Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Why were the Oscar ratings down 19% to the smallest viewership level of all time? I found it a most satisfying show. Jimmy Kimmel and producers Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd did a fine job all the way to the finish line this time, owning last year’s gaffe and ensuring it didn’t happen with foolproof 100-point type on each envelope. Kimmel was hilarious; the film montages and special presenters infused the 90th Oscars with a sense of film history. Compared to the men-are-bad funereal atmosphere of the Golden Globes, this show was fun but still managed graceful moments on race, sexism, and immigration in speeches by Frances McDormand, Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro.
So, what the hell happened to the ratings? One of my young staffers said his generation watches highlight clips on their iPhones; why sit through 3+ hours? Another theory is the roster of mostly specialty films limited audience appeal, a theory sure to be tested next year when the universally loved Black Panther competes for Best Picture. Then, I got a call from a left-leaning exec who posited another theory that rang the bell for me. “Just like the Jennifer Lawrence movie Red Sparrow, the Oscars suffered last weekend from the same problem. The Red State audiences were so polarized by Kimmel and Lawrence that they didn’t show up. Google Lawrence and Trump and you’ll see reams of stories where she just bashed the President, over and over. Kimmel didn’t do it Oscar night, but he does it five nights a week and so a certain part of the country would have expected it. It’s hard enough to get people to leave their houses to see anything but a superhero movie at a movie theater. You pay $15 million to Jennifer Lawrence to deliver a big audience, send her out on interviews to broaden that and she turns off half the country. If I was the exec on that film, I’d want to have told her, ‘Shut the f*ck up!’ ”
I began thinking how much print and viral movie star coverage is wrapped up in each star’s political leaning, and the logic seemed to make sense. The only time media really focuses on a star’s film is to note how it failed or under-performed. I had a little research cooked up on the Oscars, which you can see above. I couldn’t break down the Oscar ratings drop to the Red States (above), but it is clear that a lower income set stayed away in droves, perhaps turned off by preachy Hollywood elitists. Peter, are outspoken stars driving potential audiences away?
BART: The executive you cite suggested that someone ask Jennifer Lawrence to “shut the f*ck up.” Apart from the fact that I disagree with that suggestion, here’s an added problem: How would you do that?
A few years back I did a column explaining how MGM’s Howard Strickling operated in the 1930s and ’40s. When a star said something profane, or uttered a political opinion — or simply behaved badly — Strickling got a call from Louis B. Mayer asking him to “tidy things up.” Since actors and directors were under contract to the studio, Strickling’s interventions carried a lot of weight. He was a grey-faced, severe-looking man — odd casting for a publicist — and when he dropped by for a chat, you listened seriously. Repetition of that mistake would result in a suspension, Strickling reminded you. The stars listened.
Strickling doesn’t exist in today’s Hollywood. And if he did, no one would agree to take a meeting with him.
FLEMING: The evolution of the way stars promote movies fits the increased polarization of media, and the way its consumers are forced to pick a side, usually defined by whether they watch CNN or Fox News. I like Lawrence’s brashness; it makes her a great interview. How many times can you (sometimes disingenuously) say how wonderful it was to work with a co-star or director before a reporter’s eyes roll up in their heads? If George Clooney or Matt Damon are out selling movies and they’re asked about Trump, sexual harassment or guns, they answer honestly and it becomes a far juicier lead. But if that promotion hurts a movie’s prospects, why bother sending those stars on tour? Why not take the money and buy another commercial?
People in Hollywood operate in a liberal-leaning political bubble, and so do publications that cover them closely. Is it possible that the public at large doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether an actress talked to or avoided Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet after the latest disputed he-said, she-said allegation? Is it possible real people want to see the dresses and the glamour, and don’t want to be preached to about politics, guns or pay by people who make a gazillion times more for a few months work than the average person earns ever? Is it possible regular people wouldn’t want to be preached at by Hollywood after they’ve read the tawdry tales of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., James Franco, Aziz Ansari and so many others? Lawrence’s film has become yet another giant movie star turn whose opening weekend barely matched her salary. If you buy that exec’s argument, my instinct to turn Kimmel into Oscar’s permanent Oscar host only works if you are content with a Blue State audience.
BART: I have never seen any research that confirmed a relationship between a star’s political advocacy and his (or her) box office numbers. Both Clooney and Damon had weak years at the box office. In my opinion, that had nothing to do with their liberal persuasion. On the other hand, many felt that John Wayne’s advocacy of the Vietnam War hurt his overall popularity. Again, he was getting on in years and had stopped making great Westerns. I used to play tennis with Charlton Heston, who once asked me, ‘Do you think my politics has hurt me?’ I replied that a couple of lousy movies had hurt him more.
FLEMING: Denzel Washington once told me how he heeded advice Sidney Poitier gave him early on, to be strategic about exposure. “If they see you all week,” Poitier told him, “they won’t pay to see you on the weekend.” Washington disappears when he has no movie to sell. You don’t see him pitching beer, cars or credit cards in commercials. He is very disciplined when you do see him, and doesn’t bring a soap box to stand on when the task at hand is broadening awareness for his new film. A few young actors have asked me how they should handle press, some after getting trapped in a self-induced gotcha news cycle. They are surprised when I tell them they have no obligation to please a journalist by saying provocative things or getting too personal, or jumping into a political rant. “No” is a very powerful tool.
While he was playing, Derek Jeter was the example I’d cite as someone to emulate. Two decades playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, romancing the most beautiful women in the city that never sleeps. Because of his discipline with beat writers hanging on his every word at his locker, Jeter never made an error by tossing a polarizing statement about politics, or even criticizing a teammate. The way Washington, Leo DiCaprio and some others do it is a lost art.
Look at what Quentin Tarantino just went through. He is by leaps and bounds the most fun living director a journalist can interview because he is encyclopedic in his knowledge of film, provocative, and his spoken dialogue can be as mischievously lyrical and graphic as his screenplays. We did the Playboy Interview together a couple times. The first, for Kill Bill, gets included in the compendium of all-time great director interviews by that magazine. I can take little credit, other than showing up with a working tape recorder and fresh batteries. The rest was all Quentin. Taking ecstasy against the Great Wall. Having his nipple nearly bitten off in a brawl with a cab driver who insulted his girlfriend. Crazy stories about film and what makes him a great writer/director, and his life. Every question I asked resulted in an anecdotal gold mine. Were my questions that good? Halfway through, I realized why this was happening. It had nothing to do with me.
Tarantino grew up without a father, and his mother gave her 10-year-old son a Playboy subscription in hopes it might give answer some questions for him about manhood. What imprinted on him were all the great movie star and director interviews over decades. He practically memorized them. And he was determined that his would be better than all of them. He succeeded. And so I was being directed to a virtuoso performance by Tarantino, much to the benefit of me and Playboy readers.
After the recent white hot reaction to a dumb comment he made 14 years ago to Howard Stern about the Roman Polanski rape case (he apologized to the victim Samantha Geimer), who can blame Tarantino if his willingness to share in promoting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t go beyond noting that DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are the Newman and Redford of their generation? If a retroactive comment brings that reaction, why stick your neck out? Who needs the aggravation that comes with unfiltered candor that now will hurt a career or the potential performance of the movie?
BART: But look at what Colbert’s ferocious opposition to Trump has done for the popularity of his show. It brought the show back to life. I would argue that Kimmel’s career has benefited greatly from his health care advocacy relative to his child’s illness.
FLEMING: I agree. Kimmel in particular is remarkable. His touchstone late-night hosts – Carson and Letterman – loathed baring their personal lives. And Kimmel gets up there and cries! He made a whole country weep with him when he discussed his son’s health crisis, and turned it into a referendum on health care that was important. He brings a relatability to issues like gun control, and I am glad he’s a thorn in Trump’s side.
But I can see the exec’s point. Oscar’s goal to appeal to the widest possible audience appeal, and the part of the country that elected Trump probably doesn’t like or watch Kimmel. Same for former Oscar host Alec Baldwin. From that standpoint, someone like Hugh Jackman or Tom Hanks or Dwayne Johnson would be worth considering because their personas do not require each audience member to pick a side based on their political leanings. Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey are others. They take up causes, but somehow don’t offend those on the other side of a hot-button issue.
BART: All this was totally skewed, of course, during the Blacklist era. Supposed patriots destroyed the careers of those suspected of Communist sympathies — they saw to it that these people wouldn’t get hired. Outstanding writers and directors, as well as actors, lost their livelihoods in this ugly period. I would hope that era will never be relived.
FLEMING: Way to end this timely joust by advocating something that is universally embraced in hindsight, and not exactly a hot button issue. As I head off on a much needed vacation, I would like to end by noting that I am in favor of ending genocide all over the globe, and that I am in favor of sunsets, penguins and unicorns.
BART: Having worked for major studios in the 1960s and ’70s, the discord of the moment is a vivid reminder of the polarization of that period. Let’s get real: The mood and attitudes of the creative community are at odds with that of Trump and his “base.” There is a total disconnect. The war in Vietnam triggered similar discord in that earlier period. There was no way at that time that the stars and filmmakers could be silenced from venting their anger. It was dumb to try, just as it is today.
But here’s the point: I believe the discord resulted in better movies. An entire new genre of film emerged from the tensions of the ’60s and ’70s. Look at the Oscar slates of that period and you are jolted by their energy and originality. I believe the same will happen today.
In the ‘70s, stars like Paul Newman and, of course, Jane Fonda, made it quite clear to their followings where they stood on the issues of the moment. I had my own arguments with Newman at the time. He wanted to star in “message pictures” like WUSA (a flop), and I wanted him to re-visit Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke. But I never attempted to censor his political voice. He was a big star and his career did not suffer from his political polemics. I believe the same is true with Jennifer Lawrence. I had several encounters with her, including a couple of television interviews. She expressed herself with energy and originality. She is a passionate individual. It would be absurd for a studio suit to try to tamp her down.
I believe the reason Oscar ratings keep sinking stems from other forces in our culture, not the political divide. Hollywood itself is bipolar, so why shouldn’t the audience reflect that fact?
The folks who watch (or don’t) the Oscar show want to re-visit their summer franchise pictures. The Oscar shows delivers the fare from the Independent Spirit Awards. Look at the winners of the past. At the moment they won their Oscars, Moonlight had grossed $27.8 million, Spotlight $45 million and Birdman $42.3 milion. All this represented a notch down from the standard of a few years earlier when Slumdog Millionaire went on to gross $141 million and The King’s Speech $135 million. So Oscar films are becoming even more “specialized” and good for them – but don’t then stare at the ratings and wonder what’s happening.
I do not believe that the Oscars or the Globes were “too polemical.” If their participants had decided to ignore the moods of the moment, they would have seemed phony and brain dead. If the audience out there doesn’t like it, then we’ll have to give them time to catch up.
I remember attending the Oscar shows of 1967 into the ’70s and the political tension was palpable. Many stars simply turned their back on the occasions, Brando-like. That will happen today if attempts are made to stifle free expression.
FLEMING: Of all the dumb points I make in these columns, it took penguins and unicorns to rile you up for that last great bit. My work here is done.