with Hollywood events. In many cases, the facts are prosaic, and the legends are much more colorful. So myth often seems more real than reality.

Four examples from various decades:

Videogames are luring young’uns away from films and TV.

According to a 2011 report from the Entertainment Software Assn., the average age of a vidgame player is 37. Women aged 18 and older account for 37% of users — compared with males 17 and under, who comprise a lowly 13%.

This may come as a shock to the half of Hollywood who believe vidgames are the domain of teenage boys. (The other half of Hollywood are vidgame junkies themselves.) Bottom line: We’ll have to find another excuse for declines in B.O. and TV ratings.

“Cleopatra” forced Fox to sell land that became Century City.

Lensing of the film ran from 1960 through ’62, delayed by weather, a change in directors, Elizabeth Taylor’s near-fatal illness, etc. On Jan. 9, 1963, Variety’s Abel Green pronounced the production cost as $35 million, or seven times the original budget. Others have put the tally even higher.

The truth: Fox sold 176 acres before “Cleo” began. On Nov. 28, 1958, Daily Variety reported the sale to William Zeckendorf and his real-estate company Webb & Knapp; the price was estimated at $56 million.

At dedication ceremonies for the new Century City (Daily Variety, May 26, 1959), Fox prexy Spyros P. Skouras crowed that movie “attendance is the best it’s been since the competition of television began.”

That’s a positive spin on the real culprit for the sale of Fox’s acreage: TV. Movie attendance dropped in the 1950s due to television, and fewer films were made (often on location, rather than on the lot). The 1959 story concluded that the remaining 80 acres was enough for Fox’s production needs.

This is not to imply that “Cleopatra” was benign. The studio canceled many planned productions and stayed afloat thanks to the mega-success of 1965’s “The Sound of Music.”

Still, the legend persists that cost overruns forced Fox to sell. It’s more fun to blame a movie star and an overbudget film than to cite the amorphous shift in consumer habits.

Moviegoing thrived in the Depression.

The craze for sound movies — or “talkers,” as Variety termed them, as opposed to the earlier “wordless” films — boosted B.O. for a few years, but the Depression took a toll. A June 21, 1932, Variety story said theater operators and distributors “complain that grosses are off 39% to 40% … and in the same breath charge that Hollywood is doing nothing through its studios to balance the situation.”

A technology craze temporarily inflating B.O., while exhibitors battle with studios! Wow, what are the odds of that ever happening again?

Oscars are going to the dogs.

In Susan Orlean’s terrific “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” (Simon & Schuster), she says the Warner Bros. star received the most votes for best actor at the first Academy Awards. “But members of the Academy, anxious to establish the new awards as serious and important, decided that giving an Oscar to a dog did not serve that end, so the votes were recalculated … ”

It’s a delicious doggie tale, but Academy officials are dubious.

In the AMPAS archives, Robert Cowan (whose brother Lester was assistant secretary of the Academy at the time) says Warner Bros. topper Jack Warner did in fact vote for the pooch. “Somebody at the Academy … told Lester to mail another ballot to Jack Warner, and if he didn’t fill it out correctly, to mail it back with his resignation.”

Contempo AMPAS researchers have located Warner’s original vote, but most of the other ballots are (to use another Hollywood metaphor) gone with the wind.

This canine caper points up a bigger truth in all these stories.

Ms. Orlean — a responsible journalist and a swell gal, by the way — pointedly uses the word “legend” in her book’s title. It’s appropriate because showbiz has always celebrated the blending of myth and reality.

We’ll never know exactly how many votes Rinty got. The Acad’s version seems more plausible, but Orlean’s is more fun. (And the pooches’ work in “Beginners” and “The Artist” were more nuanced than some human performances in 2011.)

Still, believe what you will: Do you want facts or do you want magic?

Nobody can prove or disprove religious parables, but those stories were always told not as history, but to teach lessons. And what is Hollywood, if not a religion?

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