By Ray Pride
Glamour takes many forms.
And vanity? Is Vanity Fair. I just dropped the most obvious artifact of both on my foot and it hurts. I’d weigh these 444 pages of the March Vanity Fair, “The Hollywood Issue,” on a bathroom scale if I had one. This fat slab of perfume-stripped gloss is it, the idea of glamour in its most mercantile form; although the magazine’s annual A-list shindig was cancelled during the uncertainty of whether the Writers Guild strike would be settled, this toe-smasher is a more readily summoned definition of “glamour” than the habitrail course of awards shows that preceded the Oscars. “There Will Be Blood” has a reek of “Chinatown” on its breath; “Michael Clayton” is a sleeker edition of movies made by Alan J. Pakula, like “Klute” or “The Parallax View”; “No Country for Old Men” traffics in both nihilism and moralism like movies of another time. More old-fashioned would be “Atonement”’s tragic love story (with a well-chosen vulgarity tossed in) and “Juno” is bumptious and fractious and has three stars under 30: Ellen Page, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. (For the Academy, that may be the story as much as its have-your-sex-and-eat-it-too storyline, and its near-$150 million box office doesn’t hurt.)
Just to contemplate those factors about those five movies, let alone the entire industry, with all its economic contradictions and endless vanities, is complicated, and the idea of the Oscars is more important than what unfurls on Sunday night, not the ridiculous music-hall sets, not even the envy-oozing contempt of the wicked dull on the red carpet, like Joan Rivers or the fawning banalities of a Chris Connelly. It may all come down to the shared parlance among friends who watch the show together: it’s like bowling, it’s bonding, more important than the absurd contortions involved. (I learned long ago you should never date anyone who can’t get caught up in the beaming fatuity, especially if you’re a movie reviewer for a living.)
So we stay superficial. There’s the surface, the beautiful and charming people who clean up real good. The spectacle of glamour. At Oscar time, there’s subterranean industry at work with every appearance, at every instant of elegant display: fashion designers, dressers, hairstylists, makeup artists, so that George Clooney gleams and Nicole Kidman absorbs no light.
These hundreds of thousands of dollars are part of the salaries of the individual workers, but part of the perquisites of the jobs the big names do the year round. (There’s one aging, well-paid star who’s rumored to bill $5,000 for every appearance he makes on behalf of a film, the cost of his “people” teasing his piece: money is glamour.)
It’s too easy to trip over pundits: Google a keyword or two and you’re knee-deep in guesses about what it all means. The most predominant rehash may be the beside-the-point worry that the movies don’t mean anything to the bulk of television viewers, that unless the prizes are being considered for a vastly successful weep-opera like “Titanic,” no one in the civilian world gives a good gol-darn. (I guess no one reads all those copies of Entertainment Weekly.) A Euro-centric poster at the New York Times’ awards-season blog, The Carpetbagger, calling itself Rhubarb, writes, “This year’s Oscars will be the usual fetid brew of celebrity-worship and lust for branding winners and losers that drives bored folks leading largely meaningless lives to tune in. There are a lot of them, as the big-money commercials prove.” I’m not sure how many kinds of despair are on show in those sentences, but I prefer the take of David Carr, who writes that column: “We all know that the Oscars are a dirty not-so-little pleasure. We pretend to watch them ironically, but they really are beyond the reach of irony.”
One of the great ironies is that while the box office from a “Shrek 3” or a “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” pays for the modest-grossing projects that get the Oscar nominations, the moviemaking community gets to feel good about itself for noting classier projects that are almost superfluous to what the industry has become. Another terrible irony is how some of the movies are getting seen. While members of the Academy and reviewers have had access to DVD screeners of dozens of contenders at the end of the year, technology’s created another form of glamour among a younger set outside the industry. I was shocked late last year to be quizzed by a friend of a friend in her mid-20s, educated, socially aware, who asked me who I thought the dozen most likely contenders for the Best Picture nomination might be. She wanted to be up on her handicapping for an Oscar-night party she had planned.
“I’m downloading them all,” she said, beaming. “I even have ‘There Will Be Blood.’ I don’t know anyone else who has that. Yesterday, I downloaded ‘Atonement’ and ‘Michael Clayton’ and ‘No Country for Old Men.’ I’ve watched ‘Old Country,’ but do you think it has the best chance of all to win? Do you think the ending is cold?” I am flabbergasted. She’s the most completist of the bunch, but the new Hollywood glamour, for these consumers who ought to be in the demographic that still has the cash and the time and the instinct to go out and pay for a movie ticket, seems to be in bragging rights on copies off BitTorrent. Information wants to be free and $35 million productions want to be downloaded? A half-dozen other conversations with other smiling cyber-squatters like that have followed, an instance in which I have no words.
I emailed a few friends what glamour meant to them and most of the replies were sarcastic, lacking the grace of, say, the REM lyric that offhands, “That’s cinnamon, that’s Hollywood.” One reply was a neat mouthful: “a manufactured beauty that transcends its artifice by virtue of evoking the ineffable.” Which reminded me of this: Several years ago, Newcity had a cover with a glamour head shot of a beaming Grace Kelly and one day I watched a well-dressed young woman reach for a copy. She seemed to shyly say, “You can’t go whoring with Grace Kelly.” “You can’t what?” I asked in alarm. “You can’t go wrong with Grace Kelly,” she said, quiet, breathy, then gone.
Or with Audrey Hepburn. Or with Cary Grant. Or with Cate Blanchett. Or with George Clooney. Or whatever actor or scenario or confounding dark dream keeps your eyes rapt on the screen. Or with the speech you made into the mirror the other morning, accepting the applause of peers and a grateful nation while you thanked muse and family. It’s subjective, a dream. What’s in your head is glamorous. We don’t have to agree on the world outside. You can’t go whoring with Grace Kelly.
… But not to overlook the simple fact that money is power is glamour: Glamour of another kind’s on the studio’s bottom line: more value accrues to the library (which is in fact the reason the studios persist in bad times) or international marketability to DVD sales or DVD rentals.
Newbies getting rubed is the old story. Whether foreign investors (some of the early losses of Sony’s acquisition of Columbia pictures were astonishing) or dentists from Tustin, California (who were part of the pool that paid for “The Terminator”), the newest grab at some glamour rubbing off is that some of the best stuff that makes it to theaters is being made by the beneficent wealthy. The allure of Hollywood, historically, has been used to fleece all newcomers, partly because it’s an establishment edifice that’s hard to crack, largely because of the power of being one of the six studios with huge libraries and an international apparatus that allow you to weather momentary downturn.
In the endlessly shifting market, studios have made all manner of clever and crafty fiduciary balancing acts, which take pages upon pages to delineate in even the simplest contract, let alone in straightforward journalistic parlance. One of the most apparent is the choice to make movies that cost a fortune, with costs often off-laid to investors who aren’t direct profit participants, or that cost relatively little through their “dependent” arms: Focus for Universal, Sony Pictures Classics for Sony, Picturehouse for Warner, etc. A lengthy analysis in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times examining contemporary movie financing asserted “Hedge funds have been a major source of capital for Hollywood studios over the last three years. Drawn by projections of double-digit returns with minimal risk, they pumped $13 billion into 150 major pictures.”
Oscars have become a place for the studios to be proud of themselves, increasingly showing a tendency to honor the potential of the art while relegating money-machines like “Transformers” to nominations for sound mixers. But almost none of those movies have made their way through the studios: it’s outsiders, or very powerful insiders, who function as outsiders in their own way, who make these movies happen.
Participant Pictures, which began with money from eBay co-founding billionaire Jeff Skoll, makes socially aware features and commentaries, like “An Inconvenient Truth.” Bill Pohlad, whose billionaire Minnesota family’s investments include the Twins baseball team, has placed bets on Ang Lee, to great reward with “Brokeback Mountain” (and a modest one with this year’s award-neglected “Lust Caution”). Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” and Terrence Malick’s upcoming “Tree of Life” are also on his CV. Producer Graham King’s hitched himself to Scorsese’s recent large-budget productions, as has Steve Bing’s Shangri-La to Robert Zemeckis for movies like “Polar Express,” which was a wholly unexpected smash.
Of the 2007 Best Picture nominees, “Atonement” may have the clearest lineage, with producer Working Title being financed by General Electric’s Universal Pictures and distributed by art-house shingle Focus Features. Powerhouse producer Scott Rudin’s known for shepherding difficult literary adaptations, and his efforts led to pairing Joel and Ethan Coen with Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and protecting the free hand Paul Thomas Anderson wanted for his long-postponed “There Will Be Blood.” (In press kits, Rudin’s bio consists of lists of his movies and theatrical productions.) While not as big-budget as most studio efforts, the finance and distribution of both was shared by the “dependent” arms of two studios, Paramount’s Vantage and Disney’s Miramax, and Rudin’s firm hand likely insured both exist in the form they do today: outside of the development and supervision of studio second-guessers.
Foreign sales experts Mandate Pictures, now part of Lionsgate, financed “Juno,” the lowest-budgeted and highest grossing of the five nominees. Making low-budget horror with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House company and a series like “Harold & Kumar” built Mandate’s bottom line, but an admiration of “Ghost World” led topper Nathan Kahane to hire John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd to do the same duties for “Juno.” Bingo: a reported $6 million investment stands at this writing at a $125 million gross. The luckiest director, however, who gained from a Pohlad-Skoll type windfall, would be Tony Gilroy, who, after a career that includes the “Bourne” franchise and ice-skater-goes-blind romance “The Cutting Edge” (1992) got finance and final cut for “Michael Clayton” as his debut from Boston real-estate developer Steve Samuels. The result? A movie that the older members of the Academy have recognized as being in the lineage of the oft-vaunted glory days of 1970s Hollywood, while offering a glimpse of what it takes to reclaim a soul.
Glamour lies in doing good? In making intelligent work? Art, even? Strange times. All that glitters can be gold.