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Why Do Hollywood’s Message Movies Have To Play It So Safe And Be So Dull?

Why Do Hollywood's Message Movies Have To Play It So Safe And Be So Dull?

Good intentions pave the way to hell, but sometimes they stop off en route at LA’s Dolby Theater (or, prior to 2001, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), and so may seem worth the risk. Hollywood has a long and noble tradition… well, Hollywood has a long tradition of recognizing and awarding films deemed Socially Important, and if anything, 2015 has seen a higher than usual number of star-centric, issues-driven hopefuls enter the awards fray. This week, another of those titles opens theatrically. “Freeheld” (our review) first played in Toronto the day after the Weinstein-backed “About Ray” (our review) debuted there, a mere eight days after Tom Hooper‘s “The Danish Girl” (our review) fluttered prettily into Venice, and nine after “Suffragette” (our review) first picketed Telluride.

It’s, of course, reductive to scotch tape those titles together and treat them as a bundle, but we can feel marginally justified in doing so. Not because the struggle for equal rights for lesbian partners, the challenges faced by a contemporary transgender teenager, the historical story of the first person to undergo gender confirmation surgery, and the campaign for female suffrage in 1910s Britain, respectively have any equivalence in the real world, but because each one of these films is itself reductive, hobbled by a standard-issue Hollywood approach to making a film with a social agenda. And that approach essentially dictates that you put the agenda first, and serve up everything else that makes for a good film, like characterization, context, even story, as a side dish at best, and never in such a way as might distract from the main course.

This leads to a whole category of films so overweeningly anxious to bring the less progressive members of their projected audience along with them, that anything that might complicate a central message that feels utterly well-duh to many of us in the chattering industries (gay people deserve equal rights; transgenderism is a real thing and not a sickness or a fad), has to be shorn from the narrative. After all, no one ever offended their way to an Oscar

And so, we get movies that take on complicated issues in simpleminded ways  ironing out kinks to leave nothing but the most tried and tested, simplistic narratives behind (usually something to do with Being True To Yourself or a straightforward David and Goliath story). Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, playing the couple at the heart of the “Freeheld” story “come off as really dull: they watch baseball, they renovate a house together and they eat dinner,” because nothing so messy as personality must impede our understanding that Lesbians Are Just Like Us. Elle Fanning playing the Ray that “About Ray” is putatively about, is similarly underserved by a script that gives us “very little sense of what his internal thoughts or life goals might be,” because those might well be messy and/or unsympathetic. Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl,” a film that could not be prettier if it were made of glazed porcelain, is directed into “such an externalized performance” that there’s a danger we might think Lili was more concerned with how she looked than how she felt. And Carey Mulligan‘s underplaying in “Suffragette” is wasted in a film that is not “terribly interested in her or anyone else as a living-and-breathing character, as opposed to a message-movie totem.”

There are better 2015 films that have progressive takes on gender and/or sexuality. There’s also “Carol,” which at first blush appears to scupper all these arguments by being a) star-driven, b) about a lesbian relationship, c) very likely to figure in the awards conversation, and d) very, very good. But hold up. The differences between Todd Haynes‘ film and the rest of this field are telling: there’s no sense in which “Carol” feels like an issues movie. “Carol,” like all great love stories, has a huge obstacle keeping the lovers apart; here it just so happens to be that they are both women. But more importantly, they are women who are, in their own ways, peculiar and maybe not wholly likeable; and as heavily aestheticized and infinitely glamorous as the film is, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) feel real. Those characters feel like the reason the film was made. They’re the main course.

I know what you’re thinking: “What about Roland Emmerich‘s ‘Stonewall‘?” [Hahahaha, kidding. I’m almost 100% certain no one was thinking that  it hasn’t got any stars in it, won’t get near any awards, and it sounds fucking awful (our review).]

It’s hardly a 2015-only phenomenon. In fact, what this formula for the Hollywood issues movie has been decades in the making. Jonathan Demme‘s 1993 “Philadelphia,” which cast everyman Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS, is one such film. 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” dealing with the then-hot-button topic of interracial romance, is another. 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” in which Gregory Peck poses as Jewish to write an expose about anti-Semitism, is yet another. These films are frequently cited as agents of attitudinal, if not actual change.

But does that really hold water? The idea that mainstream Hollywood film can effect social change is a seductive one, but it’s a chicken-or-egg debate: do progressive movements get a boost from glossy mainstream films that put forward their case, or do the films, piggybacking on already existing changes in prevailing attitudes, simply reflect society  sometimes through an unnecessarily softly-softly prism?

Patricia King Hanson of the AFI told the Washington Post in 2006, the year that “Crash” (Race) and “Brokeback Mountain” (Homosexuality) went toe-to-toe at the Oscars (and we all remember what happened there *shakes fist at heavens*): “From a historical perspective, it’s not so much that movies change society as they reflect what’s already changed. And then people look back and go, ‘Oh, that had such a big influence.’ ” Critic David Horowitz agreed, saying in the same piece, “Hollywood is a lagging cultural indicator. It does not foreshadow trends  it comes in very late… it has a certain institutional conservatism… It is not a brave town.”

That’s perhaps the ultimate irony of the “Freeheld” and “Suffragette” narratives of the world. It is not a brave town, these are not brave movies, and yet they are so very often about bravery. They are about individual acts of great courage, about people taking on an unjust system at immense personal risk and, against the odds, winning some sort of victory (or at least something that can be spun into uplift with the right music cues and some carefully phrased and dignified end title cards).

When those stories are instead told with ingenuity and passion, by filmmakers who put artistry above accessibility, we get “12 Years A Slave”  undoubtedly an issues movie, but also a challenging, intelligent film, and a Best Picture winner. Yet that film’s success did not seem to cue up a frenetic burst of investment in austere passion-project filmmaking as the best conduit to the Oscar podium. Instead, it’s chalked down to being anomalous, and somewhere a studio greenlights another anodyne, reverential, inspirational true-life story to carry forth its awards hopes.

Part of the problem is the accepted wisdom that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and Hollywood’s message-driven dramas really need some awards love to have a hope of making decent bank) is to appeal to the ageing voter block, and Lord knows old people are The Worst, right? It’s a phenomenon once dubbed the “Olivia De Havilland Factor,” whereby we were exhorted to account for the seemingly reactionary win of, say Michael Caine in “The Cider House Rules” over Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” by imagining then-octogenarian De Havilland dropping her lorgnette and choking on her bonbon during Frank TJ Mackey’s “Tame the cunt” speech, and filling out her Oscar ballot accordingly.

Not only does this take an unnecessarily dim view of De Havilland’s tastes, it also put the average voter vintage a full two decades older than the actual current average of 63. (And the point’s now moot anyway  in her most recent interview, the 99-year-old mentioned that her failing eyesight prevents her from watching the films anymore, and she no longer votes.)

But in any case we can only blame The Olds for so much. This debate has been around for far longer than they’ve been old, as mentioned in this typically great 2014 Grantland piece from Mark Harris about the perennial critics’ refrain that the best picture (which he dubs “X”) never wins Best Picture, which always instead goes to “Y”  the undeserving, un-ballsy winner, “a symbol of mediocrity, compromise.” Again, “Crash” vs ‘Brokeback’ inevitably crops up, but so too does the 1941 Best Picture race when Welsh coalmining drama “How Green Was My Valley” (the “Y” film in his paradigm) beat out “Citizen Kane” (the obvious “X”). It’s worth pointing out just how much “Freeheld,” “Suffragette,” and “The Danish Girl” are “Y” films in waiting  that is, their obvious awards-baitiness (of which their on-trend social agendas are part) is the very thing that makes commentators really hate it when they win awards.

The longer-term issue is that awarding these lesser films has a knock-on effect: they then come to define the “type” of film that wins, and therefore the “type” of film that will more easily get made. Harris’ reductio ad absurdum comes from the other end of this chain of false logic (and is not solely concerned with issues films), but it’s all part of the same self-fulfilling prophecy that means “a bland movie won an Oscar” leads to “only bland movies win Oscars” which leads to “an Oscar win means your movie is bland.” Sadly, it’s a cycle that doesn’t look like it’s going to be broken any time soon.

The best comfort we have, perhaps, as we face a long fall of insufferably sincere Hollywood Oscar campaigning (I wonder how much the truly horrible “Honor the Man, Honor the Film” campaign for “The Imitation Game” actually hurt it) is that there is perhaps another reason for the inbuilt blah-ness of the Hollywood issues film. Designed for maximum topicality, they are also kind of disposable. When was the last time, honestly, that anyone watched “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” for any reason not purely academic? Are there many of us today who can’t think of a more appealing way to spend a wet Sunday than to uncork a Merlot and pop on a DVD of  “Philadelphia”? The very things that make these dramas feel un-ignorable to us and possibly to Academy voters in 2015/2016 might well have them looking creakily irrelevant, or at best like time-capsule curios, come 2020.

Of course, that’s an eventuality somewhat diminished if your film bakes today’s hot potatoes to a gratin recipe from yesteryear. “Suffragette” and “The Danish Girl” are obviously period films, but even “Freeheld” is set in the recent past, telling a true story that also has the benefit of being  “completed”  that is, no nasty, ambivalent, or as we might call them “realistic,” loose ends to trouble those clean simple lines.

After all, “Hollywood prefers to make ‘controversial’ films about controversies that are settled, rousing itself to fight battles long won,” as columnist Mark Steyn observed. But the attitudes they espouse, and the self-congratulatory air of worthiness they exude, will surely date them nonetheless. Hopefully it won’t be long before we come to look at “The Danish Girl” not with irritation at its preciousness, but with bafflement at how we could ever have needed such hand-holding through a story about a woman born a man.

Most Hollywood social issues dramas, many of which are summoned into being purely to take a spin on the Awards Roulette Wheel, are comprised of equal parts Big Movie Stars Playing Courageous Individuals, Triumph Over Adversity Narratives, True Stories (Preferably From The Past), with few or no subplots or subthemes to distract us. It’s a formula so bland that it might as well be Formula. But perhaps that is actually, finally, the point of them  to come into this world already worn down to smoothness at the edges, old-fashioned and anachronistic. Perhaps the great service “Suffragette,” “Freeheld,” and “The Danish Girl” can do on their way to the derby is not so much to change people’s minds about the issues they circle. It’s to be familiar, complacent, and formulaic enough to convince those watching that everyone else has already changed their minds and moved on.

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What a spot-on. I just couldn’t figure out what is it about those big-issue movies that makes me dislike them when I’m supposed to be driven to tears or something like that. I’ve always put characters over everything else, and these movies’ protagonists are usually utterly bland. Great cg=haracters in film and literature alike are imperfect, complicated, sometimes utterly unlikable, but that’s what makes us (real, imperfect, and sometimes unlikable) understand them and see the world through their eyes.


I so agree with99% of this. The one thing I don’t, is that I like Guess Who’s coming to dinner, and I watch it on my own. I think that movie is challenging, is interesting both in terms of a character study, and in terms of looking at the racial divide. But again I studied film so perhaps my view is skewed here (I agree How green was my valley is the more emotional/moving/challenging film but I freaking love citizen Kane). On the awesome side, I’m wildly in love with Todd Haynes so seeing his sublime work with bonus lesbians and Patricia Highsmith is EXCITING. So excited for Carol.


This "analysis" could’ve been written every year of the past 75 (and probably has). If you watch movies, this isn’t news. The author herself quotes a 2006 article that makes the point better than she does, and at 1/3 the word count. I think Playlist writers are paid, like Dickens, by the word.


Wonderful article. Socially progressive Oscar-bait filmmaking in Hollywood has gotten out of control.


Yes, many professional critics get paid for their work. What of it. You get paid for your job too, no?


Many critics are getting PAID,but nobody talks about it.


Excellent critical piece by Jessica Kiang.
I don’t think it’s off message here to say that one of the best transgender films in recent years was Dallas Buyers Club. It wasn’t about transgenderism and Leto won for the role.

Reality Check

Who scotch tapes a bundle?


A most recent example is the Matt Damon quote regarding actors’ right to maintain their mystery (about private life, sexuality.) Imagine a movie adapted from this controversy, if viewed 25 years from now. If it’s told from Damon’s point of view, we’d see a mash-up of Birth of a Nation and colorful vignettes expanded from his Corden appearance. If the movie is told from Mark Harris’ point of view, it would be a litany of what equality truly means, what everyone outside the status quo MUST do and say at all times, to build an "unified front" formidable enough (the equivalent of prestige message movie adhering to its party line) for the "mainstream" to sit up, take notice of a "singular voice", and start changing their minds.


Sharkey cut to the chase. Critics helped enable this train and now want to get off washing their hands clean. The March ’06 WaPo quote points out a truism: the social changes Hollywood is supposedly always catching up with, are ultimately still minor if loud grumbling against the status quo (the 5th generation directors couched their messages in period pieces too.) These message movies of mediocrity firstly have the "burden of representation" (think the latent prejudice in tokenism, model minority myth), secondly the "respect" they gotta give to whom sold their rights of representation. Thirdly, they aren’t speaking to the choir — it’s why the marriage equality pride marches held up placards of Brokeback (designed to cross over thus a shared "meme") instead of Hedwig (unapologetic narcissism; "cult"), why The Gentleman’s Agreement is a tepid curio today instead of the inconvenient truth many dinner party conversations would rather avoid.


Fantastic article


Perhaps one of the most thought provoking articles I have read in years in this website.
The author makes many interesting, and troubling, points.
O how I desire change in Oscar!!


The message movies are dull and safe because they are intended for dull and safe people. These people aren’t able to raise their brows very high, and if you actually want to reach these people, you need to cater to what they respond to.


What define’s mediocrity? is it not all art, a collaboration between human beings.


Excellent post, Sharkey. you said it better than I ever could.


I think critics have an obligation to take these films to task, if they’re sick of this middlebrow shit. But often it’s the critic’s fault for giving well-mounted, but safe films a pass, when these films are actively worse than a lot of riskier genre films that get mixed reviews. There’s a conservative bias in the critical establishment as well, and I don’t necessarily mean in a political sense. I mean in that films based on plays/novels and true-to-life stories are graded on a different curve, a more generous curve. They should be subject to the same level of scrutiny, and taken to task for failure of courage.


Doris is right, though forcing mediocrity that’s MCU as example of how to make blockbusters is bad in its own right. In fact, there’s similarity between that and prestige movies. They are all mediocre but that’s the main problem. It’s easy to discard something that’s flat out bad. But with these can’t say it’s good but can’t say it’s bad movies (blockbusters and prestige alike) there’s more room for giving a pass that leads to making more of them. cause when pressed to put mediocre in either bad or good category, likeability of stars, production values, entertainment factor can all sway the vote to Good. And that’s how we get prestige mediocrities nominated year after year and boxoffice ones making money. Just last year, many critics lamented the fact that TIG and TOE were really mediocre but they still gave them good enough reviews for solid RT and MC and inevitable noms. It isn’t really just movie’s fault. When critics decide that enough is enough and that mediocre should not get the pass anymore, something may change.


say what you want about franchise sequels, comic adaptations and shared universe gimmicks… nothing is as cynical, boring and charmless as one of these awful "prestige" movies.

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