Hollywood once produced many technically mediocre movies that were redeemed by morally upbeat messages. Today the craft of film-making is awe inspiring, but the sensibility is often pernicious. Take three leading contenders for Oscars, The English Patient, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Evita. All three films display adroit writing, acting and editing. And all three use the bedazzling tricks of Hollywood to gain audience sympathy for scoundrels.
The English Patient presents us with a handsome count in North Africa who, as World War II approaches, seduces a friend’s wife (and much of the theater audience). When they are nearly killed by her jealous husband, the count leaves her wounded in the desert to get help. He is arrested mistakenly by the British, kills an innocent guard and then, to get a plane to return him to his lover, offers precious maps of the desert to the Germans, helping to doom thousands of British soldiers. The person after whom the story is modeled, Count Almasy, was in fact a spy for the Nazis and later the Soviets. Yet there were many wet eyes at the end of the film about this irresponsible relativist. After all, who are we to judge such a romantic figure?
A hero’s mantle from the costume racks also magically transforms Hustler magazine publisher, Larry Flynt. No pander was ever half so endearing as actor Woody Harrelson portrays Flynt. Gloria Steinhem for once has it right: The real-life Flynt earns his millions by degrading women, in some cases celebrating violence done to them. In an apparently successful effort to disarm viewers, the film almost admits as much, but we are supposed to be charmed.
Businessman Flynt uses the First Amendment strictly to protect his production of salable sex, but the film offers him up as a rustic champion of a robust Constitution, just a little left of Tom Paine. Could manipulated theatergoers, like the woman seated behind me, who exclaimed loudly that the film was the “best movie I have ever seen,” be made to feel the same about a film toasting pedophilia or bestiality?
Very possibly so, because the point of the Flynt film is that the First Amendment is absolute and that those who constantly extend the plumbing of its depths deserve not just legal toleration and fat bank accounts, but also the public’s thanks. Understandably, the real Larry Flynt, however rich, is used to being a social pariah. But a few days ago he was invited onto a national TV talk show and was delighted–and amazed– by the immense ovation that greeted him. Hollywood has lionized another skunk.
Then there is Evita. This is the film with a screenplay co-authored by Oliver Stone, who has done so much for bogus history in JFK and Nixon. It arguably is the worst film of the three exactly because its lying is the most persuasive. Stuffed with rolls of cinematic gauze, the satirical bite of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original stage musical is reduced to gumming. In the lyrics of Tim Rice an echo of sarcasm remains, but it is lost in the visual schmaltz. Imagery and music easily drown out words in a film whose makers have fallen in love with the villains.
Oh, people are shown getting beaten up by the Peronistas and there is a sly allusion (but only that) to Juan Peron’s similarities to Benito Mussolini. But you would have to guess that the Perons themselves were responsible for the beatings and murders, and you would hardly imagine that the Italians who pelted Eva with eggs during her visit to Rome did so because Juan Peron had been an outspoken admirer of Il Duce and Der Fuehrer.
In the film there is no disclosure that the Perons were anti-Semitic or that they welcomed up to 15,000 escaping Nazis at the close of World War II, raking in untold millions in gold from them. The Perons’ economic policies–in the film, an amusing redistribution of wealth from the stuffy privileged classes–resulted in long term financial desolation for all classes. At one time living standards in Argentina rivaled Canada’s. Thanks largely to the Perons, Argentina sank to third world status.
But in today’s Hollywood, Eva Peron’s sins are washed away and restored as 90’s virtues. Her sexual power-seeking warrants admiring chuckles; what pluck! On screen, she is a Latin feminist, seizing authority from hidebound men who don’t realize that glamour has a right to rule. Her propaganda lines and staged humility (“I only bring the people to the heart of Peron!”) no longer ring hollow, as in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play. They chime cheerily to a generation of movie-goers who know little of fascism. The film’s violence is just an exotic backdrop for Webber’s operatic themes and Madonna’s fashion parade.
Indeed, Madonna is the perfect vehicle for Oliver Stone’s mock-populist revisionism. Perhaps we can see her next as poor, misunderstood Lady Mac Beth, and after that the noted “Renaissance woman,” Lucretia Borgia. Then she can rehabilitate that suffering citizen of revolutionary France, Madame Lafarge.
There are so many historical and fictional rascals left, each of whose appearance needs to be uplifted by Hollywood’s celluloid implants.