Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Prior to leaving for Toronto, I interviewed Mel Gibson before he received well-deserved raves in Venice for Hacksaw Ridge. That he got this much production value on a $40 million budget battlefield movie is as remarkable as the heroic aspects of the film’s protagonist, conscientious objector Desmond Doss. Then I got to Toronto, and watched the press fixate on Nate Parker and a 17-year-old rape case way more than it did his movie, The Birth Of A Nation. That picture, which seemed like a surefire Best Picture nominee at Sundance, is now a shaky bet and the change has nothing to do with picture quality. The film itself is exceptional and evocative of uprising stories like Gibson’s Braveheart and Ed Zwick’s Defiance. I prefer those, or Munich, to others that show unrelenting depictions of institutionalized cruelty and oppression which only end when the sufferers are saved. Long way around to a question: Peter, do you think audiences, and especially Oscar voters, should separate art from the flawed artists responsible for them?
BART: Mike, I have no patience with those instant moralists who condemn Nate Parker’s movie because of the now well-known issues in his past. Indeed, as an Academy and SAG voter, I will decline to let my choices be influenced by social or racial issues. I’m voting for performance, not diversity – but hope diversity wins.
FLEMING: That is admirable of you, but I do think Academy members discount films, or don’t bother to see them at all, if they don’t like the artists who made them. Media does the same. I remember when Apocalypto came out, at a time when Gibson was a pariah because of his anti-Semitic remarks. I didn’t see a better, more original and creatively daring movie in that calendar year, and it was completely ignored. I think Gibson deserves a seat back at the table after a decade of banishment, basically for being an alcoholic who said something stupid to one cop during a drunk-driving arrest. Even if he’s far from a perfect person, who out there is perfect? Not those voters who ignore worthy films because of personal bias: if they were virtuous, they would resign their Oscar voting privileges because they are abdicating their responsibility to vote on the merits of what they see on screen. This isn’t like steroid-abusing former baseball players being denied votes for the Hall of Fame. Gibson has made amends and a movie good enough to be welcomed back into the fold. I don’t see that happening for Parker; the scandal is too fresh, even though it happened nearly two decades ago.
A woman attempted suicide and dropped out of school after accusing Parker and his co-story writer Jean McGianni Celestin of raping her while she was unconscious, only to find Parker exonerated by a jury. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault but got the conviction overturned and it wasn’t retried. She killed herself 12 years later and ended what from trial transcripts sounded like a hard life. Even though Parker’s action happened 17 years ago while he was a college student not even thinking about a film career at that point, and even though a jury judged him not guilty, the harsh glare is all so fresh that I don’t see any way his movie gets a fair shake with the Academy. Fox Searchlight just got another horse in the Oscar race in Jackie, and from a diversity standpoint, Fox has Hidden Figures platforming and the Denzel Washington-directed Fences is still to be seen but the revival he starred in with Viola Davis was superb. Gibson, one of the most talented directors, spent a decade wandering the wilderness. How can Parker’s movie stand a chance in this social media climate, where we collectively have become so quick to define and condemn people for an action or a comment, and demand they be put out of business?
BART: I have had to face issues akin to the “Nate affair” in the past in different situations. As a producer, I worked with a great star, George C. Scott, whose attitudes on racial issues were (to say the least) divergent from mine. I actually changed the location of a Scott movie to minimize his potential inter-action with the black community (I was going to shoot in the Bahamas). Yet, he was superb in my film and I voted for him during awards seasons. As a film executive, I presided over a Mel Gibson movie on which his behavior was (to say the least) erratic, yet I would never have “blacklisted” him, as was done by some studio power players.
FLEMING: I saw so many good movies here in Toronto, and found myself wondering if some of their makers have hidden indiscretions, praying that skeletons don’t fall out of their closet and sink their films. We love to mythologize and create heroes, and then we love to tear them down.
BART: On a whole different level, some journalists and critics write adoringly about certain stars and filmmakers who have diligently curried their favor – witness the famous Pauline Kael and Robert Altman love affair of some years ago. “He’s a really good person,” an interviewer will explain, basing his evaluation on a 30-minute interview and a Google search. Yet I remember watching Marlon Brando eviscerate a fellow actor on the set, then deliver a “nice guy” interview to a smitten journalist.
FLEMING: I am not smart enough to solve someone in a short encounter, so I don’t try. A filmmaker or star would have to be as moron to act like a jerk in a limited encounter with a journalist, so I don’t even try to evaluate what they must really be like. I feel fortunate that my game is breaking deal stories and then exploring the creative aspects of films with interviews. I have handled hard stories, like that revelation of the Nate Parker mess, but that story broke in Deadline not because of me but because of Michael Cieply, a real newsman who’d been an inspiration to me my whole career before he joined Deadline. I did break Parker’s record-setting Sundance deal, and saw a different awards-season path for him, one I expected to help craft. I love second acts, the kind where people give themselves second wind by changing perception of themselves. Parker put his acting aside to write and direct a star vehicle for himself, scrapping for the money to make an exceptional movie that came out of nowhere. He announced himself as a new voice at a time the industry was crying out for new non-white voices. I hate how that story got twisted by something in his past, just as my heart aches for that woman who was made to feel so disposable by those college students. I went to Parker’s house and spent an hour with him, for that controversial story. You cannot see into someone’s soul but he’s got five daughters, the oldest he was about to take to campus for her freshman year. He’s religious, he seems to have grown into a decent man. Those judging him for that terrible night as a teenager don’t see beyond that one night, just as they might typecast Gibson and not the good things he does quietly, which I have heard are considerable. Parker told me that when he wrote his script, he sent it to Gibson, whom he didn’t know, because Braveheart was a touchstone for his film. Parker sent it to others, but Gibson was one of the few who bothered to respond, inviting Parker to his home and working on the script with him. Gibson didn’t ask for money, or credit. I have heard this is not an isolated event for him. I guess what I’m saying is I can imagine how hard it must be for a complicated man to be defined by moments of indiscretion. That was something Amy Pascal found out at Sony. She was one who publicly said she wouldn’t work with Gibson because of the anti-Semitic stuff and then came those hacked Sony e-mails, with banter that was depicted as racist. Despite her track record of worthy, thoughtful and diverse projects, she struggled to explain herself to judgmental people like Al Sharpton. The whole thing is a slippery slope and it can happen to anybody.
BART: Here’s where I come out: Let’s judge the work, not try to pass moral judgment. This is especially true in this intensely political year when some celebrities will have the guts to express themselves honestly. I respect Clint Eastwood’s work and, on a personal level, think he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with. And I’ll praise his work even if he comes out for you-know-who. Eastwood’s new movie, Sully, has opened to the strong reviews and superb ($35.5 million) box office numbers it richly deserves, thus overcoming its two biggest problems: Tom Hanks and Sully himself. By depicting Sully as the stalwart “nice guy,” Hanks undercuts a key tension in the story. Was Sully really a hero or a screw-up? Hanks, as we all know, is never a screw-up.
FLEMING: I just wrote a story from Toronto that Hanks wrote a script called Greyhound that Aaron Schneider will direct. It veers away from the nice-guy stereotype that seems effortless for Hanks. He will play a World War II captain who is long passed over for command and has to battle personal demons and insecurity when finally tapped for a dangerous mission and desperate to prove his naysayers wrong and show he belongs. As for Hanks himself, I admire someone who has been a big star for so long and hasn’t had his “nice guy” image punctured. His work in Bridge Of Spies and Captain Phillips was so good and understated.
BART: I am keenly aware that 39% of the opening audience showed up for Sully because of Hanks (and a big number because Eastwood was the director). Still, the real Chesley Sullenberger is a man who has labored for decades in a dysfunctional industry that has reduced its passengers to miserable peons and its pilots to the status of bus drivers. When we meet him, Sully apparently owes money on a bad real estate investment and is worried about losing his house. When he lands his US Airways plane in the Hudson, the media declares him an instant hero but federal investigators believe one of his engines could have carried Sully and his 155 passengers to a nearby airport. They’re out to nail him as an incompetent who found a way to become an icon (though some bureaucrats later denied this mission).
That’s an interesting story, but it’s not a Tom Hanks movie. Hanks, who, as always, plays his role skillfully, is decent and resolute and we know he did the right thing because he always does. Sully might have been a more interesting movie had its protagonist been played by a neurotic pilot — Shia LaBeouf on a bad day – who himself was becoming unhinged by the nightmare of air travel.
FLEMING: Bob Zemeckis made that movie with Denzel Washington, it was called Flight.
BART: But this is a different movie: In Sully, even flight attendants are all polite; late-arriving passengers are treated compassionately – a unique fiction for today’s travelers. In the end, Sully is a “feel good” picture and Clint Eastwood, now well into his 80s, shows himself to be on top of his game – that, too, is “feel good” time. The movie will doubtless be a hit, but too bad it lost its edges along the way. As has Tom Hanks. But the true message of Sully is that a serious movie with adult actors and no hopes of ever becoming a franchise can still triumph.
FLEMING: That success has been mentioned by more than one of the Don Quixote types here, which is not limited to the makers of these indie films, but the distributors and agents brokering the deals and trying to find audiences for these films. I got to see several movies at this Toronto, including A Monster Calls, Denial, La La Land, Jackie and Nocturnal Animals. Every one of them hit me in the gut in some way, and made me feel things you just don’t when watch the tentpole barrage studios spend all their time with. Readers of our columns have basically opined that I have my head up my ass when it comes to taste in movies, but I choose to be more charitable in my self-assessment. Critics and many moviegoers come to find faults and pick apart movies, praising the rare ones they can’t find fault with. I don’t have to do that, and really wouldn’t want to. I can find good in flawed films and I want to feel some personal connection to a narrative, be it or empathy or anger. I think everybody working as execs or agents probably got in this business because they loved great films. While the major studio guys got sidetracked with global grosses, sequels and Burger King tie-ins, the crowd here is fighting the good fight for films that say something. I find honor in that and it keeps me coming back to Toronto.