Hollywood leaves the literary films to independents

January 28, 1993|By Dave Kehr | Dave Kehr,Chicago Tribune

Twenty-five years ago, one of the major specialties of the Hollywood studios was the stately, tasteful adaptation of a literary work, drawn from a best seller ("The Godfather"), from the stage ("The Lion in Winter") or from the classics reading list ("The Great Gatsby").

It was left to the grungy independent outfits, like American-International, New World or Crown, to feed the drive-ins with exploitation films, horror movies and shoot-'em-ups.

Today, that relationship has been almost completely reversed. The majors are turning out the exploitation fare, in films like "Basic Instinct," "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula," while the high-toned, literary properties are left to the independents -- Sony Classics with "Howards End," Miramax with "Enchanted April," Samuel Goldwyn with "Madame Bovary," New Line (and its art house subsidiary, Fine Line) with such elevated European co-productions as "Waterland" and "Damage," and the domestic theatrical adaptation "Glengarry Glen Ross."

The irony of this reversal seems most acute at the end of the year, when the majors, as if they just remembered there was such a thing, rush to get their classier pictures into release in time to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Suddenly the screens are flooded with prestige productions -- with precisely those literary projects ("A Few Good Men") and spectacular performances (a Hoffman, a Pacino, a Nicholson or two) that are extremely scarce through the rest of the year.

For the studios, the Oscars have become an embarrassing anachronism, designed to honor exactly the kind of films -- worthy, uplifting, slavishly Anglophilic -- that they are no longer willing to make, either because the audience won't support them in sufficient numbers or because the industry's executives have long since resigned any real ambition.

"I don't make art," proudly announces Joel Silver, producer of "Lethal Weapon 3" and a noted collector of Frank Lloyd Wright, "I buy it."

Such a statement, however admirably frank, would never cross the lips of Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick or any of the other pioneering producers who founded the Academy essentially to celebrate their own hard-won good taste and certify their contributions to American culture.

They may not have made art, either -- particularly when they were trying hardest to -- but at least the desire was there.

One can only imagine the profound horror Louis Mayer would feel before even the basic idea of "Basic Instinct." Even a self-styled vulgarian like Columbia's Harry Cohn would have banished a project like "Batman Returns" (the year's highest grossing film, with revenues of nearly $163 million) to the furthest reaches of his B-movie division, and in fact did -- the first "Batman" movie was a Columbia serial produced in 1943.

If Irving Thalberg were to re-enter the industry today, he would have trouble getting green-lighted at any of the major studios; a track record that included such dreary seriousness as "The Barrets of Wimpole Street," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Good Earth" would impress no one, though no body of work was more honored in its time.

Now that the majors have closed off the low road, the independents must take the high.

The way to the tender underbelly of the American audience is no longer through trash, but class.

The advantages of this new configuration of American taste are manifold. For the independent producer, who must operate on a budget, class can be a real cost saver.

Spectacular locations can be had for peanuts, or the cost of a modest donation to the local historical trust; warehouses full of period costumes, sewn for David Lean movies and since carefully packed away in mothballs, sit waiting in London. Special effects expenses are minimal, being restricted largely to masking out TV aerials poking through the thatched roofs of quaint English villages.

Because most of the authors involved stopped drawing royalties somewhere around the Edwardian age, material -- even the very best -- can be had cheaply, if not free.

Why pay Joe Eszterhas $3 million for "Basic Instinct" when Edith Wharton and Gustave Flaubert can be acquired for the cost of a Penguin Classic?

Best of all, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Miranda Richardson, Emma Thompson, Julian Sands and the other actorly axioms of the genre can be hired at rates far below those of their American counterparts, though recently Daniel Day Lewis, with all of that Hollywood chest-baring in "The Last of the Mohicans," appears to have priced himself out of the market.

No wonder, then, that "Ethan Frome" has replaced "Slumber Party Massacre" on the list of upcoming independent releases.

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