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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2001 / 30 Shevat, 5761

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports

Politicos vs. Hollywood heavies: They can't both be right about public preferences --
WHO'S right about public attitudes toward popular culture--- movie producers or politicians?

The election campaign of the year 2000 highlighted the irreconcilable differences on this issue between these two elite groups. Political leaders of both political parties, including all the major candidates for president and vice president, expressed anger and disgust on behalf of the American people over the levels of violence and graphic sex in Hollywood entertainment. The top show business companies, meanwhile, cheerfully ignored these pleas and kept serving stiffer and more outrageous does of raunch and gore in their cinematic, television and pop music products. As an excuse for this edgy material, industry moguls invariably offered the same reassuring line: "We just give the public what it wants."

In other words, the leaders of the entertainment establishment consult their marketing studies and focus group and come to the conclusion that the American people want more sex, more violence and more harsh language.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the political elite consult their polling data and focus groups and come up with the conclusion that ordinary citizens feel sick and tired of Hollywood's "cultural pollution" and want more wholesome and family friendly entertainment.

Ironically, both sides to this debate live and die based on their ability to gauge the attitudes of their fellow citizens. A politician who consistently misreads the values and desires of the electorate will soon find himself voted out of office. You might also assume that an entertainment executive who regularly disregards the preferences of the public would quickly lose his job --- but this common sense notion ignores the twisted logic that drives some of the most powerful princes of Holly-weird.

Some of the most prominent directors, stars, writers, even studio heads, persistently and proudly assault the sensibilities of ordinary moviegoers, and yet survive and flourish in topsy-turvy Tinseltown. Consider, for example, the extraordinary career of Martin Scorsese. He's directed some nineteen films and not one of them-no, not one-has become a substantial box office hit. His most recent offering, "Bringing Out the Dead," starred Nicholas Cage as a delusional ambulance driver in the nightmarish New York underworld-and became one of the most notable commercial flops of 1999. His other most recent offerings, "Casino" (about Las Vegas corruption) and "Kundun" (about the Dalai Lama), also drew pathetic box office returns. Perhaps his most notorious bomb, "The Last Temptation of Christ," offended millions of traditionally minded Christians and generated well-publicized protests around the world-while earning a paltry $6 million in domestic gross. Even his acclaimed signature films, "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" earned only modest returns on their investment, despite the critical praise and Oscar nominations they generated.

Despite this track record, Martin Scorsese remains one of the most powerful directors in the motion picture industry: the most glamorous stars yearn to participate in his projects and the leading studios compete to sponsor them. A puzzled observer might well ask, "Why?" If Hollywood analyzed his work in purely commercial terms, considering merely return on the investment, Scorsese would have been forced into retirement long ago. Yet he continues to produce prestigious projects because his colleagues respect him as an intensely gifted, artistically uncompromising filmmaker. The horrific, chillingly rendered violence, loveless sex and gutter language that characterize most of his films may help to alienate millions of movie goers but they only add to the luster of his industry reputation as a cutting edge artist, worthy of support.

Scorsese's anomalous situation serves to illustrate Hollywood's dirty little secret: peer respect matters more than box office success to many industry insiders. Of course, pop culture potentates want to make millions and hope that each new project will turn into a commercial block buster, but if forced to choose between pure profitability and artistic acclaim, most would go with the applause of their colleagues. By the time they've achieved enough prominence to begin making their own creative decisions, actors, directors and other prominent personnel have earned enough money so that the size of their paycheck isn't their first concern. Instead, industry veterans passionately pursue good reviews, respectability, and serious esteem-providing reassurance to the nagging insecurity that often accompanies the artistic temperament.

Winning prizes-particularly the most important awards in an award crazy industry-has become an overriding obsession for decision makers in show business. "American Beauty," the dark, despairing view of suburban life that won last year's Academy Award for Best Picture, proved only a modest hit with the public-and yet everyone in the movie industry wished they had been involved with that film. If offered a choice between participation in "American Beauty," or contributing to the smash hit "The Phantom Menace: Star Wars Episode One" (which earned more than ten times as much in ticket sales), the great majority of movie people would prefer associate themselves with the Oscar winner. That's why so many huge stars (including Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Edward Norton, Sean Penn, Billy Crystal, Charlize Theron, Madonna and countless others) work with Woody Allen for a fraction of their normal fees-despite the fact that his box office record is, if anything, even more questionable than Scorsese's. Allen's films may draw only modest audience response, but they win critical praise and frequent Academy Award nominations.

This predilection for applause from peers helps to explain Hollywood's odd addiction to R-rated material - despite abundant evidence that aiming at restricted, adults-only audiences works against the industry's obvious self-interest. Nearly ten years ago, I began arguing against the conventional wisdom that suggested that big studios emphasized graphic sex and violence in order to maximize their profits. Research for my best selling book "Hollywood Vs. America" indicated that R-rated movies, on average, performed far worse at the box office than family oriented fare..

In June, 2000 a professor of economics at the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, completed a major scientific investigation of the accuracy of my claims. Dr. Arthur DeVany concluded: "This paper shows that Medved is right: there are too many R-rated movies in Hollywood's portfolio." Their sophisticated mathematical analysis, covering all major releases of the last decade, show that R-rated films fare more poorly than "G, PG, and PG13 movies in all three dimensions of revenues, costs, return on production cost, and profits." Nevertheless, during the past ten years Hollywood has only increased its self-defeating infatuation with edgy offerings-upping the percentage of unprofitable R-rated releases from 50% to nearly 65% of all titles opening in the U.S. In other words, the sex, violence and vulgarity perpetrated by so many movie executives and creative personnel not only makes them bad citizens, as politicians proclaim: it also makes them exceedingly bad businessmen.

Anyone who questions this proposition need only look to contemporary Hollywood's curious compulsion to offend its audience. In countless films and TV programs, the entertainment industry goes out of its way to attack and alienate significant segments of its potential audience.

Consider the kinky year 2000 thriller, "The Cell," with sultry Jennifer Lopez as a psychotherapist who risks her life and sanity to enter the mind of a twisted, comatose serial killer. Smart, sexy, fearless, compassionate and successful, her character stands out as a role model for a new generation.

Why, then, did the filmmakers find it necessary to provide a fifteen-second scene showing their peerless heroine relaxing at home, smoking a marijuana joint? This is neither an accidental nor an incidental inclusion, and there is no doubt that the character inhales. Other than providing a free plug for the Pot Growers of California, the scene serves no purpose-- the plot makes no further reference of any kind to her recreational drug use. Why, then, would the movie makers decide to associate so glamorous and admirable a character with an illegal considered dangerous and destructive by many Americans? If some studio honcho had spotted this quick image, objected due to its impact in undermining anti-drug messages from parents and teachers, and removed it prior to the film's release, who would have noticed. It's hard to imagine that any audience members would have felt cheated because they failed to see their favorite star smoking dope.

The same movie contains another element that pointlessly assaults the sensibilities of tens of millions of potential patrons. The sadistic serial killer in "The Cell" (chillingly well-played by Vincent D'Onofrio) flashes back to the origins of his psychic torment, and focuses particularly on the moment of his baptism at age six. The scene at a river bank, involving Bible toting pastor and ecstatic, hand-waving true believers, repeatedly reappears in connection with the most monstrous cruelty.

The movie suggests that the future killer's abusive father held him down too long in the water, causing him now to drown his female kidnap victims in a huge glass tank in a demented echo of the Christian rite. Imagine, for the same of argument, that the script for the film had associated such vicious behavior not with baptism, but with Bar Mitzvah-or some other ritual of a minority religion. Isn't it obvious that some executive at the studio (New Line Pictures, in this instance) would have protested, saying that such a gratuitous insult needlessly would have offended Jews-or Buddhists, or Hindus? Why, then, should Baptists, who outnumber such groups in this society many times over, receive less sensitive consideration? As a matter of fact, the utterly fictitious notion of crazed, unspeakably vicious serial killers who've been warped by traditional Christianity has become a sick, curious cliché' in today's Holly-weird. For characters played by Kevin Spacey in "Seven," Harry Connick, Jr. in "Copy Cats," Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear" and Ed Harris in "Just Cause," multiple murders and brutal torture come connected with flamboyant displays of Christian religiosity. The cruel caricature of committed Christians-especially Fundamentalists and Pentecostals - remains a rare form of religious bigotry not only accepted, but repeatedly promoted by Hollywood. It also makes no sense at all for an industry that theoretically hopes to draw mainstream audiences to the multiplex.

Another sort of self-destructive bigotry turned up in the clumsy comedy "The Crew," starring Richard Dreyfus and Burt Reynolds. The two veteran actors play aging mobsters who retire to Florida with their friends, but try to recapture youth and vitality with one last, daring caper. To facilitate the job, they buy black market weapons, including an oversized shotgun, from a sleazy gun dealer. After concluding the transaction, Dreyfus instinctively says "thanks a lot," to which the firearms merchant defiantly replies, "Hey, don't thank me. Thank the Republicans!"

The line stands out as the only political reference of any kind in the entire movie. It also offers no explanation of how new gun control legislation (blocked, presumably, by those Republican rascals) would magically stop a transaction that the movie portrays (accurately) as already illegal. Aside from any serious political discussion of one stupid line, there's an obvious question about the writers and producers and their knowledge of the audience. Surely, these show business professionals have seen all the national surveys showing that more than a third of Americans proudly identify themselves as "Republicans," and more than 40% strongly support the right to bear arms. Why would a commercial movie company (Disney, no less) take an unnecessary risk by insulting such substantial chunks of the public with one irrelevant unfunny zinger that bears no connection to other elements of the story?

Such unsubtle political messages turn up in film after film-and always from the same, relentlessly predictable, liberal point of view. In Hollywood's "Golden Age" of the 1930's and 1940's, the big studios tried to avoid partisan politics. "If you want to send a message," Samuel Goldwyn famously declared, "Go to Western Union." Even classic political films like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) avoided identifying either its heroes or villains as Republicans or Democrats. After all, director Frank Capra wanted members of all political parties to enjoy his picture, with its timeless messages about the struggle between idealism and cynical corruption. Today, on the other hand, movies about the political process appeal to the public with more narrowly defined agendas than do most successful real life candidates for office.

In the over-praised flop "The Contender," Joan Allen plays a fashionable Senator from Ohio, nominated to succeed a deceased Vice President as the first woman to occupy the office. She speaks passionately about abortion rights-having left the Republican Party and joined the Democrats due to her unwavering devotion to a woman's "sacred right to choose."

This glamorous heroine also believes that the death penalty is murder, that the government should confiscate all handguns from private homes, and should make it a criminal federal offense to sell cigarettes to minors. She also announces at her confirmation hearings that she is an atheist and the stands by her previous statement that separation of church and state is necessary to prevent government from falling under the influence of "a fairy tale." The conservatives who dare to oppose her, led by Gary Oldman, prove to be vicious, sexist, joyless, cruel, fanatical hypocrites.

The astonishing aspect in all this is not the shameless (and often entertaining) over-acting, but the obvious contempt by writer-director Rod Lurie for anyone in the audience who dissents from his political prejudices.

Surely a sophisticated observer like Mr. Lurie (former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine) understands that at least a third of Americans harbor deep reservations about the raw abortion policies promoted by the film, and easily two thirds cherish religious convictions which "The Contender" ridicules.

Other contemporary political melodramas take commercial risks for the sake of the same ideology. In "The American President," Michael Douglas plays the liberal Democratic hero as a crusader against gun ownership and the internal combustion engine. On T.V.'s "The West Wing," President Martin Sheen regularly smites the religious right and all others who question his left wing pieties. When movies portray conservative presidents-- "Dave," "Absolute Power," "Nixon," "Dick,"-the portrayal is invariably negative.

Hollywood's activism on behalf of liberal causes and candidates shows up in the off-screen adventures of top celebrities as much as in their creative work. Innumerable entertainment luminaries campaigned enthusiastically for Al Gore-including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand, Rosie O'Donnell, Julia Roberts, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Newman and many more. Several leading figures in Hollywood - Cher, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Robert Altman, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne -- even suggested they would leave the country if George W. Bush.

Regardless of what one thinks of the political sophistication of such pronouncements (would childish threats by spoiled movie stars actually scare people in voting for Gore?), they raise obvious questions about the future popularity of such stars. Do these princes and princesses of pop culture truly want to discourage all conservatives from ever buying tickets to their movies?

With their off-screen political activities, on camera ideological messages, gratuitous anti-religious prejudice, and over-emphasis on harsh language and violence, the moguls of mass media show little appreciation of the diversity of the United States when it comes to values. How could any clever business leader repeatedly ignore the tens of millions of people who harbor more traditional values?

In fact, the big entertainment conglomerates have managed to survive despite this arrogance for two reasons. The first, is niche marketing-trying to sell twenty movie tickets a year to a relative handful of drooling, subliterate, hormone addled adolescent males, rather than a half dozen tickets to more mainstream families. The major companies have also been sheltered from the consequences of their own alienation due to the recent explosion of foreign markets. With the end of the Cold War and the removal of international barriers, the studios make more and more of their money by pumping American product into unsophisticated and undemanding societies eager to consume anything associated with the USA. According to the most common estimate, the Hollywood majors got only 30% of their revenue from overseas in 1980-but in the year 2000, these foreign audiences generate more than 60% of Tinseltown's cash flow.

Unlike political office holders, in any event, top producers and powerful stars never face the righteous wrath of angry voters-and so cheerfully ignore the real divisions in America. While both houses of Congress painfully reflect those divisions, Hollywood remains unanimously liberal, adolescent and indulgent. Many Americans have chosen to vote "no" on this unrepresentative institution (nearly a third of Americans have given up going to movie theatres altogether) but the entertainment ideologues, eager above all to impress one another, refuse to get the message.

If these pampered pop culture potentates ever had to seek votes from a broad-based American electorate, they would lose in a landslide. In the ongoing spat between political heavy weights and show business titans, there's no doubt which group speaks more clearly for-and to-the American public. From Dan Quayle to Joe Lieberman, Bill Bennett to Tipper Gore to Lynne Cheney, the political leaders who criticize the entertainment industry show a far better grasp of the varied preferences of the general public than do the increasingly isolated Hollywood hotshots.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


02/07/01: Senate Dems can strike an instant blow for justice and diversity
02/02/01: TV focuses on one 'hate crime,' forgets another
01/10/01: Temptation Island' critics miss boat
10/06/00: Hollywood's contempt for its audience
09/29/00: Remember love and marriage?
09/01/00: Should our next president be a 'Survivor' or a 'Millionaire'?
07/18/00: Why Hollywood still embraces Lieberman
07/13/00: 'Peeping Tom TV' exploits loneliness
06/30/00: Why we love quiz-show geeks
06/14/00: Homosexual establishment is more upset by substantive challenges than savage language
05/19/00: Macho Military Makes Comeback
05/02/00: Hollywood battles addiction to addiction movies
04/18/00: Film Makes Keeping the Faith Irrelevant
04/12/00: Key lessons from 1960 for 2000 presidential campaign
03/21/00: Oscars: Will Hollywood do its duty or follow its heart?
03/03/00: Family friendly video versions would provide choice, not censorship
02/18/00: Hollywood votes for liberalism (SURPRISE!) in the Oscar nomination primary
01/26/00: Who is more "Twisted," Rocker or his heavy metal critics?
12/23/99: Media century began with unity but ends with isolation
12/15/99:The "battle in Seattle" as a '60's flashback --- only on the surface
12/01/99: Delusion and denial
11/16/99: Good reason for chaotic state of American values
11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved