This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part one is here.
DID CENSORSHIP IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF MOVIES?
BNN: Another theory of mine — although I’m opposed to censorship, is that the dreaded Production Code made the Golden Era movies better.
When you remove all restrictions from art, everything becomes art, and then there is no art.
People forget this but there was no topic these older films didn’t touch upon, be it adultery, incest or homosexuality. The difference was that in order to bypass the Production Code, these issues were relegated to subtext. And subtext is almost always richer, deeper and more satisfying artistically than text.
SE: They were forced into subtext and subtlety. Lubitsch is a perfect example. He even worked that way before the Production Code. That was just his intellect, the way he liked to do it.
Fritz Lang was the only world class director I got to be friends with, and sometimes he would talk about his German films. He was very proud of “M”– proud that he didn’t show what Peter Lorre did to his victims. He told me that if you show that you lose the audience. You don’t lose them because you alienate them, you lose their imagination.
BNN: A crucial distinction.
SE: He wanted the audience working with him. He said the best thing is when you get the audience using their imagination with you. He thought he was at his best when he did that, and he’s right.
On the other hand, there were some good pre-code movies. DeMille’s “Sign of the Cross” is astonishing. And after World War II you had hundreds of thousands of soldiers coming home who had seen war and Dachau and now they’re still being asked to still watch Andy Hardy movies and a married couple in twin beds. That became ridiculous — a joke. And by the fifties it was actually grotesque.
BNN: Agreed. I think the sweet spot came later. The Production Code was still in effect, but compare the original “Cape Fear” to Scorsese’s remake — 1962 to anything goes-1991.
Robert Mitchum has a line where he says to Gregory Peck, something like, “Your wife and daughter ain’t never gunna forget what I do to them.” What you see in your mind’s eye is infinitely more horrifying than anything Scorsese conjured up in a world with no limits. And I think that’s why the original is a much more satisfying, disturbing, and therefore more memorable movie.
SE: I didn’t like Scorsese’s remake. It was over the top. The key moment in [the original] is when Mitchum breaks and rubs the egg on Polly Bergen’s chest. That’s truly kinky.
BNN: And yet you can still show the movie to a 12 year-old. Nothing R-rated. Just subtext; a feel and mood, and of course Mitchum.
The original “Cape Fear” doesn’t prematurely shatter your innocence. It doesn’t teach you about awful things. You have to already be aware of awful things to understand that aspect of the story. And even if you’re not aware, you still can enjoy it. The Production Code forced a depth that’s missing today. And that in my opinion made the art better.
SE: Good point, and you could say the same thing about other, earlier movies. “M” for one – not made under the Code, but you know what I mean. “Blackboard Jungle,” for an American picture. The delinquents breaking Richard Kiley’s records were my first view of malicious destruction for its own sake, but not the last.
“Psycho” is another. “Psycho “is less obvious because you could always make Norman Bates out to be some kind of aberrant outlier, as Hitchcock implied with that ghastly scene with Simon Oakland at the end of the movie.
But what’s incontrovertible is that 55 years later there are an awful lot of Norman Bates’ running around. Hitchcock was far more prescient than he ever could have imagined.
THE NEW PRODUCTION CODE: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
BNN: Isn’t Hollywood, which is almost exclusively a liberal industry now, currently under another self-imposed Production Code — only now it’s called political correctness? Just like under the old Production Code, certain things are no longer allowed in movies today.
SE: I doubt it will last as long as the Production Code, which lasted thirty years.
BNN: I sure hope you’re right.
SE: Mel Brooks said he couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles today. And I think he’s exactly right.
BNN: Talk about lost art.
SE: And all “Blazing Saddles” does is satirize cultural stereotypes. When the black sheriff says, “Excuse me while I whip this out” and the white women scream and faint, what’s he doing there? Obviously, Brooks is satirizing the cultural stereotype of the sexually powerful black man.
If you don’t acknowledge the existence of those cultural stereotypes, or if you try to preordain their disreputability by saying they are beyond the pale and cannot be discussed, you cannot as a society cope or process these things by pretending they don’t exist.
You can only deal with dick jokes, you can’t actually deal with the underlying social premise. Which leads to the movies’ inability to deal with sex. How many sexy movies have you seen in the last 20 years?
BNN: I think sexy is sexist now. There is, though, a lot of sexual debasement in today’s mainstream movies — comedies and dramas — especially of women. Compare that to “Body Heat” 30-plus years ago.
SE: It wasn’t a Production Code movie and it was explicit.
BNN: And the explicit sex is sexy not dirty. It wasn’t about Kathleen Turner physically or verbally degrading herself.
Between the Production Code and this current era of political correctness there was an astonishing era of artistic freedom in the late sixties through to the late seventies. On television you had Norman Lear, elsewhere else there was Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Now we’re in this horrible era where Lear couldn’t launch “All In the Family,” Brooks couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles, but “Two and a Half Men” can make sodomy jokes during the Family Hour.
SE: That’s all “Two and a Half Men” is: dick jokes. My hat is off to the writers who are able to keep coming up with variations. It’s not an elevated talent but it is a talent nonetheless.
WERE WOMEN TREATED BETTER DURING THE STUDIO ERA?
BNN: Referring specifically to your Mary Pickford biography, we hear a lot — and I’m not saying this isn’t a valid complaint, which is why I want to pick your brain — about how during the “sexist, conservative, patriarchal” studio era women were treated horribly and didn’t have a lot of power. And yet, Mary Pickford comes along, starts United Artists and — male or female — becomes one of Hollywood’s first moguls.
Did the industry suddenly become more sexist later?
SE: Her timing was very good in that things were very plastic and malleable when she got into the industry [at the beginning]. At that point you could have as much power and you wanted. The business wasn’t rigidly stratified and she had this huge commercial engine of box office success.
BNN: Her popularity being the same, could Mary Pickford had done what she did, say, 20 years later?
In other words, had they wanted to during their time, could Davis or Crawford or Garbo had done what Pickford did? I personally doubt it because so many independents run by powerful men struggled (Frank Capra, Burt Lancaster, John Ford).
SE: Doubtful on both ends. Executive ability seldom coexists with acting talent. In Pickford’s case, her acting niche was occupied by Shirley Temple. She would have had to be completely reinvented as an actress for a different era. Garbo didn’t interact with people well enough to be an executive, and neither did Davis or Crawford.
Stanwyck…maybe. She made consistently smart choices over a long period of time, and mostly managed her career herself. Very self-contained woman, and her decisiveness as an actress carried over into her life. When her husband Robert Taylor had an affair, she dumped him, even though she was crazy about him. Only drawback – would she have had the necessary self-confidence to raise money, and take responsibility for the inevitable occasional flops? Was she enough of a gambler?
Overall, by the time the thirties roll round, you got sound coming in, which made the banks much more heavily involved in motion picture production and women’s participation in the industry was shunted into just a few areas. You could write, produce — but even so there were very few women producers. But there were a lot of women writers valued for their dramatic ability.
The interesting thing is what happened to the women directors. You had 5 or 6 serious women directors in the silent era, including Dorothy Arzner, who washed out by WWII.
So the question is, was there a bias towards having women directors during an era when there was no bias against women writers and producers?
I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bias. Or maybe it was a social thing about giving women the keys to the kingdom as executives and directors. But once the banks and unions came in, things became a lot more rigid. New York ran Hollywood after the sound era.
BNN: On the screen, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Daryl Zanuck made women into goddesses: Davis Garbo, Stanwyck, Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland…
And now here we are in the supposed feminist or post-feminist era where women have a lot more power in Hollywood and women stars are in worse shape than they’ve ever been.
SE: But the difference is that women went to the movies in 1944. Women wanted to see Bette Davis explode. They wanted to see Joan Crawford shoot somebody. They wanted to see Olivia de Havilland suffer
Movies today are made, with rare exception, for teenage boys. Female participation was much higher than it is now.
BNN: As far as screen portrayals, I certainly think female characters during the studio era were treated with more respect and dignity than women characters today, or during the last 30 years. During the studio era, women were portrayed as strong, independent-thinking goddesses who kept their clothes on.
Whenever I hear someone talk today about Davis, Stanwyck, Hepburn, Crawford, Garbo, etc. as being “ahead of their time” just because they portrayed strong characters, I always laugh. Weren’t they actually of their time during an era when (for the most part) women characters were treated with dignity and respect?
BNN: Does the era studio era deserve more credit than it gets for its treatment of women?
SE: Probably. But you have to remember that women made more of the moviegoing choices in that era. By showcasing so many female stars, the moguls were simply supplying what their public demanded.
I’m sure that modern studio heads would claim the same thing for slates of pictures basically aimed at teenage boys.
But bang-wallop movies are a lot easier to manufacture than relationship dramas, which need to be well-executed if they’re to work. The adult audience is far more demanding, hence a harder target to hit. It’s not that relationship movies don’t exist, it’s that they exist in such paltry numbers, and paltry depth.
BNN: So is it the chicken or the egg? Did Hollywood give up on women or did women give up on Hollywood?
SE: The movie business is in the service industry. If there were a market they would serve it. But the fact that you can count the number of today’s female movie stars on the hand of Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown today, whereas you had a dozen or even twenty in 1940, is a very interesting and very sad comment — not on the movie industry but on the public.
BNN: Just to push back a bit, hasn’t Hollywood worked pretty hard to kill the movie star — to put the power back in the hands of producers? And if you kill the movie star, don’t you kill the female movie star and by extension the women’s picture? You don’t go to see a woman’s picture just to see a woman’s picture. Like you said, you go to see Bette Davis blow her top, Crawford shoot someone, and de Havilland suffer.
SE: The problem is that there are so few real movie stars anymore — stars who can guarantee that first weekend gross in a reasonably budgeted film. In fact there are so few — like George Clooney and Brad Pitt — that the flops don’t matter. They are still big stars because within the industry because they have a certain aura. You’re not really in trouble with three bad pictures in a row. You were 20 or 30 years ago.
Today you’re only in trouble after 10 bad pictures in a row — but let’s not talk about John Cusack.
SE: I don’t know how he keeps working. How does he get hired?. He hasn’t been in a picture anyone has seen since Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” 18 years ago. I like him. He’s charming. But he’s one of those actors how never became an adult. He still has a teenage aura about him.
BNN: That’s another thing that drives me crazy today. You turn on Turner Classic Movies and you see adults, actual grown-ups starring in movies. Today, especially the females, everyone looks like a girl — a kid. Johnny Depp and Cusack are pushing 50 and still look like kids. Joan Crawford might have been 5′ 2″ but she looked like a woman. The masculinity deficit among the so-called men today is profound.
Forever-boys and girls.
SE: There’s a certain amount of truth to that.
BNN: Other than the third Robert Wagner book, do you have anything else cooking?
SE: The new book is called “Hank and Jim,” about the 50 years of friendship between Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Two parallel lives of two guys who nevertheless had a lot of serious differences – political, domestic, etc.
BNN: Can’t wait. I could talk to you forever, Scott. Thanks very much for this.
SE: My pleasure.
Breitbart News would again like to thank Scott Eyman for his time. His books are available at Amazon.com.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC