BREAKING IN: Hollywood Glamour – Are Screenwriters the Cure for Cultural Amnesia?

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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If you watch the Academy Awards® as I do, one thing is becoming obvious: the great stars of yesteryear– the Golden Age of Hollywood–  are fading away and, with them, the Hollywood tradition of glamour and honoring its own history.  Last year, we lost four of the screen’s great icons: Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, and Luise Rainer, who were given only brief tributes at the 2015 Oscars® after they died.  How many people under 50 watching the Oscars® this year came away from the ceremony knowing how gifted, versatile, and popular a movie star Mickey Rooney really was, and for eight decades?  Or how important child actress Shirley Temple was to lifting the spirits of a nation near-drowning in the Great Depression?  How beloved was Shirley Temple by Americans during those years?  I’ll cite one example:  It would have made my late mother cry had she outlived Shirley Temple and learned of her death.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

The few legendary movie stars of the 1930s and ’40s who remain–  such as two-time Oscar® winner Olivia de Havilland, who played “Melanie” in “Gone With the Wind”– are nearly 100 years old.  And stars of later generations who caught the tail-end of the Golden Age–  Julie Andrews, for example–  add a welcome note of dignity, class, and tradition to the annual Oscar® fest whenever they appear.  But, what will happen to the Academy Awards® ceremony– and the industry itself as a symbol– when people like Ms. Andrews, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, and the rest of the movie icons who rose to fame in the mid-twentieth century, are all gone too?  Who will be “Hollywood royalty” in the future?  As a screenwriter, you are part of this industry and its future, and one of the best ways to do high quality work of your own is to remember, honor and respect, be inspired by, and learn from the achievements of those who came before you. Long before you.

When I was growing up, glamorous aging movie stars like Gregory Peck, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire, or directors like John Huston, Frank Capra, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, and Billy Wilder, were fixtures at the Oscars®, as guests or presenters–  or were there to receive lifetime achievement awards. These screen legends not only brought a tear to the eye for nostalgic audiences watching on TV at home, but also brought their peers inside the theater to their feet at the ceremony–  and deservedly so– in recognition of their lifetime of artistry and the place they held in our hearts. The work of stars and directors like these, who were honored or at least visible at the Oscars®, inspired each new generation of filmmakers.  Even their mere presence at the ceremony reminded everyone of the high bar they set for everyone else in the movie industry– or hoping to be.  The Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by multi-talented men in tuxedos like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson– and later, Billy Crystal–  who, if I recall, never had to go pantless to get a laugh.  One year, Oscar® co-host David Niven calmly improvised a classy and clever wisecrack when a streaker unexpectedly crashed the telecast on live TV (“Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”), but would never have stripped down in public himself.

Frankly, I worry about the future of the movie business as an international symbol of glamour and class, making films that move the heart, inspire imaginations, and change the world for the better.  Certainly, many great films and performances were nominated for Oscars® this year–  as is always the case– and I have the utmost respect for the films and the people who created them. The ceremony in 2015 also had a classy homage to the Civil Rights movement– and a tribute to “The Sound of Music,” whose stars are still alive.  And, yes, the publicity folks at the studios back in the old days played a role in protecting stars’ off-screen images, and Hollywood costume designers like Orry-Kelly and Edith Head, make-up king Max Factor, cinematographers and photographers, and others helped create that positive public image.  But nobody had to teach people like Gregory Peck or Olivia de Havilland how to be classy, on or off the screen.  I worry about whether there’s enough knowledge of and respect for Hollywood’s history of excellence and traditions–  as reflected in the Oscars® ceremony, which is really the film industry’s only chance each year to draw a global TV audience on a single night– to inspire the next generation of filmmakers.  When “The Sound of Music”–  a good film (that starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, directed by Robert Wise, with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein), but by no means one of the greatest movie musicals– is honored as a classic on its 50th anniversary, I worry about Hollywood’s fading awareness of its own history.  I’m all for honoring Andrews, Plummer, Wise, or Rodgers and Hammerstein (all of whom I greatly admire) at the Oscars®– but this pleasant but unexceptional movie, which admittedly is fondly remembered by many, wasn’t the greatest film of any of their careers.

After the generation that produced American stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington is gone too, who will represent class, dignity, quality, elegance, and the Hollywood tradition at the Oscars®?  Now that most of the stars of the Golden Age are gone, Hollywood seems to be getting a case of cultural amnesia about the history of its own industry.  Less time at the Oscars® each year is devoted to honoring the Hollywood film industry’s history than in past decades–  probably because most of the people who created those films are long gone and can’t be present to receive awards or applause, and young audiences today probably don’t know who they are.

By contrast, the New York Yankees– another organization filled with stars and icons and steeped in a great historic tradition of excellence– never fails to honor its history, and baseball fans from 5 to 100 know who Babe Ruth was, even though Ruth was born over a century ago.  The fact that the Yankees place such a high value on their organization’s history is, in part, what inspires excellence from each rookie who goes to bat for the first time in the Bronx.  Even aging MLB players who arrive at the Yankees from other teams in the twilights of their careers, often feel rejuvenated and see their batting averages and home run tallies jump upwards once they join the Bronx Bombers.  That’s due not only to Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, but also to the sense of pride that players feel at joining a team with a historic tradition of greatness.  The Yankees hold public tributes for their Old Timers.  They schedule big public events to retire the numbers of their greatest players.  They never let the fans or their players forget the storied history of this 27-time World Champion team, and that anyone who plays for the New York Yankees is following in the legendary footsteps of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter.

You, as a screenwriter, can help Hollywood remember its greatness and historic traditions– not by copying the films of the past by rote nor by referencing classic films or stars of the past in your own screenplays, which would be a huge mistake–  but rather by writing high-quality, classy and meaningful stories with unique, special roles that will create the next generation of great Hollywood stars.  We are in a business with a grand tradition, and as an industry we must never forget where we came from.  Our “Babe Ruth,” “Lou Gehrig,” and “Mickey Mantle” are screen icons like Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and, yes, female stars like Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, or Ingrid Bergman.  Our legendary All-Stars and MVPs are screenwriters like Billy Wilder, the Epstein brothers, Carl Foreman, William Goldman, Ben Hecht, Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Riskin, and so many others.  When writing movies, we may not be able to resurrect long-dead Hollywood icons or control what goes on at the Oscar® ceremonies, but we can write powerful stories with great roles for stars—  to help create a new 21st-century Hollywood tradition that never forgets Hollywood’s legacy of greatness in moviemaking, and echoes MGM’s motto from the Golden Age: “Do it big, do it right, and give it class.”

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