Thursday, September 6, 2012

Golden Age Perspectives on Film Sex and Violence

In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter (August 3, 2012), director Peter Bogdanovich is interviewed (as told to Gregg Kilday) on movie violence and the horrific movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado this past July. Mr. Bogdanovich’s directorial debut in 1968 was, coincidentally, “Targets”, which concludes with a sniper shooting the audience at a drive-in movie.  He also wrote the screenplay.

Bogdanovich responds, “Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It's almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It's all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.”

Mr. Bogdanovich’s remark may be refreshing to many of us classic film fans, whose preference for older films may indicate a preference for less film violence and the opinion that film violence can inspire a more violent society (obviously not necessarily the opinion of all of us). I wonder if his opinion is based only on his being a veteran filmmaker questioning the course younger filmmakers are taking? His “Targets” was shocking for its day and meant to be. But then, he was a much younger man.

Does his moral outrage simply stem from getting older?

Emotional and mental maturity are worthy of respect. Often it seems our present day mores are rife with ignorance and immaturity.

How much movies play into making our society more violent or sexually promiscuous one could discuss forever and never reach agreement. What I find interesting, and quite poignant, are the first calls against film violence and graphic sexual situations from those classic film actors who found themselves, like Peter Bogdanovich, getting older in an industry so drastically changed that they no longer recognized it.  How bewildering that must have seemed.

How much more shocking would the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, perhaps films like “Target” been to a Golden Age studio contract player now middle aged or older and still looking for work?

Mary Astor: “I admire nudity and I like sex, and so did a lot of people in the Thirties. But, to me, overexposure blunts the fun…Sex as something beautiful may soon disappear. Once it was a knife so finely honed the edge was invisible until it was touched and then it cut deep. Now it is so blunt that it merely bruises and leaves ugly marks. Nudity is fine in the privacy of my own bedroom with the appropriate partner. Or for a model in life class at art school. Or as portrayed in stone and paint. But I don’t like it used as a joke or to titillate. Or be so bloody frank about.” (Mary Astor- A Life on Film, NY: Delacorte Press, 1971, pp 90-91).

Audrey Hepburn: “It’s all sex and violence. I don’t like guns, and I can’t strip because I don’t have the body for it. I’m too scrawny. So I don’t know what the future holds…But, whatever happens, the most important thing is growing old gracefully.” (Rex Reed, Valentines & Vitriol, NY: Delacorte Press, 1977, p.59)

Victor Jory: “I don’t know if it’s a moral thing or not…but over the years—and I started acting when I was 16—you develop certain standards. I don’t want to be photographed with naked ladies and I don’t want to say certain words in films. In private conversation, I use four-letter words, but I don’t want to use them in front of an audience” (Syndicated, NEA, Williamson (West Virginia) Daily News, May 23, 1977, p. 8)

Ginger Rogers: “I enjoyed a happy image in films. Why should I become a destructive force in the minds of the young people in this country who grew to love Fred and Ginger on the Late Show? No, thank you. I can do creative things elsewhere. I don’t want to stoop to horror films.” (Reed, p. 158)

Mary Astor: “I don’t think Garbo with her clothes off, panting in a brass bed, would have been more sexy than she was.” (Astor,p. 92)

Dana Andrews, during his tenure as President of the Screen Actors Guild denounced nude scenes as demeaning for actresses (New York Times, December 23, 1963).

William Holden accepted both his age and the state of the movies, even welcomed it, on his return in “Network” (1976): “What am I? A craggy-faced, middle-aged man. I can’t grow younger. People seeing “Network” say, ‘God! He’s getting old.’ Fortunately, they don’t have reruns of their past on TV…at least I no longer have to sit on the edge of Gloria Swanson’s bed with one foot on the floor and my overcoat on. The movies have grown up and so have I.” (Reed, p. 189).

Holden was one of the few Golden Age stars who, if they wished, could find work in starring roles in the 1970s, not just cameo roles.   We might compare him to Meryl Streep or Clint Eastwood, who both are commanding fabulous salaries and are as much in demand as they were, say, 30 years ago in the early 1980s. They are older--elderly--but their stature as stars has only grown and not diminished with age.

But, despite the fantastic technological developments--computers, cell phones, etc.--in our everyday lives, the movies have not changed as drastically in the 30-year period between 1982 and 2012, as they did between, say 1940 and 1970. Our social standards, for want of a better term, are not that different today from the early ‘80s. Television has changed; the language and subject matter of network “family” shows today are equal to (or surpass) what was shown on late-night TV in the early ‘80s, and cable television surpasses everything.

The movies have plateaued to a level of public taste being irrelevant, or, judging from the box office take of many films, non-existent. It has become, using the terminology of the stock market for a moment--“what the market will bear.”

In the early 1970s the Golden Age stars observed the first experimentations with pushing the boundaries, and they must have felt like dinosaurs.

Mary Astor: “I admire the young film-makers for trying new things, new concepts, but I think they are just as much in danger of getting trapped in clich├ęs as at any time in film-making history. Audiences will get just as tire of people wrestling in bed as they did of Tom Mix kissing his horse.” (Astor, pp. 186-187)

Pearl Bailey: “Why do all the movies have to be pornographic? Ten minutes after the picture starts, before I get the popcorn open, they’re in bed. For every ten minutes in the bed, I’d like to see fifteen minutes in the shower gettin’ clean again. Equal time for hygiene, that’s all. The courts let the criminals go free, nobody controls the guns the maniacs are carrying around—there are a thousand things we gotta change instead of worryin’ about who’s got the oil and who’s got the wheat.” (Reed, p. 83)

Mary Astor again, perhaps most eloquent on the impact of film: “We need identification that can purge but not lower one’s spirit…This is not accomplished by shotgun stimulation. Multiple action, strobe lighting, flashing, psychedelic color, split second subliminal cuts. It’s exciting, yes, but very tiring.” (Astor, p. 92)

“…To ‘tell it like it is’ is an impertinence, because it just isn’t, not everywhere. Therefore, it becomes propagandizing.” (Astor, p. 93)

Peter Bogdanovich, from the article noted above: “Today, there's a general numbing of the audience. There's too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it's not so terrible. Back in the '70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, 'We're brutalizing the audience. We're going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.' The respect for human life seems to be eroding.”

Perhaps modern filmmakers, and their younger audiences, would benefit from a greater familiarity with the heritage of classic film. It tends to lend perspective. Perspective lends maturity.  Personally, I am more offended by childishness and stupidity than I am by scenes of sex or violence (though I find heavily resorting to using sex and violence to tell a story both immature and stupid).

Don Ameche, though not risen to the level of superstar like Meryl Streep or Clint Eastwood, nevertheless was one Golden Age star who enjoyed a brief movie “comeback” in 1983 with a supporting role in “Trading Places.” He was required to use profanity, and though it made him uncomfortable, he compromised. He would perform only one take.

And he apologized to everyone on set before he cussed.

Mary Astor: “…I watch the new ones, the new breed, and when they do something great and fine, I’m proud. And when they do things that are blatantly bad, I am ashamed. But I don’t disinherit them, for no matter how much they may feel that it is a whole new thing, it isn’t really. It is a continuation. For what they have today was built upon the great and find and the blatantly bad jobs we did—we old movie-makers.” (Astor, p.219)


Fred Theilig said...

I'm always interested in what Mary Astor has to say. Her comments are so often well considered and to the point. I'll have to check out her book.

As I more familiarize myself with movies over time I am surprised how they have changed over the years, and particularly between 1965 and 1970 when the world of nudity and language opened wide. I also see a great many movies that were rated PC in the early '70s that would be R in the '90s. It seems the advent of PC-13 had a very taming effect on Hollywood. While I don't buy into all of the assertions, the documentary "This Film is not yet Rated" gave interesting insite into this.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Fred. Mary Astor clearly was an intelligent woman who really pondered these issues as an artist.

What really moves me is what the golden age stars thought of the industry changing so much. They must have felt like strangers.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I must sincerely apologize to Mythical Monkey and another commenter (I'm sorry, I didn't catch the blog name), who both left detailed and very intelligent comments which I enjoyed reading very much -- but which I deleted. I don't know where my head is today, please forgive me for accidentally deleting your comments. I didn't mean to delete them, I just did a stupid thing. Very sorry.

KimWilson said...

Movies are a product of the time in which they are made. Those actors who changed with the times (and film making) continued to work--those who didn't were forever locked up in their past roles. Films today are extremely violent, but I think it is a reflection of the violent times in which we live. Yes, some films (I'm not counting horror films because those are just inane) are overly violent and unrealistic, but that is an avenue of escapism for some. Thought-provoking article.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, as a film fan who loves a wide range of films and genres, I was very interested in what you had to say in your superb article "Golden Age Perspectives on Film Sex and Violence." It's all too easy to blame real-life violence on movies or TV shows; I think people who harm others in horrific ways would be violent no matter what, simply because they're damaged, destructive people just looking for an excuse to indulge in chaos and fear.

The quotes from Peter Bogdanovich (whose own sweetheart, actress Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her jealous, unstable husband, if I recall correctly) and all those wonderful Golden Age stars were smart, sharp, and really put this issue into perspective. I was especially impressed with what Mary Astor had to say; no wonder she's always been one of my favorite actresses! :-) BRAVA on a great blogpost, Jacqueline, as always!

Kevin Deany said...

Very interesting piece. I must admit its not the sex and violence that concern me, but the inability of many directors today to tell a story. Now so many Hollywood movies are loosely strung-together action or comedy set pieces and very little in between. The art of narrative cinema has long been forgotten.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kim, Dorian, and Kevin, you've all contributed excellent points to this discussion. Kevin, I particularly liked your comment, " The art of narrative cinema has long been forgotten." Well put.

Dorian, Mary Astor seemed to be one smart lady. She had effectively retired from films by the 1970s due to ill health, but the feeling I get is that she, and the other classic film stars, had no choice but to be kicked to the curb in a changing industry. Their perspectives on what was happening to film, and therefore to them, is what really fascinates me.

Rich said...

I totally agree with you in that it's the excess of sex and violence that's the problem, not the sex and violence itself. Unfortunately, general audiences have been fed so much of it for so long that I suspect they might not know what to do with a current movie with the sensibilities of a classic one. For all of the success of 'The Artist,' it wasn't quite as huge a crossover hit as, say, 'Black Swan,' a movie with a fair amount of sex and violence - the kind of movie Mary Astor and these other actors would find questionable.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent observation, Rich.

Related Products