It depends on which Hollywood you’re talking aboutMar 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 25 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The question that haunted the American motion-picture industry in the two months leading up to the Academy Awards broadcast was this: Is Hollywood racist? In December, leaked emails revealed how one of Hollywood’s longest-serving studio chiefs, Amy Pascal, and its most prestigious producer, Scott Rudin, had amused each other by cracking jokes about Barack Obama’s favorite movies all being black-themed—in a manner only slightly more elevated than a colloquy about how our first black president must love fried chicken and watermelon.
A few weeks after that, the Oscar nominations were announced—and not a single person of color was nominated in an acting, directing, or writing category. Meanwhile, the year’s most serious film on the subject of race, Selma, received what can only be described as a token nod in the Best Picture category, which, given its lack of support in other categories, effectively meant it had no chance of winning.
The case appears to be airtight—and ridiculous at the same time. It’s airtight because, well, the head of Sony wrote private racist emails and the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the backs of their hands to the cultural contributions of African Americans in the year 2014.
And yet it also seems ridiculous, because only a year earlier the Best Picture Oscar had been bestowed upon 12 Years a Slave, the brilliant and punishing depiction of antebellum perfidy. In the intervening months, America was riven by the protests arising from the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner on Staten Island—and all across social media, the world of entertainment spoke as one in its rage and upset at what it perceived to be the monumental injustices done to these unarmed black men.
In any case, how on earth could it be that the epicenter of self-righteous liberal sentiment, the cultural carrier and transmitter of every fashionable idea about the need for radical change to the American body politic over the past half-century, is simply a high-end Denny’s?
Well, here’s the straight answer: It is.
The motion-picture industry is startlingly retrogressive on the subject of race, and its lip service and political support for progressive causes provide unimaginative studio executives and get-along-to-go-along producers with an all-too-comfortable cover.
It’s not just the culture’s refusal to take account of stories involving race that do not conform to the stock liberal view that’s problematic but also its dogmatic insistence on ghettoizing its subject matter. With the exception of action pictures starring Denzel Washington, Hollywood is incapable of promoting movies featuring African Americans that don’t traffic in contemporary stereotypes—movies like Tyler Perry’s comic melodramas or the blockbuster Think Like a Man, designed and marketed to appeal solely to black audiences.
Indeed, the industry’s attitude toward race is exactly the kind of patronizing head-patting that was on display during the Oscars show itself. The host, Neil Patrick Harris, made a particular point of talking to African-American celebrities in the audience (See! We love black people!), made a joke about how the awards celebrated the “best and the whitest,” and offered his post-performance opinion that the song from Selma was “fan-tastic”! The critic Wesley Morris said of Harris that he dedicated the night to turning actors like Selma’s David Oyelowo “into employees and party tricks—and now a black British person!” Morris said that Harris was using them the way other hosts have used stars like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in years past: “You can see what Harris was after, but his touch just left a stain.”
Harris is not to blame; he was reading from a script. The script for the Oscars is the American motion-picture industry’s attempt at being lovable and anodyne and inoffensive. And its very inoffensiveness was offensive.
Meanwhile, take a look at the small screen. Over the past three years, there have been three breakout broadcast television series—the only breakouts the networks have seen in a decade. Two of them—Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder—are on ABC and are the brainchildren of the African-American writer-producer Shonda Rhimes. Scandal has been ABC’s runaway show for three years. How to Get Away with Murder premiered in the fall of 2014 to ABC’s highest ratings in a decade. The third phenomenon, Empire, is the first network television program in a quarter-century to improve on its ratings every week since its debut in January.
Including the virtue of keeping a straight faceMar 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 24 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When I tell you that, in my opinion, the three novels now known as the Fifty Shades Trilogy are the worst books I have ever read all the way through, I am not telling you anything interesting. To criticize E. L. James’s publishing version of winning the Irish Sweepstakes is to attack a cultural phenomenon entirely beyond the reach of criticism. These three books, originally published as a series of posts on a fan-fiction website, ended up earning their author $95 million in a single year.
A musical love story finds its mediumFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
I don’t remember when I have been more deeply affected by a film than I was by The Last Five Years, a jewel box of a movie-musical that is unquestionably the best of its kind since Chicago was released in 2003. It is at once a tiny slip of a thing and an emotional blockbuster. Over the course of a brisk 90 minutes, The Last Five Years provides an exhilarating and devastating account of the relationship between a successful young writer and an unsuccessful young actress.
A grim, epic allegory of Putin’s RussiaFeb 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The director of the new Russian movie Leviathan now lives in Canada. This was a wise decision on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s part—because even though Leviathan received grants from the Russian government and was officially selected to represent the country in this year’s Oscar race, at some point in the near future, Zvyagintsev’s career and maybe his life won’t be worth a plugged kopek in his homeland.
One man, one war, and the cost of serviceFeb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The overwhelming American Sniper is cast in shadow from start to finish by two real-world tragedies, one very broad and one very precise. The first is the irresolution of the Iraq war, the conflict to which the film’s titular character—Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle—was deployed four times. The second is the 2013 murder of Kyle at the hands of a disturbed veteran he was trying to help. As a result of these tragedies, the movie that tells their stories is haunted and grave.
Is the Alan Turing seen here the Alan Turing who was? Jan 26, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Imitation Game is the fanciest ABC Afterschool Special ever made: It takes the inspiring, mystifying, and upsetting life story of a great genius and turns it into a didactic and banal lesson about how people who are “different” are also very, very special.
When a historical drama is devoid of dramaJan 19, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 18 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The marketing genius of movies like Selma, the highly praised docudrama about the march in Alabama that triggered the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is that they simultaneously confuse and intimidate critics and audiences by making them feel as though it would be an act of disrespect to speak anything but words of praise for the way they depict life-and-death historical events of great moral moment.
By any measure, you won’t forget Gugu Mbatha-RawJan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Who is the best young actress in the movies? The obvious answer is Jennifer Lawrence, all of 24 and with a deserved Oscar to her credit for Silver Linings Playbook and a second she should have won for her supporting role in American Hustle.
The biblical saga gets an up-to-the-minute adaptationDec 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 16 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Raise your hand if you want to see Moses portrayed as an insurgent lunatic terrorist with a bad conscience, the pharaoh who sought the murder of all first-born Hebrew slaves as a nice and reasonable fellow, and God as a foul-tempered 11-year-old boy with an English accent.
A weird, tragic, compelling tale tainted by politicsDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Foxcatcher is a slow, gripping, fact-based movie about a bizarre and lonely heir to the Du Pont fortune whose obsession with the sport of wrestling eventually led him to commit a pointless and vicious murder. What makes Foxcatcher compelling is that its story, its setting, and its characters are so odd, so singular, so unlike anything we’ve seen before.
A century commanding the show business heightsDec 8, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
This book is something of a Rube Goldberg machine. Its author, Time theater critic Richard Zoglin, makes enormous claims about the cultural importance of his subject: He calls Bob Hope “the entertainer of the century,” the first person to be a star in every medium, the man seen by more people in person than anyone else in history, even the inventor of stand-up comedy. But the book that contains these claims is so turgid it belies them.
What can we learn from decoding this message? Nov 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
You want to like Interstellar. Why wouldn’t you? It’s a big, juicy, fancy, ambitious, emotional epic about the future of humankind. It has a killer lead performance by Matthew McConaughey.
The high-end literary adaptation is now the province of HBONov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, featuring the Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand delivering what may be one of the greatest performances ever recorded, is nothing short of a masterpiece.
I’m OK, you’re OK, and you’re entitled to your opinionNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you go see the universally praised Birdman, the story of an over-the-hill film star trying to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway play, I hope you enjoy yourself. I really do. That’s what movies are for—to provide enjoyment, a few hours of diversion. Genuine art transcends that shallow goal.