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: Women rule the world. So how do you break the news to the guys? I’ve been in Europe for a couple of weeks, where female power players exult in the fact that Angela Merkel (Angie to her admirers), Theresa May (the UK’s new PM) and, imminently, Hillary Clinton, will preside over the fate of the Western world. Will this female clout exacerbate the incipient Trumpist traits of men?
FLEMING: You wrote that last line before the revelation that FBI chief James Comey told Congress he was taking investigative steps to review emails found on the server of Clinton’s right hand Huma Abedin’s estranged perv husband Anthony Weiner. This has given a lifeline to Donald Trump, who just tossed in $10 million of his own money in a $25 million final ad blitz, per the WSJ. You seem to want to celebrate women, but sometimes you wish they were smarter in their choices of men. Who has proven a worse matrimonial partner: Weiner, or that former fattie-turned-Subway sandwich pitchman Jared Fogle? While Subway has tried to erase all memory of Fogle after he was sent to prison for his predilection for children and child porn, his ex just sued the sandwich maker, charging they were knew something and hushed it up to protect sales. My heart breaks for Abedin, this fully devoted aide who married a rising political star only to see his “sexting” sickness exposed numerous times before she finally left. He not only destroyed his career and their marriage, but now threatens to bring down his wife, and possibly her boss, in the final days of a campaign that was all but over. The stuff that happens routinely now in this digital age, you couldn’t make it up. It says something about Clinton that she hasn’t ditched Abedin for falling in love with an imperfect man (she has experience there), and I wonder if a male would have been more likely to throw an underling under the bus. But it does raise questions on judgment: How could they be so cavalier with private government emails, even after the Sony hack? How did the DNC and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails wind up in the hands of hackers and then WikiLeaks?
BART: This may sound flip, but in Hollywood, for example, there are almost weekly women-in-power celebrations as women rightly push for more executive sway, directing gigs, female-centric content, etc. And they’re succeeding. So how do we prevent the sort of reaction vividly evident in the Hate Hillary phenomenon? As The Economist superbly pointed out in a cover piece, there is no rational basis for Hillary hating — statesmen and legislators who have worked with her by and large praise her unstintingly. The supposed Hillary scandals over the decades have been absurdly overblown and, well, trumped up.
FLEMING: Is the scrutiny against Clinton more troubling in revealing her character than Donald Trump expecting to run a government funded by taxes when he refused to debunk the wide supposition he pays none, or his penchant for hitting back at every perceived slight, or his long trail of coarse comments toward women that includes the Billy Bush tape? How about that recently unearthed old post where Trump expressed condolences to John Travolta over the death of his son, and helpfully endorsed the loyalty of his wife, Kelly Preston, by describing how she would not succumb when Trump turned all his manly charms on the married woman? He’s a caveman. I will vote for Clinton, even as I question how she could not have been more savvy about emails, or if she should have accepted a fortune in speech fees from special interest groups. Like the email issues, it all looks short-sighted, with greedy added on.
BART: But now that women rule the world, they also must remain keenly aware of the disease of chauvinism. It would be tragic if the era of woman power must inevitably be followed by a wave of Trump-ism. Remember, ladies, research shows that testosterone is in increasingly short supply. A piece in the Sunday New York Times carried the headline, “Men are in trouble – can the first female president save them?” The piece, by Susan Chira, states: “The challenge to masculinity in America extends beyond race or political party” and cites data that men account for only 42% of college graduates in the U.S. – the women are winning that battle, too. And 43.5% of unemployed guys regularly take painkillers. That won’t help! Will Hollywood’s superhero movies improve the male self-image? I doubt it, but they’re better than opioids.
FLEMING: I feel like your comments should be read with strains of Helen Reddy’s “I am woman, hear me roar” playing in the background. I’ve had about enough of this, but would only like to add the hope that this insurgence of women in high positions, not only in politics but throughout Hollywood, hopefully will bolster zero tolerance for the boorish advances of powerful men, like the ones attributed to Trump and former Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Hopefully, those attitudes and men who display them, sink into the tar pits like dinosaurs.
I would like to swing the conversation back to movies, if that’s OK with you. Deadline this weekend holds its annual The Contenders event, where we gather an auditorium full of Oscar voters at DGA headquarters and let 21 distribution companies make the case for their awards-season films. I love this time of year — it’s like spring training in baseball, when you think your team has a shot, before reality and the lack of starting pitching separates the contenders from the pretenders. It feels like this Oscar season could be as wide open as last. I went to Brad Grey’s presentation of Paramount’s Oscar aspirants and saw several scenes from the Denzel Washington-directed Fences that made me feel it could be the one to beat for Best Picture, and Best Director and Actor for Washington, and Best Actress for Viola Davis. Grey called Silence “seminal Scorsese” and the footage of watery crucifixions looked visually compelling and terrifying. CBS Films and Lionsgate’s Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day got the AFI’s closing slot that launched The Big Short last time, so maybe we’ll have another inherently emotional Boston story in the mix like last year’s Best Picture winner Spotlight. Grey showed impressive stuff from the Robert Zemeckis-directed Allied with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard and the Denis Villenueve-directed Arrival starring Amy Adams. Added to Meryl Streep’s turn as the heiress singer with the cats-being-strangled voice in Florence Foster Jenkins, Paramount has a chance to end a down year in strong fashion, with five horses in the race. To that end, Lionsgate also has La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge to go with Patriots Day; The Weinstein Company is awash in contenders with Lion, Gold and The Founder. Bleecker Street has Denial with a great Rachel Weisz performance, Captain Fantastic and Helen Mirren’s turn in Eye in the Sky. And Robert De Niro jumped in the race with his insult comic turn in The Comedian, which Sony Pictures Classics is putting in the race. Natalie Portman could win for Fox Searchlight’s Jackie, and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals with Amy Adams is another that registered strongly in Toronto alongside Focus Features’ other contenders, Loving and A Monster Calls. Nocturnal Animals has a Pulp Fiction/American Beauty vibe, a troubling story whose metaphors and imagery just stay with you. A lot to like in this upcoming race, where the challenge for some distributors will be to service multiple contenders.
BART: I agree that this could be a very open race for awards, and as a result the awards season strategists will have to be inventive — and cost conscious. Last Oscar season the ad spending was lavish and every star seemed to be on the circuit. The contrasting strategies already are apparent: Lionsgate has been taking full-page ads in the New York Times trumpeting its excellent critics’ quotes on Hacksaw Ridge. By contrast, A24 has not taken a single ad to boast about its banner quote from critic A. O. Scott for Moonlight (perhaps his most exuberant quote ever) relying instead on social media to spread the word. Which is the right strategy?
FLEMING: Moonlight is launching on a slower rollout, and A24 certainly knew what it was doing on Room, which won Best Actress for Brie Larson and got all those noms including Best Picture. Haven’t seen Moonlight yet, but it was beloved at Toronto and my colleagues speak so highly of it. Barry Jenkins could launch big off this picture, as someone who came out of left field, the way the Room filmmakers did or the way The Birth Of A Nation’s Nate Parker was expected to until his momentum was undone.
BART: Let’s see how all this plays out when we watch the movies in their entirety, the critics groups vote, and we get beyond the hype. In view of the amount of hype devoted to Birth Of A Nation, I think it’s relevant to review the two conflicting theories behind its box office failure. Birth is “stuck” at $15 million, which is disappointing given that it was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. Theory one: The negative publicity surrounding its star and director, Nate Parker, turned audiences away from the film. And the bad vibes continue: Last week another alleged incident at college further hurt Parker’s reputation. Second theory: The movie wasn’t involving. It was brutal and its characters weren’t not sufficiently empathetic. And given the atmosphere of racial unrest, film goers were not in a mood to buy tickets. I favor the second theory. To me, Birth is a prime example of a film that gets standing ovations at festivals but lands with a thud before paid audiences.
FLEMING: I disagree completely. The industry responded last January to the emergence of a worthy new filmmaker voice that might ultimately be silenced by controversy and a past transgression on a college campus. His movie is bold, audacious and moving. It is a version of Braveheart, with slave-preacher Nat Turner as William Wallace. The film was undone because of the past sins of its filmmaker, which imploded in an exceptional and unprecedented way. Please don’t take away his cinematic accomplishment, too. Nate Parker made a fine film, Peter. He would be riding a critical wave right now, if his film hasn’t been marginalized by the rape allegations from 17 years ago.