Previewing History: Fade Out, Fade In, Episode 7 of TCM's Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced and written by Jon Wilkman; camera by Neal Brown and Neil Smith; narrated by Christopher Plummer. Color and B&W, 57 min. (each episode). An Ostar Productions presentation on Turner Classic Movies.
This is the end, in more ways than one. It’s a wrap for the old-time moguls in the final episode, which is series of conclusions and rebirths. The blacklist, which the last installment skimped on, comes to a close, with Dalton Trumbo’s son Chris on hand to tell the tale of his father winning a scriptwriting Oscar for The Brave One under a pseudonym. The studio system fades, fertilizer and parking lot companies snatch the studios up, and the fabled lots are sold for real estate. “Letting it all hang out,” as Plummer notes, fifty-something Hollywood royals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford join in the debunking of the gilded past with the hit horror show What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?and revive their careers.
While the tone is ultimately elegiac, this is the liveliest episode of the series, one that throws off the crutch of the silken narration for a few minutes at a time and lets its talking heads talk for more than a sound bite. Giving the program more of the “you are there” feeling that’s been lacking are producer Peter Guber, who recalls showing up for work at a Columbia lot still haunted by the ghost of Harry Cohn; screenwriter Buck Henry on the response to The Graduate; and Bob Balaban’s embarrassment at the non-response to his appearance in Midnight Cowboy, discreetly going down on Jon Voight, by his uncle Barney, a long-time Paramount executive. “I was the cause for the X-rating,” he says.
The climax is punctuated by the sound of taboos being shattered. The French New Wave and tides from elsewhere invigorate young filmmakers and shake up their look and content. A struggling actor, Warren Beatty, turns producer and upends the traditional gangster movie, and other sacred cows regarding violence and carnality, with Bonnie and Clyde. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, stars of the studio-straining flop Cleopatra, get with the times and turn the air blue in the smash Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
To make sense of it all, audiences rely on receptive and perceptive film critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris to help them find their bearings. To help it find its bearings, it’s clear this episode relied on Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood for research. Following Harris’s lead the show uses the 1968 Oscar ceremony, where upstart Best Picture nomineesBonnie and Clyde and The Graduate contended with the middlebrow Sidney Poitier movies In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the elephantine Old Hollywood product Doctor Dolittle for honors, as a metaphor for a generation gap in American film, and the pot-soaked anecdotes about Easy Rider have the ring of Biskind about them. The authors appear as commentators, but the books, whose influence enliven the hour, really should have been credited.
As always there are omissions. While this horror fan was delighted to see Night of the Living Dead in this context, I would have swapped the seconds on that independent hit for a segment on John Cassavetes, whose acting gigs in studio pictures helped fuel a remarkable filmmaking career outside Hollywood. Perhaps his movies were considered too off the grid, but as a striver inside and outside the system he certainly merited a brief moment in the spotlight.
Unsurprisingly Moguls & Movie Stars ends on an upbeat note, with paeans to Hollywood as the “ultimate dreamland” and its history being American history, etc. A different narrative is played out in some of the anecdotes, as when Clara Bow, a survivor of silent era scandal, memorializes Marilyn Monroe by noting the defenselessness of celebrity, or Daniel Mayer Selznick’s tearful observation that success left his father, David O. Selznick, a hollow man. It’s not that the show has been relentlessly positive, just relentless, with little breathing space to pause or linger over the fallout or ramifications of Hollywood’s world-changing progression. We’ve seen a lot of moguls and movie stars—what no one figured out was a fully articulated theme, which would have given greater purpose to this star-dusted but somewhat shapeless enterprise.
“Fade Out, Fade In” begins airing Monday, Dec. 13, at 8:00 p.m. EST.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1