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by Gary Gordon

Last year the Oscars were stolen.

Maybe this year they ought to be.

Gladiator. Traffic. Erin Brockovich. Almost Famous. Cast Away. Other.

Really, are these the token items we want to represent our culture? Butů they do.

Gladiator: Spartacus without the meaning and import. Traffic: Missing and Network without the guts. Erin Brockovich: Norma Rae without the grit. Almost Famous: Don't Look Back without Dylan. Cast Away: Apollo 13 without the other two astronauts or the urgency or the interest or Ed Harris in a vest.

It's just one bad notion after another, like a vertically integrated nightmare.

Let's re-cap. Gladiator starts slowly then becomes the story of minor, bloody, vengeful people set against a back-drop of hundreds of minor, bloody, vengeful people. This film is not a story as much as an excuse to appeal to the WWF Smackdown audience and the women who find Russell Crowe attractive. He doesn't do nearly the acting job he did in L.A. Confidential or the movie about exposing the cigarette industry with the forgettable title, and the special effects are worse than the ones in The Odd Couple-and there were no special effects in The Odd Couple.

Traffic purports to be a movie about the failed U.S. drug policies. It does not take place in Colombia, where our Army is poised to burn the village in order to save it or in the prisons of the United States where thousands upon thousands of people are languishing, held for lengthy terms for mere possession. Instead it takes place in Mexico, where all but one cop is crooked, and in San Diego, where none of the cops are crooked. Ultimately people shoot one another, people go to jail, and the newly appointed drug czar (played by Michael Douglas) has a crisis of conscience in a wholly unrealistic and unconvincing scene thus leading to the conclusion that the failure of the war against drugs seems to be a matter of casting. But the cinematography is gritty and seductive; it seems better than it is.

Erin Brockovich might have been Oscar-quality if only Stanley Kramer or Stanley Kubrick had made it. Instead, it is a TV movie-of-the-week with A-list stars. At least it's an important story, and at least they pretty much get it right, but as for acting and storytelling and directing and drama-if this is the standard then whatever's in the water has already gotten to our brains.

Almost Famous-of course it's fun. How many of us haven't roused our spirits by singing Elton John's Tiny Dancer (imagine if that had been the duet with Eminem!). But Oscar caliber? The film's got three endings, one without plausibility. An Oscar-caliber story should end, not dribble away. And the acting is fair, but that's all. There's nothing really embrace-able here.

Cast Away is a tour de force with no point. Tom Hanks, who might be a good actor, shadowboxes for what seems like seven hours in a story that asks the question "What would you do if you were trapped by yourself on an island?" This might be an important question for folks planning to travel to islands, but it hardly resonates with a population trapped in the shrouds of loneliness in their real lives and in such desperate need of escape that they'll actually pay hard-earned money for this kind of stuff.

Speaking of Stanley Kramer, he died recently. Not that he was everybody's favorite, but let's look at some of the movies he produced or directed: The Defiant Ones, Judgment At Nuremberg, Caine Mutiny, High Noon, Inherit The Wind-None of the movies nominated for anything this year comes close to the writing, acting, drama and emotion of any of those.

Last year Stanley Kubrick died. Not that he was everybody's favorite, but: Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork Orange. This year, nothing close.

But you don't have to go to Kramer or Kubrick. Remember when John Wayne won the Oscar for True Grit against Richard Burton and a host of others who were and are thought of as better actors? Well, Wayne in True Grit makes Crowe in Gladiator look like Jim Varney. As a matter of fact, the whole damn Oscar list looks like a subliminable (!) tribute to Jim Varney.

Gladiator is no Raging Bull (there's a fight movie) or Patton (there's a warrior movie) or even Rollerball (body contact movie). Traffic is no M*A*S*H (anti-war/expose) or Z (police state expose) or Serpico (police corruption expose) or Salvador or Under Fire (foreign affairs exposes). Erin Brokovich is no Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or Brubaker or Silkwood (fighting corruption within the establishment). Cast Away is no My Dinner With Andre, and Almost Famous is not The Commitments or Still Crazy or American Hot Wax-it is one of a legion of fun music movies that have nothing to do with being or deserving to be Oscar films.

So we have a collection of films (not including Thirteen Days [an excellent movie, but no All The President's Men], State & Main [another excellent movie, but not The Player or After The Fox], and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? [yes another excellent movie, but no Sullivan's Travels]) that, this year define our culture. And they are clearly substandard, ordinary, fluff-like pretenders, not unlike the recent presidential candidates promoted by the two factions of our one-party system.

What to do?

If only great films hadn't been made in the past. If only human dramas like The Grapes of Wrath and Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather and Reds and comedies like His Girl Friday and The Producers and romantic comedies like Annie Hall and satires like Network and Dr. Strangelove and Little Big Man, and risky films like Midnight Cowboy and The Conversation and Unforgiven, and human-driven special effects movies like Jaws, and warrior movies like Sergeant York and A Bridge Too Far and quirky films like The Usual Suspects, and all the other great films hadn't been made, then there'd be no standard of comparison. Then it would be easy to sit back and relax and say, yes, these movies are great and the acting is great and the directing is great.

If only Sidney Lumet and Howard Hawks and and Arthur Penn and Robert Altman and Sam Fuller and David Lean and Richard Attenborough and John Ford and all the other great directors hadn't made those movies; if only actors and actresses like Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen and Charles Laughton and Humphrey Bogart and Michael Caine and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and Anne Bancroft and Meryl Streep and Judy Davis and Glenda Jackson had never been around. But they were and are.

So what to do? Well, don't celebrate second-rate stuff. Don't award crap. If you want better movies, then you can't settle.

Recently, my favorite movie has been The Maltese Falcon. You can't find better characterizations, better acting, better dialogue, and-given the current crop-a tighter, more coherent script. It's a drama, it's a comedy, it's a mystery, it's a caper, it's suspenseful, it's smart, it's sexy, it's unpredictable, and it's fun. And if you want some meaning, it's about honor.

If I were running the Academy Awards, here's what I'd do. I'd have everyone show up in their gowns and tuxes, and I'd have Billy Crystal do one of his funny fifteen minute monologue-songs, then I'd show a clip from the Maltese Falcon, give all the awards to the people who made The Maltese Falcon, then tell everyone gathered for the ceremony to go back to work and make some good movies.



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