Peter Bart: By Focusing On Class Divide, ‘Parasite’ Alters Perception Of Oscar Voters But Rankles The Right

Parasite Love Story
Neon; Shutterstock

The double bill last week was confounding: Parasite playing side by side nationally with Love Story the edgy Korean thriller nudging the 50-year-old weepy.

There was a perverse logic behind the playdates. Having won every statuette in sight, Parasite now was opening wide in quest of a giant payday, already approaching $200 million worldwide. Love Story, meanwhile, was being resuscitated in 700 theaters as a Valentine’s Day celebration of Hollywood’s consummate date movie (dates usually were consummated).

Filmgoers had a right to be baffled: Would Ki-woo finally emerge from his underground lair to buy the mansion he’d secretly infiltrated? On the other hand, would the Harvard rich kid, Oliver Barrett IV, be banned from hitting on the cute but impoverished (and sickly) Italian girl?

Although the movies are opposites in every way, a filmgoer would detect a common denominator: Both films are fixated on class — a theme that has been steadfastly resisted in our recent pop culture. “The beauty of cinema is its ability to show the reality of class conflict,” observes Bong Joon Ho, who wrote and directed Parasite.

In 1970, Paramount decided to promote its lame screenplay into a giant bestseller and hit movie — gambling that, amid the cultural chaos of the moment, its rich boy/poor girl theme would connect with a young audience. Its literary mediocrity was irrelevant.

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift
in ‘A Place In The Sun,’ 1951

Parasite aimed higher: In pursuing his theme, Bong’s film flashed back to the social dramas of the 1940s and ’50s like as A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Clift was the poor kid given a blue-collar job in his rich uncle’s factory, thus confined to the basement.

“Everyone around the world is acutely feeling class divisions, translating emotion and rage in a way that transcends borders,” Asian filmmaker and USC professor Gina Kim says.

Hollywood’s recent aversion to this perspective is paradoxical at a moment when the next presidential election might devolve into a battle of billionaires. To be sure, films like The Wolf of Wall Street focused on naked greed per se, but the cosmic success of Parasite has left its broader statement on many sectors of the public.

“Conservatives are wary of Mr. Bong, whose work criticizes capitalism and social hierarchies,” observes The Economist. Yet it adds: “If audiences stop to think about capitalism, however, sometimes the poorest are left to feed on scraps.”

‘Parasite’ Neon

“Is Parasite a harbinger of change?” asked the New York Times, concluding that its triumph will still prove to be “an investment in the Oscars’ future as a relevant institution.”

These issues were not as yet imagined in 1970 when Love Story’s fate was being pondered at Paramount. Every other studio had quickly turned the project down. Its sentimentality weighed against it, as did its candor about class snobbery. Further, a succession of hipster movies like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider had changed the lexicon of the marketplace. The social bluntness of Love Story would never work, the studios concluded. (Full disclosure: I was its principal advocate.)

Even the author of the original screenplay balked at the idea of novelizing it. An academic, Erich Segal insisted that he didn’t write well enough to guarantee a publishable novel, no less a bestseller.

He was correct in his self-assessment, but wrong on the end result.

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