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On Movies, Money & Politics | The Nation

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On Movies, Money & Politics

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Q:

How do you see your role as a member of an elite group that has access to the tools of communication?

About the Author

Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is the author of a forthcoming book on the independent film...

Also by the Author

THIS IS THE THIRD of what now threatens to become The Nation's annual Hollywood issue. Following in the footsteps of the catholic Mr. Soderbergh, whose Y2K output ran the gamut from Erin Brockovich to Traffic, this time around there is not even the shadow of a theme. But a little eclecticism never hurt anyone. In the forum, GENE SEYMOUR engages black filmmakers, who, as a group, appear to be enjoying unprecedented success, although he finds clouds within the silver lining. ELLEN WILLIS puts The Sopranos on her couch with a dazzling appreciation-slash-deconstruction of the East Coast's favorite soap (interestingly, the West Coast appears to be more taken with Gladiator), while MARC COOPER does the same for Hollywood's version of the labor movement, giving us an eye-opening glimpse into the internal politics of the guilds on the eve of what at this point seems to be an inevitable strike.

GEOFFREY GILMORE, who has run the Sundance Film Festival for eleven years, takes on "purists" and "ideologues" in a spirited assessment of the current state of independent film. Also in the not-so-pure department, AMY WALLACE reports that Jodie Foster is looking to make a feature out of the life of infamous filmmaker-cum-Hitler- groupie Leni Riefenstahl. The byzantine Oscar documentary process gets put under the microscope by CARL BROMLEY, who notes that the academy's snub of Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club last year was only the most recent in a long history of mind-boggling misjudgments. We've tossed some candy throughout the issue in the form of reflections--both visual and verbal, from some names you'll recognize--on the allure of certain matinee idols. Finally, there is a real treat: an excerpt of newly published letters that present RAYMOND CHANDLER in a wholly unexpected light.

*Last year, I was the guest editor of The Nation's first issue devoted exclusively to Hollywood and politics.

Beatty:

It takes money to be heard. The underbelly of this country isn't being heard. They don't have the means of being heard, and the disparity of wealth does not decrease, it increases. My beliefs--even though I am a pampered, rich, Hollywood cultural plutocrat--my leanings are to articulate something on behalf of those people. And there are an incredibly large number of them. But I would say that commercially speaking, political movies don't do well. I don't think they ever have done very well. Even Frank Capra said, "I don't make political movies, I make movies about people." But if we go back and examine the Capra movies, I cannot tell you where his social or economic interests lie. Very few movies about politicians have had their central character go in one ideological direction or the other, because the assumption has usually been that you would lose half your audience. It would be considered financially quixotic to take a position.

Q:

Do you see parallels between the world of politics and the world of film?

Beatty:

The pitfalls and degradations that exist in politics are the same ones that occur in movies. Because it's the same thirty-second spot that sells both. In this state [California] in last year's election, one-third of 1 percent of TV news broadcasts were devoted to the state elections. Which means that what we used to call free media are practically extinct. It's all paid media. Now, with the front-loading of the primaries, even if someone less known emerges in Iowa or New Hampshire, the financial ship will probably already have sailed. Most political advertising has been based on movie advertising, entertainment. And it's very hard to compete against the investment of large sums of money and get noticed, whether it's movies or politics. Those thirty-second spots cost money.

Stone:

It's ugly because television drives the whole deal. It's the marketing costs. And to that degree, television has destroyed movies. You have to advertise on television in order to open your movie big. If you're going to make a movie for $20 million, they tell you, "We're going to spend $30 million to market it." Then you get very discouraged--your movie's being marketed for more than it cost to make it. Then they say, "OK, if I'm going to spend $30 million marketing my product, it's worth it to me to put, say, John Travolta or Harrison Ford or whoever in for 20, because, if I'm spending 30, I got Travolta for 20, I can get that back." He's worth $100 million or however they compute it. They do it ass backwards. Then, it's--oh yeah, I need a movie. I got to put this face, this product into something that is palatable, I need a painting for the frame. You hire the writer, blah-blah-blah. You get a director who can at least deliver a semblance of a movie, and all the producers, and you figure, "Well, minimum I gotta spend, maybe minimum with a cheap director, I'm still in 25­30, so then I'm 20 more with Travolta, I'm in 45­50, marketing 30--I mean 80, right?" Spend 80 million bucks--with a nobody director.

Q:

Did Fox give the money that was needed to really promote a film like

Bulworth

?

Beatty:

It was unfortunate for the promotion of Bulworth that it was made by a company whose head is very Republican. And who has contributed tremendous amounts of political money, and sincerely feels that that is the democratic way. I think the company did not know what to make of the movie, in that it has an underlying theme that is anticorporate, that the greatest danger to democracy is big corporations. Since the goal of the movie corporation that released the movie is to make a profit, and since that corporation is so utterly efficient, it caused, I think, a strange sort of ambivalent paralysis. Selling a movie about politics and race has never been done very successfully. It might be romantic for me to say they were out to get me, to stifle the movie, but I don't know enough about what really happened behind their marketing doors because they didn't let me know. I had complete artistic control, but no marketing control at all.

Stone:

It's always been hard to make political movies. I'm sure Warren Beatty had to have a fight on Reds just to get it made. It was a personal vision. I don't think these movies get made in this system, period. I think Spike Lee in a sense was blessed because he was coming after the success of JFK at Warner Brothers, that he got the go-ahead at a reduced budget for Malcolm X. That was the right time for him to get it approved. Unfortunately, it didn't do well at the box office. Each time, of course, this dampens the possibility of a body of political films.

Q:

Has the audience changed?

Stone:

I don't know. I think the audience will come if it's there. Do you think there was a market to see JFK in 1991? Not really. It was like an excitement that was in the air that was created by the movie.

Q:

Do you try to get your political passion into your work?

Baldwin:

You struggle. I think political activism has negatively impacted my career. I wish I had been more like Danny Glover, aggressively steering my career more toward a box-office franchise kind of career, doing the Lethal Weapons, and having those successes, over and over and over again. And you say to yourself, That's a guy that's generated enough economic good will in the community to be able to do some of the other things he wants to do. Whereas, for me, it's like if you're very outspoken in the media, I know people who won't give me a job, because they think----

Q:

Can you name names?

Baldwin:

No [laughs]. It's only going to worsen my situation. There's a very reductive attitude within certain segments of the media toward Hollywood people, actors in particular and musicians. They must always be portrayed as fornicating, drug-taking children. What 95 percent of the entertainment media are doing--Premiere magazine, Entertainment Weekly--is they do a Nexis search on someone and come up with the ten or twelve incendiary elements that have happened in their public life in the past decade and they just rehash that. Most celebrities I know talk to the media only under a contractual obligation with a movie studio to promote a film. Otherwise, they would never speak to these people ever, in their entire lifetimes.

Q:

Alec, recently Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, attempted to give you a dressing down for your joke on

Conan O'Brien

about stoning Henry Hyde. Now that the brouhaha has settled, what's your impression of Valenti's intervention?

Baldwin:

Valenti is someone who--he's got a very strong Washington constituency. So of course these Congressmen call him and say, "Well, what do you intend to do about this as a kind of mouthpiece for your industry?" So on one level I understand why he felt he had to respond; the only thing I would have hoped was that he had seen the tape. My publicist called him and said to him in no uncertain terms, "Did you view the tape of the show before you issued your statement?" And he said, "No." When she said, "What did you base your statement on?"--he said, "What I read in the paper." And I then wrote a letter to Valenti and said, "For a man who has made his prominent career in two areas as mediacentric as Washington and Hollywood, I'm a bit surprised that you based so important a statement on what you quote, unquote, read in the paper." And I never heard from him again.

Q:

Danny Glover, how do you manage to balance political and financial concerns in choosing the films that you make?

Glover:

I did The Saint of Fort Washington and To Sleep With Anger because of the box-office success of Lethal Weapon. I've been trying to get Warner Brothers to do a film on [eighteenth-century Haitian revolutionary] Toussaint L'Ouverture. I have a white character, Laveaux, who had come to Haiti as Toussaint's officer--a general who later became a confidant. So I wanted to see it through both of their eyes

.

In Hollywood you have a white character and a black character, like in Marlon Brando's Burn! When you talk about passion, when you're trying to finance a project like this, passion becomes almost the only thing you have.
   See, the difference between now and forty years ago is they say, "Oh, that's Danny Glover's thing, South Africa"--or, "That's Danny Glover's thing, Haiti." They're able to kind of dismiss you in that way by tolerating you, as opposed to the enormous fear that caused the backlash during the McCarthy era.

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