Hollywood Analysis: The fear factor

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 15, 2001 at 8:48 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Along with the rest of the nation, the entertainment industry is trying its best to return to normalcy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- but that doesn't mean conquering fear, since fear has long been a standard feature of the Hollywood environment.

In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said he firmly believed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was, of course, exhorting his countrymen to rise above the disastrous economic conditions history refers to as The Great Depression.

Americans responded in a variety of ways.

Between 1934 and 1939 -- when the Nazis invaded Poland and another international crisis disrupted normalcy -- Hollywood turned out such uplifting fare as "It Happened One Night," "The Thin Man," "Top Hat," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Stage Door," "Captains Courageous," "You Can't Take It With You," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

During the same years, the studios also gave us serious pictures such as "The Informer," "Mutiny on the Bounty," "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Life of Emile Zola," "Test Pilot," "Of Mice and Men," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Citizen Kane."

The comedies and the serious dramas shared a number of key attributes -- not the least of which was a seriousness of purpose.

"It Happened One Night" (1934) and "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) were rare examples of a comedies winning the Oscar for best picture. They were rewarded for the stylish, entertaining way in which they treated important issues.

In both cases, integrity and optimism were clearly identified as essential to the proper enjoyment of personal freedom.

It remains to be seen how history will regard Hollywood's response to the first great international crisis of the new millennium. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then Hollywood's legacy is shaping up as a mixed bag.

The Calgary Sun recently quoted Oscar-nominated actor James Woods as saying he would avoid the New York premiere of his new movie, "Riding in Cars With Boys," starring Drew Barrymore.

"I won't go into a stadium," the paper quoted Woods, "and I won't attend a big public event."

At the same time, the New York Post reported that Paramount still intends to release "The Sum of All Fears" on schedule. The picture stars Ben Affleck as CIA agent Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's tale of a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl -- a plot device as old as 1977's "Black Sunday," written by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat.

The screenplay was based on the novel by Thomas Harris, who later gave the publishing and cinematic world one of the most terrifying artistic creations ever conceived, Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lechter.

Regardless of individual decisions by actors or studios to withdraw or proceed with normal routines, it is unrealistic to expect Hollywood to put an end to its longstanding relationship with fear. It's an emotion that not only drives corporate decision-making -- it's also an integral component of the very product that movie and TV studios create.

There may have been a time when Hollywood moguls were brash, autonomous and relatively fearless. Many of them certainly came off that way in tales told by their biographers.

But as early as the post-World War II era, Hollywood was as deeply affected as any other area of American life by the fear that drove the hunt for communists.

That same fear was still a factor in Hollywood life as recently as 1998, when controversy raged over the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to present an honorary Oscar to director Elia Kazan. Critics of the decision still think of the director of "On the Waterfront," "Gentleman's Agreement" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a sell-out for naming names of people he knew with communist or socialist sympathies.

The movie business found a new phobia in the 1950s when TV seduced large numbers of entertainment consumers and threatened to turn movie theaters in Bingo halls.

Today, the most widespread fear in Hollywood's corporate suites is motivated by the prospect that box-office failure will lead to the loss of well-paying, hard to find executive positions. It is not an irrational fear, given the tyranny of the marketplace, but it seems to be a major contributing factor to the generally flat tone that has been noted in Hollywood's work product in recent years.

Fear, of course, is intrinsic to the telling of a good story.

From the earliest time of human fascination with stories, it has been widely known that if you want to enthrall an audience you'd best not stray too far from the tried and true device of pitting good versus evil. It's also advisable to keep the listeners -- or viewers, or readers -- guessing about the outcome, and to make the stakes as high as possible for the loser of the struggle.

As the stakes get higher, the rivals' fear of losing becomes a more critical component of the story. An audience that is completely engaged in the story knows and feels the fears of the characters whose stories it is witnessing.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to work.

The importance of getting an audience to buy into a story may well be behind one of Hollywood's earliest and most prominent responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- the decision to remove images of the World Trade Center twin towers from upcoming movies.

Frames depicting the towers have reportedly been snipped from Al Pacino's upcoming movie, "People I Know." Technicians are hard at work replacing the twin towers with other images in scenes from the upcoming movie version of "Spider-Man."

Director Steven Soderbergh decided to reshoot a scene from his upcoming crime caper movie, "Ocean's Eleven," because it depicted a casino explosion in Las Vegas, with the New York New York resort as a backdrop -- complete with replicas of the twin towers.

Some critics regard the decisions as examples of political correctness run amok. Others simply regard the actors, directors or producers involved as wimps.

Any understanding of how movies work has to accommodate the importance of creating and sustaining an illusionary world in which audience members can lose themselves for a couple of hours -- a place where they can accept even the most preposterous notion, as long as it makes sense within the rules of the story.

Imagine yourself sitting in a darkened movie theater with a crowd of people, moving right along with a story -- could be a romantic comedy, an action-thriller, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you have willingly suspended your disbelief and have consented to come along for the ride.

Now imagine that you see the World Trade Center on the screen. It's going to take you right out of the experience.

Once that happens, the movie doesn't work anymore. The story doesn't work, the ending doesn't work, and whatever chance the movie had of enjoying good word of mouth, leading to better box-office prospects, is probably down the chute.

This is a practical consideration. A studio that chooses to avoid the pitfall does not deserve to be called timid or politically correct, but it will happen.

Audiences and producers, rendered emotionally numb by the events of Sept. 11, are already beginning to get some feelings back in their toes and fingertips. It won't be much longer before they can imagine regaining fully their emotional health.

Soon enough, discussions such as this one -- about how to respond to Sept. 11 -- will become less frequent and less relevant in Hollywood's seats of power, and the entertainment industry will once again focus with crystal clarity on job one: profitability.

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