There’s a powerful scene in the newly released film Chappaquiddick in which an exasperated, wheelchair-bound Joe Kennedy fiercely slaps his son, Ted. The monomaniacal old man is in a rage that Senator Ted, groomed to be the next Kennedy president, now faces ruin for driving his car off a bridge, thus drowning a young girl.
The question is, how many filmgoers will witness this riveting moment; as with most mid-budget dramatic films, Chappaquiddick, though superbly crafted, will battle it out this weekend with John Krasinski’s potential genre sleeper A Quiet Place, the racy comedy Blockers, or the returning Ready Player One. While the movie distributed by Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios relates an important chapter in a great family saga, it lacks the scale and depth (and marketing campaign) required to make a dent in today’s marketplace. At 100 minutes, filmgoers may feel that it plays more like a TV movie or a Netflix caper. Still, scores on audience approval are strong, as are critic reviews, and its best hope is that could encourage theaters to hold the film as positive word-of-mouth kicks in.
A generation ago, this moment in the Kennedy saga might have been conceived as a $100 million, three-hour, big-canvas mega-feature with a an important cast – a genre that has all been abandoned by Hollywood. Older filmgoers may vaguely remember the era when studios regularly offered cinematic feasts like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago or 2001: A Space Odyssey, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Some would argue that Godfather II (1974) or Reds (1981) represented later adventures in this ambitious genre – both were essentially art cinema mounted on a commercial scale. Exuberant fans of Black Panther might argue that film represents Hollywood’s newest manifestation of “the big saga,” but Panther is nonetheless framed as a genre film and, as such, smartly does not aspire to the depth or nuance of its predecessors.
Paradoxically, the most important year in the demise of the Hollywood mega movie coincided with the release of Kubrick’s 2001. Even as Warner Bros was lavishing attention on its sci-fi classic in 1968, a TV executive named Jim Aubrey was taking the reins of a still regal MGM — he promptly set about to trash it. His first action was to peel off sections of the MGM lot to the highest bidders, even auctioning wardrobe, props and random memorabilia. When he turned his attention to the MGM slate, Aubrey was dumbfounded by its ambition: Fred Zinneman, director of High Noon, was prepping a massive drama based on the Andre Malraux classic Man’s Fate. The fabled Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up) was completing Zabriskie Point. Another major bestseller, Taipan by James Clavell, was in preproduction from producers Carlo Ponti and Martin Ransohoff. The game plan: MGM was to lead the way to a new wave of cinematic art.
A man whose ethics matched his level of taste, Aubrey saw to it that that wouldn’t happen. Not only did he blow away MGM’s slate, he also tried to stick the filmmakers with their pre-production costs, triggering decades of litigation. The era of the big-spectacle, big-idea movie had instantly come to an end.
To be sure, Hollywood has gone on to make many memorable pictures, some achieving mythic stature despite their modest budgets – Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Coming Home all emerging from that period alone. John Bailey, the true film aficionado who is President of the Film Academy, presides next week over a special celebration of the 25th anniversary of Groundhog Day, a mid-budget fantasy comedy directed by Harold Ramis that gently sets forth some profound questions about our whims and values. Hollywood’s studio executives, despite their mandates for sequels and remakes, are diligently squeezing in an occasional mid-range film that aspires to make an original statement, although most are funded by indies or studio off-shoots like Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics.
But no one is fostering a new Lawrence of Arabia. Or even trying to pump new energy and resources into a film like Chappaquiddick.