Peter Bart: In Hollywood Award Season, Voters Have Learned To Distrust The Buzz

The annual Oscar melee always reminds us of this mandate: Never believe the “buzz.” Every important movie arrives with an aura – and it’s usually wrong or misleading.

The advance buzz on The Godfather was so disastrous even Francis Coppola sensed it was doomed. This year, All Quiet on the Western Front was deemed too violent and depressing to be a contender, but it’s collecting BAFTA Awards (seven) and Oscar nominations (nine).

Throughout the ‘80s every popular movie seemed carry a buzz curse. The production of Flashdance was so chaotic that even the stunt doubles had doubles. Footloose was both miscast and underbudgeted, as its director testified.

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Clearly both of these early ‘80s movies turned out to be hits, if not cultural milestones. Yet directors of that moment seemed more interested in making war than making movies. In response, studio executives became as helpful as chatbots.

Even Tom Cruise, that master of media manipulation who’s in the Oscar race this year with Top Gun: Maverick, went though a troublous period with his fans: He told them he would be believable as a Nazi officer (Valkyrie) or as a Republican senator (Lions for Lambs). He wasn’t.

Given the new hierarchy of awards columnists in recent years, it’s become more difficult for films to arrive amid a quiet ambiguity, like Crash in 2000. Or even Shakespeare in Love in 1998. In that year, the high-decibel war pitting Steven Spielberg’s camp (for Saving Private Ryan) against Harvey Weinstein’s ultimately pulled our attention to the combatants rather than to the films.

Many of us were caught off guard a year ago by what seemed like the sudden affection toward CODA. Or years earlier when Parasite suddenly became a “must see” (and “must vote”).

In the 1970s the fights between studios and filmmakers often shaped audience interest — witness the battle over editing that delayed The Godfather from its prized Christmas date to March. The media hinted that the movie may be unreleaseable.

In the ’80s, every casting choice seemed to trigger controversy, as studio executives publicly weighed in with second guesses.

Flashdance was about a welder in Pittsburgh (Jennifer Beals) who dreamed of becoming a dancer. Really?

The rather patrician director, Herb Ross, regarded his blue-collar characters as akin to space aliens, according to the media. Beals herself was not a dancer: Three or four professionals doubled for her, and the media liked to guess who did what.

Footloose focused on the conflict between a preacher (John Lithgow) who banned dancing in his small town and a youthful rebel (Kevin Bacon). He not only danced nimbly but also had a mastery of Biblical quotes to counter the preacher. The British director, Adrian Lyne, seemed mystified by provincial America in the ’80s.

Both films were breakout hits. The critics were baffled; The audiences loved the music and the dancing. Giorgio Moroder (Flashdance) and Kenny Loggins (Footloose) became folk heroes.

Were Footloose released today, the studio surely would have imported the prime minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, to vouch for its message: Conservatives in Finland are trying to defeat her because prime ministers shouldn’t dance.

There’s nothing like a photogenic prime minister to improve buzz.

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