COVER

WRITING HIS OWN TICKET

Brian D. Johnson April 4 1988
COVER

WRITING HIS OWN TICKET

Brian D. Johnson April 4 1988

MOVIES COME BACK TO EARTH

COVER

A few years ago the art of moviemaking appeared to be in serious trouble. Movies were not about anything anymore, at least nothing that related to the real lives of most North American adults. By the mid-1980s Hollywood studio executives had become convinced that the typical popcorn-eater was adolescent, male and bored.

Movies were high-concept confections designed to numb the mind and jolt the senses. When a romantic comedy was called for, a mermaid surfaced on the Manhattan waterfront and unveiled a pair of great legs (Splash). A typical thriller featured monsters erupting from astronauts’ bodies (Aliens).

Even the serious movies—such Oscar heavyweights as Gandhi and Amadeus—were remote epics about legendary men in foreign lands. But on the eve of the April 11 Academy Awards ceremony the picture has changed. The top nominated films, notably director Norman Jewison’s sophisticated comedy Moonstruck, are clearly aimed at an adult audience. And a number of them—Broadcast News, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction and Good Morning, Vietnam—deal head-on with moral or ethical issues.

Comedy: Hollywood has always reserved a place for message movies— ranging from Silkwood’s antinuclear lament (1983) to the Cambodian horror of The Killing Fields (1984). Generally, they were not huge hits but were celebrated at the Oscars. However, over the past year such films have become some of the biggest draws at the box office. And that confirms a growing trend: adults are going to the movies again. According to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, a recent survey showed that the over-40 age group bought 71 million more movie tickets in 1987 than in 1986, an increase of 56 per cent. Meanwhile, the teenage portion of the audience has declined. The figures reflect the aging of

the baby-boom generation. Significantly, even the year’s least sophisticated comedy hit, Three Men and a Baby, is geared to an audience infatuated with parenthood, rather than childless singles trying to remortgage their adolescent fantasies. James L.

Brooks, who wrote, directed and produced Broadcast News, told Maclean's last week,

“You used to have to explain to somebody why a 14-year-old would go to your movie.” The current crop of hits shows that maturity is back in fashion, he said, and added,

“Hopefully, this is now Hollywood fare.”

Impact: With the new Hollywood comes a new morality, and the accent is on responsibility. The two most talked-about movies among the Oscar nominees—Broadcast News and Fatal Attraction—have had a social impact beyond entertainment. Broadcast News raised questions about the

ethics of TV journalism and touched a nerve among its real-life subjects. Several news anchors, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw, took offence at the unflattering way their profession was portrayed. And despite some farfetched scenes, for much of the audience the movie was as credible as television news itself.

Sultry: Hollywood seems to have recovered its sleight of hand. Once again, people are con necting what they see on the screen to the world they live in. Fatal At traction, director Adrian Lyne's cautionary tale about a married man who is seduced by a sul try psychotic, became a form of aversion therapy for husbands contem nl~~tiriii t~diiltor~r art~c~ ing about $185 million so far, Lyne's shock treatment has been immensely popular-and its timing seems appro priate considering the reports of adul tery that have grounded the careers of a presidential candidate and two TV evangelists. Meanwhile, the coincidental timing of Wall Street, director Oliver Stone’s moral lesson about the pitfalls of capitalist greed, was uncanny: the film appeared within eight weeks of the Oct. 19 stock market crash.

Of this year’s best-picture nominees, only Fatal Attraction is cynically written, coldly directed—and constructed around a simple, irresistible hook. In the industry, it is known as a high-concept movie. Until recently, however, highconcept movies were usually custom-made for a young audience. A high concept, unlike a mere idea, is a proposal that someone can scribble on a cocktail napkin in the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge and sell for a vast sum of money. Director Steven Spielberg, whose E.T. The ExtraTerrestrial ushered in a whole species of sciencefiction fables, sometimes receives credit for turning high-concept into Hollywood’s gospel. Said Spielberg: “I like ideas that you can hold in your hand.”

Hits:By the mid1980s making movies had become a technical science. Screenwriting began to resemble genetic engineering, as producers crafted new hybrids from proven hits. And inbreeding led to strange deformities. The potentially noble lineage that E.T. began evolved into such sideshows as Gremlins and The Goonies. Long after Saturday Night Fever had cooled, its Cinderella concept bounced back in Flashdance, with the hollow smack of a Plexiglas slipper.

But the safest high-concept route to commercial success is the sequel. Producing a sequel is like collecting dividends on a winning stock. If the original is a hit, the sequel—no matter how inferior—is almost guaranteed to do well at the box office: last year’s Beverly Hills Cop II grossed $191 million. But the problem with making a sequel is coming up with a new way of telling the same story. Cop If s script underwent a frantic series of last-minute rewrites as the producers realized it was not funny. The final solution was to cover up the lack of comedy with car

chases and other fast-paced action.

At its height, high-concept almost rendered dramatic writing obsolete. Brooks recalled attending a panel discussion in San Francisco, at which filmmakers talked about how dialogue intruded on the action. “There was an argument about whether dialogue was important to the screenplay,” said Brooks. “I thought I was going to lose my mind that day.” But high-concept appears to have fallen from fashion in Hollywood. In fact, according to critic

Peter Biskind of Premiere magazine, “instead of being asked to punch up scripts, screenwriters these days are sometimes asked to punch them down.” Maverick: Among the current hits, there is no better example of high-concept’s demise and Hollywood’s new literacy than Moonstruck. The first draft of John Patrick Shanley’s script reached the screen with only minor revisions—highly unusual in an industry built on archeological layers of rewrites. Moonstruck’s story, a comic tale of mixed-up marriage vows, does not lend itself to a glib summary on a cocktail napkin, or even a place mat.

The movie’s strength lies in the nuance of its dialogue, interpreted by strong acting and Norman Jewison’s sensitive direction. A Canadian, Jewison is an influential maverick who has managed to make Hollywood movies on his own terms.

In fact, most of the top movies nominated for Oscars were made by filmmakers outside the Hollywood fold. There is not a single American among the five men nominated for best director. Among the movies nominated for best picture, two represent departures from conventional studio wisdom: The Last Emperor, by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, and Hope and Glory, by England’s John Boorman.

Blitz: Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a lush spectacle set in Beijing’s Forbidden City, is free of the high-priced stars and commercial clichés usually required for period epics. A product of American money, European style and Chinese locations, it outstripped all contenders, winning nine Oscar nominations. Hope and Glory, up for five top awards, is a Second World War tale about a young boy growing up in London during the Blitz. Ironically, themes of both China and wartime childhood mesh in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, the story of a young boy growing up in occupied Shanghai. But the Spielberg epic received no major nominations, just five mentions in technical categories.

Last year the explosive

drama Platoon proved to Hollywood that meaning can be marketable. And one of this year’s most popular comedies, Good Morning, Vietnam, is a comic excursion behind, and between, the battle lines in Southeast Asia. In Hollywood, where money runs deeper than ideas, the renewed respect for adult intelligence will last only as long as it remains a lucrative proposition. But some of the movies that emerge, at least, may endure as classics long after Hollywood has reverted to easier avenues of escapism.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ANNE GREGOR