Friday, February 15, 2019

"Three Movies (That Met Similar Fates)"

The Right Stuff (1983)

Written and directed by Philip Kaufman.

A skeptical “take” on the “Mercury 7” astronauts, the first Americans sent into space.  Early scenes depict numerous rocket launches that stunningly explode.  (With overlaid “comedic effects.”)  With the exception of John Glenn, the others are portrayed as irreverent “flyboys”, shadowed by specialized “groupies.”  (“I’m shootin’ for all seven!’”)  Bystanding test pilots mock their colleagues’ missions, calling the encased astronauts “spam-in-a-can.”  The film was released during the “Reagan Era” of unbridled patriotism.

Tin Cup (1996)

Written by John Norville and Ron Shelton.  Directed by Ron Shelton.

In the movie’s climactic moment, playing in the biggest tournament of his life, Roy McAvoy (Kevin Kostner), a “natural” golfer, though notoriously headstrong, adamantly refuses to play it safe on the tournament’s final hole, hits eight balls into a “water hazard”, scores a devastating “12” on that hole losing a tournament he seemed destined to win, and feels proud, rather than devastated by the defeat.

The Insider (1999)

Written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann.  Directed by Michael Mann.

Al Pacino (playing real-life “segment producer” Lowell Bergman) promises “whistle-blower” Jeffrey Wigand he will get his bombshell revelations proving tobacco companies knowingly lied about the addictive qualities of cigarettes showcased on CBS’s 60 Minutes, only to discover that, pressured by legal and financial considerations, the president of “CBS News” decides to not broadcast that segment, and the crusading 60 Minutes ignominiously gives in.


What do these three movies have in common?

They all did terribly at the box office. 

(Tin Cup made a respectable 76 million dollars, but superstar Kostner’s earlier Dances With Wolves made 424 million dollars.  The Insider cost 90 million to make, and recouped 60.  The Right Stuff’s thundering failure helped put a movie studio, The Ladd Company, out of business.)

Why did they all do so badly?

Check out the films’ storylines.

Nobody wanted to see movies about that.

By which I mean each of those three “that’s.”

An “astronaut movie” debunking the space program?  (In “Morning in America” 1983?)

A professional athlete who doesn’t care if he wins?

An iconic news program, caving to corporate cowardice?

A man I once knew, in a totally different context, said to me,

“Allow me my illusions.”

In commercial moviemaking, the audience says, “Allow us our illusions… or we’ll kill you.”  (Financially.  And if they can find you, who knows?)  Or at least drive you into obscurity with our disinterest."

It’s not like these were movies that came out at the wrong time, a premiering “chimpanzee comedy” coinciding with “Breaking News” that a renegade lab monkey “signed” unpardonable remarks.

I ain’t goin’ to no ‘Monkey Movie.’”

And that’s that.

But this isn’t.

This is three filmmakers – did you notice, in each case, the directors were knee deep in the writing? – challenging the American value system, and commercially paying the price. 

Not popular?  Of course they’re not popular.  Nobody ever gets rich saying, “What you believe in is stupid.”

I don’t even know if this is an issue today.  Bottom-line-watching corporate behemoths view their studio subsidiaries as glamorous “profit centers.”  It is the CEO’s fiduciary duty to shoot for box-office success. 

What’s the opposite of “Giving the people what they want”?

The Right Stuff, The Insider and Tin Cup.

Feel free to suggest similar examples of your own.

There aren’t a lot of them.

It’s almost a miracle there there are any.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This posting reminds me so much of similar analyses of movies and theatrical productions by William Goldman - who, incidentally, was the first writer to attempt the screenplay for THE RIGHT STUFF, based on Tom Wolfe's book. He gave it a chapter in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. He quit the picture, and notes that the reason was he was writing a different movie from the one the director wanted, which was something about "the passing of a higher quality". Goldman wanted to write something that sent the audience home "with a good feeling about America".

Would be fascinating to know if the movie would have done better with Goldman's take on the material.