By Ryan Fleming
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 39th contest was Song and Dance
Is it really about to happen? It has been thirty years since they last took a chance on something a little bit different, hardly surprising considering how that decision turned out. You might say, therefore, that no way is it about to happen, but I beseech you: what other option is there? We’ve already seen commentators who have realised that there is none enter the bargaining stage of grief that the long streak is about to be broken. Calls for a new category, whether it be Best Popular Film, Best Television Film or splitting the award in two like at the Golden Globes are only ignoring the inevitable: a drama film is about to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Before we turn our attention to that inevitability, let us consider the last time the Academy awarded Best Picture to a drama film. It was March 29, 1989, and let me set the scene: George Bush was a few months into his first term as President, Communism in Eastern Europe was teetering on the brink of collapse, and for ten years a musical or comedy film had won Best Picture at the Academy Awards year after year. What a lot of those aghast at this not happening this year like to gloss over is that for most of the preceding iterations of the biggest meat parade in any industry drama had reigned supreme. The 1980s saw that all change, and if we’re being honest the likes of Splash and Little Shop of Horrors would never have been in with even a snowball’s chance in hell. 1989 wasn’t an aberration, it was a return to form! Why, then, was awarding Best Picture (and more) to Mississippi Burning so resoundingly lambasted?
Think of the time, think of that scene we set earlier. This was the era of “Morning in America”; between Mary Lou Retton and Rocky Balboa, America was looking pretty darn great around that time. Why do you think so much of modern media has rose-tinted glasses for the 1980s? Even the Academy, never the most receptive to the winds of change, could sense the mood and that was obvious from the opening the ceremony that year. Producer Allan Carr was hired with the remit to turn around the dull and dreary show into something befitting the modern zeitgeist. The large-scale music number adapted the long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon seeing Snow White (Eileen Bowman) turn up in Hollywood during the Golden Age and become enamoured by the glitz before doing a duet of “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe.
He might not have lived up to his promise that the show would be “the antithesis of tacky”, but there was no denying that Carr had hit upon a winning formula and delivered the highest ratings the ceremony had seen in years. He was even able to licence Snow White from Disney, who were still struggling for an identity under Walt’s son-in-law Rob Miller. Conspiracy theorists would like you to believe that the only reason Disney agreed was the promise that their next feature would win Best Picture, especially with so many already claiming it was a rip-off of the extraordinarily successful Splash. Whenever it comes up, just call BS on it: if that were the case, would they really have given Disney another Best Picture for another animated musical just a couple years later?
The only bearing the 61st Academy Awards might have on the decision to award Best Picture to The Little Mermaid the following year would be the outright rejection of Mississippi Burning as the winner. Turning away from our Disney tangent, let’s reiterate: “Morning in America”; Barbara Streisand and Cher playing ping pong with the Best Actress award; Snow White and Rob Lowe doing “Proud Mary”; highest audience rating in years. Take all that, then at the climax of the show you Best Picture to a very heavy-hitting period drama about one of the grimmest chapters in the Civil Rights struggle? Maybe, if it had been a light musical about the murder of three Civil Rights workers in 1964 it might have done better. It wasn’t just the subject matter that incensed journalists and viewers alike; it was a movie more in the style of the 1970s than the 1980s.
It was so out of synch with the rest of the show as to seem jarring, but really then, as now: what other option was there? And what has changed in the thirty years since?
Mississippi Burning has undergone something of a re-evaluation in the popular consciousness during recent years, especially given current political events, but as the 1990s dawned the word was heard loud and clear: dramas were done. They still made them of course, horror movies have never won many big awards (and no: Little Shop, Phantom of the Opera, and Sweeney Todd do not count) but they still made them. Dramas were not an exception, but it seemed everything started to get in on the musical trend once the 90s entered full swing.
Sometimes it did not translate very well: Robert Englund might have given a decent account of himself rapping in one of the later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, but it spelled the final death of that long vegetative series. Other times, it worked surprisingly well: who would have thought headlining WrestleMania back in 2010 with a rap vs. rock battle between John Cena and Chris Jericho would do the best numbers that event had drawn in years?
As they had since the musical revolution of the late 70s, which saw musicals top the box office for three years running with one of them (Grease) eventually dethroning Jaws as the most successful film of all time, the top grossing films were all musicals. What had changed in the 1990s was that now the most critically acclaimed films were musicals too. As every child of the 90s remembers, when you went to the movies it was always to see a musical. Musicals were what you saw when you could be bothered to go out, whether they be live on stage or on the silver screen.
On the other hand, you saw many more movies sat on a sofa at home than you did on the big screen. That’s where drama survived: after going virtually unnoticed in cinemas The Shawshank Redemption was given a new lease of life by Blockbuster video; TV movies, long the bulwark of sensationalist tales, found a new boom; and eventually, seeing the video sales and ratings, the premium cable started to turn away from stand-up specials and softcore porn and toward serial dramas.
The New Hollywood wunderkinds found new lives on the small screen. A repeat of 1977s miniseries cut of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (as The Godfather Saga) in 2002 saw HBO commission not one, but two miniseries sequels from Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo that reunited the surviving cast members and brought the Corleone Family into the 1980s. Fans of The Star Wars had their eternal wish granted when George Lucas revived the cult movie in a pair of critically acclaimed miniseries. Boilerplate detective shows would land directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese.
Soon the split was apparent to everyone: the movies were where you went to forget your troubles in a parade of colours and dancing but if you wanted actual prestigious storytelling, acting, and direction you stayed at home and watched The Sopranos or any other of the myriad of high-quality works. The sheen had long worn off that 1980s victory lap following the disastrous single term of Gary Hart, and more and more people wanted to turn to something that little bit more serious as terrorism and economic depression brought reality crashing down in the 00s.
Television had long been looked down on by the motion picture industry, and just as soon as it seemed like the small screen might give the big one some real competition a new player entered the game. Both the movies and television laughed in 2009 when Blockbuster launched their streaming service, yet here we are a decade later and it looks as though Blockbuster are about to achieve what television never could and have made a film so great that the Academy can not ignore it. How fitting, then, that it is directed by the very man that ushered in the musical revolution in the first place.
Martin Scorsese had been trying to have a film of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, chronicling the life of mob associate Henry Hill, produced since the late 1980s. However, after the reaction to Mississippi Burning winning the Best Picture Academy Award, and indeed the later reaction to Steven Spielberg’s Cape Fear, he could never find anyone willing to distribute.
It nearly, very nearly got made as a miniseries during the mid-00s only to go back on the shelf for fears of comparisons to The Sopranos. Instead, we got Scorsese directing the very last Columbo film, sending Peter Falk out on a high point, so we should be thankful it kept dormant still until 2018. Scorsese was, after all, the man who had made New York, New York and ushered in the musical revolution. Who was going to pay to see one of his mob movies in a modern age? 1973 was a long time ago. As it turned out, Blockbuster were willing to take the punt.
The streaming service that started out with just the usual back catalogue you could find in any brick-and-mortar Blockbuster store soon turned into a whole new beast as it started to produce original content. The early efforts were not going to shift any paradigms. In the US, at least, overseas Blockbuster was fast becoming the first place you could see the latest American cable dramas. Before long, the service had found its groove.
It was an insidious move, if we’re being perfectly honest, looking at what had been successful in the past on television but was not in vogue anymore and trying to resurrect it. Variety shows, which had died out by the late 00s as television went all-in on drama, began appearing again on Blockbuster. Three-camera set up sitcoms too, seemingly a hokey format for the 21st century, were revived. Then came Blockbuster of the Week, heir to the ABC Movie of the Week; The Key & Peel Halloween Special eventually led to the straight anthology Jordan Peel Presents; Conan O’Brien defected from The Tonight Show in 2014. At a time when nostalgia was big business, Blockbuster were ready to cash-in.
Television would always be small-fry – a disc one boss for the upstart service. If they wanted to be taken seriously as the undisputed next big thing, they had to take on the film industry. Theatre attendances had declined substantially during the 2010s; unlike any other time before Hollywood was arguably on the ropes.
They were already producing movies of course, Blockbuster of the Week and The Blockbuster Mystery Movie, but what they needed was a bona fide great. Much as television had at the turn of the century, the lingering memory of New Hollywood led Blockbuster to one of the former wunderkinds. We say one, but before long both Spielberg and Lucas had taken the Blockbuster shilling. Scorsese wouldn’t be far behind, and with an idea that he had been trying to get made since the 1980s.
If Wiseguys had been released exclusively in theatres, you could guarantee it would be the highest grossing film of the year and might even have been a contender for all time (still held, of course by James Cameron’s epic musical Titanic). That’s not hyperbole: Wiseguys feels the first film to be a genuine widespread cultural phenomenon since Titanic. It’s undeniable.
To return to the question posed at the start: what else is there? 2018 was not the best year for film, it seems as though all the studios were banking on big releases this year. The Academy have seemingly realised this too, look at Best Actor: three of the nominees are from Wiseguys! And definitely one of either Leonardo DiCaprio (Henry Hill), Stephen Graham (Tommy DeVito) or Alec Baldwin (Jimmy Conway) will win that award.
Of course, we are being told this means the end of cinema as the escapist medium it has been since the 1980s. Naturally, that’s as far back as these voices can remember and the prospect of change worries them immensely. It’s almost become another front of the “PC War” the same people like to whine about: film can only exist in the form that distracted people from the excesses of the 80s and took their minds of the tumultuous changes of the 60s and 70s.
If you were to listen to these voices you would think that Wiseguys is some turgid, humourless melodrama like you’d see on Play for Today over in Britain. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, it’s as lurid and as funny as you could want in a film. Telegraphed from the opening line:
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP