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.
BART: Hollywood has always been subject to mood swings, and Trump’s Ascension has definitely triggered a giant one. The town’s major players are stalwartly trooping through the awards-season rituals – the AFI Awards, Academy Governors coronation, the screenings and parties – but the attitude is somber, even defiant. The dialogue is vaguely reminiscent of that of the mid ’60s when Vietnam protests and a wave of assassinations captured the attention of Hollywood and propelled filmmaking in a radically new direction. Will that phenomenon repeat itself?
FLEMING: Wow. I spent the post-election days in L.A. for our The Contenders event, and then went to the Napa Valley Film Festival to moderate panels. People at both venue were in total hangover mode, just shell-shocked that Donald Trump won. He doesn’t take office until January. But you are playing Kreskin and already outlining the artistic counterculture response?
BART: Well, here’s what happened in the ’60s. The studios sharply revamped their agendas. Dopey Elvis Presley movies and big musicals like Paint Your Wagon were out. The hottest tickets in town were Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. A band of eager young filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich were pitching low-budget counterculture movies. Haskell Wexler shot an unscripted feature about the self-destruction of the Democratic Party – it was called Medium Cool and could be replicated today.
FLEMING: You are taking the leap that Trump will plunge this country into something resembling Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, the Draft, the Black Panthers, riots in the streets, and everything else that was happening in 1968. I recently interviewed Bill Mechanic, who spent 15 years trying to get Hacksaw Ridge to the screen and who said the movie business is at the lowest creative ebb right now that he’s seen since the ’60s gave way to the golden age of the ’70s. The current plunge had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with global economics. William Friedkin, who was in the middle of the ’70s renaissance, said that after Easy Rider, top studio execs realized they were out of their depth in appealing to young audiences and so they let the filmmakers have free reign because they were a generation removed and didn’t speak the language.
BART: Will this mood be repeated? Michael Moore believes it will. He predicts a mood of intense rebellion throughout society, that a million people will march in protest in Washington on Inauguration Day, that Trump’s initiatives will face open warfare in Congress and that the Democrats will primary out non-progressive candidates. Thousands are signing petitions – many celebrities are involved – asking Republican electors to deny Trump Electoral College approval. Bill Maher meanwhile is not predicting such dire circumstances but he’s wearing his “We’re still here” caps and avoiding forecasts of civil insurrection.
FLEMING: In the pre-election episode of Saturday Night Live, the show all but pronounced Trump dead and buried, and that sure was the attitude of every publication I read or newscast I watched, with the exception of the New York Post and Fox News. The outcome of the election was so inexplicable, I might have to wait for the inevitable Jay Roach-directed HBO movie to figure it out. The movie all this most reminded me of was The Candidate, and that moment where Robert Redford whispers “Now what?” after he wins. Maybe this will light the fuses of filmmakers like The Big Short‘s Adam McKay, Roach and others, and that would be some sort of a silver lining to what Hollywood fears is coming. I’ve seen the outpouring of grief from Hollywood, but I also watched Donald Trump morph from the street-brawling campaigner who hit back after every perceived slight, into something closer to Ronald Reagan in that 60 Minutes interview. His Mexico wall became a fence; he suddenly didn’t want to cause the Clintons more hardship by prosecuting Hillary for her handling of sensitive emails; and he wanted to deport only illegal immigrants who’ve committed crimes. It makes you wonder if Trump was just tired, or if this is him and maybe he planned all along to present a disruptive front, knowing he would have to dial it down if he won. Those consoling Hillary Clinton are also not thinking it through: when your sensitive government emails are found on the computer owned by the serial sexter and disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, you have to wonder if you are fit to run the country. It was like we were given a choice between Zika and Botulism. I’m not sure which one we got.
BART: Some in Hollywood are likening Trump’s celebrity presence in the White House to that of Ronald Reagan. I disagree. I covered the political climb of Reagan as a reporter for the New York Times and found him a vastly more conciliatory figure. Reagan instinctively disliked inflammatory rhetoric. He was appalled by the attitudes of the Republican hard right. He didn’t like the blacklist or the John Birch society. But Reagan, like Trump, took a long time to figure out where he stood on issues. He started as a Hollywood liberal, then evolved into a mid-range conservative. Trump’s agenda is hopelessly confusing but his edges are hard-core radical right.
FLEMING: Trump has evolved in a similar way. The open questions are whether he’ll challenge Roe v Wade by stacking the Supreme Court, even though that seems very unlikely, and if he will prize the First Amendment as much as he and his NRA backers sanctify the Second Amendment. It’s unfathomable to think that Trump’s support level in Hollywood was so low that you wonder if we might see Scott Baio eclipsing his identity as Chachi by becoming MPAA head, or if Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks had as big an impact on Trump’s victory as anyone, now has an ally in his ongoing fight against sexual assault charges in Sweden, which led him to seek asylum in Ecuador. For the top of Hollywood, will the urge to merge — that started with AT&T-Time Warner and might even touch Viacom’s plans to reunite Paramount with CBS — be stunted by a Trump Administration that might seek payback for slights during that long campaign? So many questions.
BART: Amid all this, one of Hollywood’s most political concerned stars, Warren Beatty, spent the weekend shaking hands at the AFI festival and reading the initial reviews of his new film, Rules Don’t Apply. Beatty’s movie, in which he plays Howard Hughes, was privately financed and nurtured by a range of Hollywood insiders who wanted to let the 79-year-old star make his passion project – Brett Ratner, Arnon Milchan, Steve Bing and others. The reactions are varied. The movie is fitfully funny. It’s a romance but also an historical profile. The film is engrossing in its detailed portrait of Hughes – even down to his habit of eating TV dinners – but it also gets lost in its own historic detail. I enjoyed it but it is a curiosity.
FLEMING: Haven’t seen the movie yet, but Beatty came to The Contenders and stayed three hours. He was charming and had a room of Oscar voters eating out of his hand. He might be a factor in this race.
BART: I admire Beatty for spending 20 years developing his movie, going from writer to writer, from cast to cast and finally seeing it through. By coincidence, another star of his vintage, Robert Redford, sent forth a report last week that he was or was not planning to retire from acting. Interestingly, Redford, like Beatty, has had a very mixed record as a director. By contrast Clint Eastwood, who went from star to filmmaker, has created a record of amazing consistency, his latest, Sully, being a major hit.
FLEMING: Redford and Beatty have made better films than those, and Redford is the patron saint of the indie world with Sundance, so you’re not being fair to those guys. They were part of that socially aware generation of films with which you started this discussion. All The President’s Men and Reds are movies that probably wouldn’t get made by major studios right now. Who are the next batch of filmmakers ready to step up, and will studios let them?
BART: Given the highly politicized atmosphere of the moment, I found the most satisfying discovery among the flood of new movies to be Miss Sloane, a movie in which Jessica Chastain plays an absolutely dreadful woman who works as a lobbyist. I call this a discovery because, among all the high-power awards contenders, Miss Sloane has a pathetic campaign, no festival trophies and not even a major distributor. Chastain plays a character who lies and deceives, has no personal loyalty and no personal life – she even hires male hookers for boyfriends. But the film is a tense thriller and gives you true insights into the weird business of Washington lobbyist. And since lobbyists under the new Trump regime are being accorded astonishing new power in naming appointees and framing policies, the movie is highly relevant.
FLEMING: Chastain is good enough in this movie to be nominated, and EuropaCorp can prove its mettle as a new distributor here, before its big test with the Luc Besson-directed Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets that comes out next year. The movie uses the gun control issue only as propulsion for a thriller premise, but it was gutsy, considering that both politicians and movie companies shy away from the hot-button issue.
BART: Ang Lee is running into mixed reviews for his bold techno innovations in his new movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Some critics find the basic movie less than compelling while others admire it – you included. It has a very small story that is all but drowned out by its 3D, 4K high-frame-ratio technology. Could Ang Lee have done better for himself and the studio by making a small film in conventional methodology?
FLEMING: I couldn’t disagree with you more on this one. You make it seem like the innovations pioneered by Lee are gimmicks like colorization. Lee, who won Best Director Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Life Of Pi, has been on a quest, one that he laid out in Deadline in great detail. He acknowledged he had no idea how Billy Lynn would be received, even by his actors. But he followed his heart and his gut, and removed that safety net audiences have when the flickering images create a sense of detachment. I’ve seen Billy Lynn get marginalized as an “anti-war” movie, but I didn’t feel that while watching. It asks hard questions of war and deals with real soldier issues like PTSD, and the superficial “support the troops” stuff that you see in media and at football games. I believe time will be kind to this movie. Maybe it was too much of an abrupt change. Lee, who is not technologically savvy (he admits he can barely work an iPhone) might be disappointed by the reaction to a film he worked so hard on, but the impact of his pioneering efforts will come in time.
BART: Here’s an update on the great behind-the-scenes “food fight” that’s raging during this awards season. At stake is this complex philosophical issue: Does a good meal distort your Best Picture vote? The Academy this week dispatched new rules banning members from attending lunches or parties that do not specifically involve screenings. Food constitutes “a barrier” that gets in the way of one’s “artistic sensibility,” contends the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Arguing to the contrary are awards campaigners led by Peggy Siegal, who insists that serving food is a common courtesy. Academy screenings often constitute a three-hour-plus commitment, given that most now are accompanied by question-and-answer sessions featuring stars or star filmmakers. If actors are allowed to plead their case at screenings but not at parties, doesn’t that, too, affect “artistic sensibilities?” Therefore throwing a good party to break up the drumbeat of screenings helps enliven the ritualistic proceedings, argue the campaign consultants. Besides, it’s common practice to serve lavish meals for the foreign press at Golden Globes time — why do overseas reporters get better fed than American Academy and guild members?
FLEMING: After years of staying up all night chasing deal stories at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto festivals, I got a different look at a film festival when I moderated these panels at Napa. The fest’s niche is to mix movies with good food and local wines. It led to relaxed discourses between food courses about movies, politics, you name it. It was a welcome respite and films seemed less disposable than ones we watch on iPhones. The Academy risks becoming like the NFL, which fines players that break conformity to express themselves with end zone celebrations, or messages on footwear or headbands. Feels like another way the Academy is out of touch. What’s the harm here?
BART: Siegal, a ubiquitous presence during awards season, has thus far has hit a wall, but negotiations continue. Meanwhile, Academy members may still get lucky at some lunches and dinners, which helps them get through some very long and turgid evenings.