Lionsgate’s “Bombshell,” which opens Dec. 20, has been getting enthusiastic reactions at industry screenings, indicating multiple Oscar nominations are likely. If so, that would make the film a welcome addition to a rare but important Academy Awards category: The hot-button, current events film.
Director Jay Roach, writer Charles Randolph and the actors — including Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow — deliver the goods in a film that comes out only three years after the 2016 meltdown at Fox News. That puts the film on a par with other multiple-Oscar-nominated films such as the 1976 “All the President’s Men,” which opened three years after the Watergate hearings.
The banner year for this was 1940, when the best-picture nominations included Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” John Ford’s version of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the Alfred Hitchcock-directed “Foreign Correspondent.” They dealt with, respectively, the grasp of Hitler, the effects of the Great Depression and the danger of remaining neutral in times of war. All very timely in 1940.
Before that, Warner Bros. tapped into the notion of “ripped from the headlines!” to promote 1930s gangster films including “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar.” And during the 1940s, every studio made a slew of films about World War II.
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But the studios’ social conscience became more selective. In the 1980s and ’90s, Hollywood — and, by extension, Oscar — looked at modern concerns through a prism of period films, including best-pic winners “Gandhi,” “Amadeus,” “Out of Africa,” “The Last Emperor,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Schindler’s List.” They’re excellent and deal with classic themes, but nobody would accuse them of being “torn from today’s headlines.”
But in the past few years, filmmakers and studios have made such works as “The Big Short,” “Vice” and “The Social Network” that directly address recent events and their aftermath. And Oscar voters appreciate the urgency.
Roach’s credits also include “Recount,” made eight years after the 2000 election in which Florida’s ballot counting came under court scrutiny; “Game Change,” four years after Sarah Palin’s run as vice president; and now “Bombshell.”
“So I’m getting faster!” laughs Roach.
The filmmaker talks admiringly about the 1960 Billy Wilder classic “The Apartment.” The film centers on C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) trying to get ahead in the corporate world, but the most interesting person is Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator at the huge Manhattan insurance company.
“Her character is so interesting and sympathetic — and not so different from the women we portray in ‘Bombshell,’ ” says Roach. “She was ambitious, but because she was a woman, she was maligned for that.”
“Bombshell” is a layered study of people working in a huge company who either facilitate the bullying from head honcho Roger Ailes, or else turn a blind eye to it.
“I see this world as Roger’s doll house, in a weird way,” says Roach. “Ailes cast people in their roles, so to speak, and had people conform. He also had them dress to fit what he wanted. But he also wanted to keep them in separate boxes: The glass booth, the elevators, the cubicles — people were living in boxes and always looking to see, ‘Who’s watching me?’”
Roach likens the studios’ recent risk-taking with hot-button films to the British New Wave in the 1950s and 1960s. After decades of well-behaved, old-fashioned films, a group of U.K. filmmakers and executives “realized they had to be more relevant,” says Roach. The result was a string of movies that reflected the post-WWII working class, in titles like “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “I’m All Right Jack,” “Room at the Top” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”
Awards attention for “Bombshell” will add another notable angle to Oscar history: films about women in the workplace. Movies about men on the job are rare, women even rarer. Many films about working women accentuate their rivalry, notably “All About Eve,” winning six Oscars out of 14 nominations.
And with a few exceptions — “9 to 5,” “Norma Rae,” “Network” — romance is at the center of most mainstream comedies or dramas about women at work, ranging from “Madame Curie” (1943) to “Mildred Pierce” (Joan Crawford’s 1945 best actress win) to “Broadcast News” and “Working Girl.”
The women in “Bombshell” are competitive, but finally realize that this isn’t healthy. And they center their lives around a man, but it’s far from romantic. “Bombshell” is indeed ripped from the headlines.