When times get hard, do movie themes get soft?
At first glance, the abundant escapist comedies and musicals of the Great Depression would make it seem so. But as Hollywood heads into the recession of the early '90s, there's another side of the story.
"It's too easy to generalize and say that during the Depression of the '30s, people wanted escapism and that's why the Busby Berkeley musicals were popular and that kind of thing," says Leonard Maltin, film historian and correspondent for television's syndicated "Entertainment Tonight."
"The truth of the matter is that in the early 1930s, at the height of the Depression, Warner Bros. and other studios were putting out hard-hitting, gritty, realistic films. The most famous is probably 'I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.' They were not escapism at all."
Film-industry experts agree that the movies coming out of the current recession will once again offer both ends of the spectrum: stress-relieving escapism as well as a hard look at the hard times around us -- from frothy, sentimental, star-driven comedies such as "What About Bob?" and "Father of the Bride" to hard-hitting contemporary dramas such as "Boyz N the Hood" and "Straight Out of Brooklyn."
It has been widely observed that America is suffering from a kind of economic and spiritual hangover brought on by the excessive greed, self-indulgence and blithe denial of reality that characterized the Reagan years. And this current, undeniable aura of depression, emotional as well as financial, is being reflected in our movies.
There's a thematic thread running through films as diverse in tone and box-office success as "Awakenings," "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Life Stinks," "Hook," "The Fisher King," "What About Bob?," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Regarding Henry," "The Doctor," "Doc Hollywood," "City Slickers," "Grand Canyon" and others.
And what it boils down to is the opposite of what hit movies such as "The Secret of My Success" were promoting during the Reagan era. The motto of that '80s emblem Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" has been reversed: "Greed is good" has become "Money is bad."
"There's been a whole raft of movies that have all told us that to become poor, to become mentally or physically disabled, to face adversity of some kind, would bring out the humanity in us," observes Charles Fleming, staff writer for entertainment-trade paper Variety.
"They reminded us that hardship would elevate us, if we would let it. And, conversely, that to be rich and successful and 'happy' -- by the '80s definition -- was bad. Or, at the very least, superficial and unsatisfying."
Those are comforting lessons in lean years. And they're remarkably similar to the ones offered in many movies of the Great Depression, including "My Man Godfrey," "Holiday," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Easy Living" and the like.
"The spate of movies last year about 'yuppie comeuppance' I think is really a reaction to the '80s, not so much because we have a recession now as because people are just sick of the overindulgence," says one senior studio executive. "There are definitely going to be more of those, and hopefully some better ones done. More than anything else, I think the yuppie comeuppance theme will continue to play during the recession."
These pictures, he says, "are also a function of people who are making movies getting to that stage in life where they're starting to ask the questions they should have asked 20 years ago. So, ['Big Chill' writer-director] Larry Kasdan is finally getting a little nervous in 'Grand Canyon,' and so on."
Indeed, Kasdan's "Grand Canyon" embodies several key characteristics of contemporary recession-era filmmaking, as well as thematic reminders of the movies of the Great Depression.
As in a number of the "'80s hangover movies," there's a sobering tone, an ambiance of spiritual malaise, that hangs heavy over the picture. And although its primary focus is on a successful, white, upper-middle-class couple and their longing to fill certain voids in their lives, the movie also compares and contrasts their modern urban tribulations with those of some economically disadvantaged or disenfranchised black American characters.
The surprise hit "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" is another "very shrewd movie for right now," observes an independent production and marketing executive. Not only does it fit into the "yuppie comeuppance" category, demonstrating that all may not be secure behind the veneer of material wealth and comfort, but it also offers escapism in the form of blatant emotional manipulation.
Industry insiders say to keep your eyes peeled for more "yuppie thrillers," along the lines of "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Sleeping With the Enemy" and the upcoming "Unlawful Entry."