We are in the 1960s. Hollywood is once proving that imitation is the sincerest form of appreciation, after the mega-successes of much musical hits as The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady.
The studios are cranking out the musicals, which looked good on paper: Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Doctor Doolittle, Hello, Dolly, The Happiest Millionaire, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Star!, and on and on. They all eventually bombed—and they were unable to stir the interest of the increasingly younger moviegoers lining up to see Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, M*A*S*H, and Easy Rider.
Such is the setup for Roadshow: The Fall of Film Musicals of the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy’s look at the unpredictable era where Hollywood turned out exorbitantly-budgeted, bigger-than-life musical entertainments…and nobody went.
The book is chockfull of fascinating facts and reportage about how and why these musicals faltered. There are tales of epic miscasting (non-singers Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in Paint your Wagon, Richard Harris in Camelot), on-the-set feuds (Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau hating each other on Hello, Dolly), monstrous egos (the impossible Rex Harrison was called Tyrannosaurus Rex while making Doctor Doolittle) and, simply, bad, bloated ideas (The Song of Norway, The Great Waltz).
In movie parlance, a “roadshow” means a film that commanded a higher price in an exclusive showing before it went into wide release. The idea was that if the picture was special—good reviews, awards possibilities, presented on a large screen format, or, perhaps, a musical with Broadway-styled entertainment—people were willing to pay extra money to see it. Soundtracks and souvenir books were sold in the lobby, adding to the uniqueness of the whole experience.
Hey, it worked for The Sound of Music, released in 1965 and playing for years until it became one of the most popular films of all time. That was the picture that Hollywood studios tried to emulate and, in most cases, failed.
According to author Kennedy, the feel-good story of the von Trapp family fighting the Nazis nearly destroyed Hollywood with its overwhelming success.
The roadshow trend continued into the ‘70s, until it—and the mega-musicals and monstrously budgeted films—faded into the sunset.
So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.
Welcome to the 1970s. It’s the time when the feel-good musicals of the previous decades were gone, and bold efforts by exciting new moviemakers were taking hold. The film school generation was coming of age—Coppola with his Godfathers and The Conversation; Scorsese with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; Spielberg, the wunderkind, making magic with mechanical sharks and flying saucers; and Lucas giving us coming-of age nostalgia (American Graffiti) and movie serial-styled space adventure (guess what).
Smack dab in the middle of all this were members of the old guard—veterans of the golden age of 1950s television—delivering one of the most trenchant satires ever committed to celluloid.
In Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff tells about the making of 1976’s Network, directed by Sidney Lumet and written Paddy Chayefsky. The focus of his book is really the writer; Itzkoff had unprecedented access to his papers while researching the project.
The book traces the steps that led to the filming and reception of Network, a searing indictment of the television industry set in and around a fictional network where executives discover the more outrageous the program, the bigger the ratings. That the film’s predictions about the future of TV and its prescient view of reality programming, unseemly, profit-motivated news outlets and bloviating personalities have come true make Network—and this account of its production—all the more compelling. In fact, Itzkoff talks to Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert, and others who discuss the impact the film had on them.
Chayefsky, the WWII and TV veteran who won his first Oscar for adapting his teleplay Marty, is painted by Itzkoff as a stubborn-as-a-mule figure who would rarely take “no” for an answer. In fact, the idea of Network was originally submitted to a TV network as a series proposal, but after they balked, Chayefsky turned it into a film script. The book colorfully details Chayefsky’s painstaking writing process and the input the writer received from such friends as Broadway director Bob Fosse and playwright Herb Gardner, as well as how steady helmsman Lumet anchored the project while Chayefsky’s volatile personality rocked the boat.
Mad as Hell—the title taken from newsman Howard Beale’s call for TV viewers to go to their windows and unleash their anger by yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”—leads us through the shooting and casting process of the first-rate ensemble that included William Holden (in a role turned down by Paul Newman), Oscar-winning actresses Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, and British actor Peter Finch, who passed away weeks before he became the first posthumous recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Chayefsky comes out of Mad as Hell as a hero—a flawed hero with inner demons, a bad temper and what appears to be undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Just what the doctor ordered to tackle the eventual evils of big media.
Fast forward to the year 2012. Hollywood is a splintered place. There are the movie studios that place multi-millions of dollars in “tentpole” films in hopes they spawn sequels and rake in mega-bucks—not just in the American market, but internationally as well. And there are scruffy independent companies and filmmakers trying to find an audience through festivals and crafty marketing.
In The $11 Billion Year, industry reporter Anne Thompson chronicles the roller coaster year leading up to the 2013 Academy Awards. She’s there in the trenches, at the film festivals (including Sundance, Cannes and Toronto), at San Diego Comic-Con, at press junkets and industry panels, talking to the creators above and below the title.
And what a year it is! The unknown Beasts of the Southern Wild emerges from Sundance as a genuine Oscar threat; Quentin Tarantino tackles slavery in the controversial Django Unchained; Award-winning Ang Lee delves into the world of cutting-edge special effects and 3-D with Life of Pi; Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker alumni Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal look into the capture of Osama Bin Laden with the provocative Zero Dark Thirty; Steven Spielberg gets his dream project of Lincoln off the ground; and Ben Affleck directs and stars in the audience-pleasing Argo—but is it released too early in the year to win the Oscar for Best Picture?
Thompson and her associates (she runs the Thompson on Hollywood blog on www.indiewire.com) dig up the stories behind the stories. She goes deep on the hubbub regarding the concerted efforts to take Bigelow and Boal to task for their depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty; the unique way Tarantino works; and how Bill Clinton was enlisted to promote Lincoln. There are plenty of juicy moments throughout The $11 Billion Year as well.
If you are a steady follower of the industry, or read Thompson’s blog with any regularity, there will be a ring of familiarity to her book. But it’s smartly put together, and just when you start wondering whether you need to read another story about a particular movie, she seems to find another fascinating tidbit about its making, marketing or promotion. In fact, there is so many happy surprises throughout The $11 Billion Year, we’d like to see Thompson and company play this again, Sam, every few years.
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy (Oxford University Press)
Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies by Dave Itzkoff (Times Books)
The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System by Anne Thompson (It Books)