Friday, March 25, 2016

Girls gone wilder: forget buddy movies. The real onscreen chemistry these days is between incendiary young women

SOON ENOUGH THE boys of summer will invade the multiplex. In blockbusters like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, superheroes will clash with arch-villains in heavy metal duels while the fate of the planet, and the box office, hangs in the balance. But before the onslaught, look out for the girls of spring--led by the bikini outlaws of Spring Breakers, who seize the amoral high ground from the boys in a poolside delirium of sex, drugs and guns. It's just one of five new movies about intrepid, uncontainable young women opening in Canadian theatres in the next two weeks--along with The Host, Ginger & Rosa, The Sapphires and Beyond the Hills. Running the gamut of genres, from sci-fi romance to high tragedy, these are radically different films, but they're all, on some level, tales of girls gone wild. And each is fuelled by the volatile chemistry of female friendship as it undergoes a cataclysmic trial by fire.


At a time when Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls has lit up the zeitgeist--exploding stereotypes with its raw portrayal of twenty-something girlfriends scrambling to have a life--we're witnessing a rare convergence of movies about gloriously messy female relationships. "It's about time," says Sally Potter, the British writer-director of Ginger & Rosa. "There's been a tendency for them to be portrayed in films as either sweet and lovely--the sentimental sisterhood--or mean and nasty vixens at each others' throats."

By far the most incendiary attempt to subvert the girl-movie formula is SpringBreakers. Already a hit in the U.S., this R-rated rampage follows four bored college girls who bankroll a Florida bacchanal by robbing a fast-food joint--waving guns and wearing pink balaclavas reminiscent of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. With candy-coloured vistas of massive bongs, slo-mo boobs and fountaining beer, the movie plays like a cross between Natural Born Killers and a Britney Spears video--call it Apocalypsfick Now! With a cocktail of titillation and nihilist satire, director Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers) cannonballs from the art-house fringe into the shallow end of the mainstream, corrupting two wholesome Disney kids, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, while he's at it.

Spring Breakers is about girls competing to have too much fun. As peer pressure escalates, the stakes are raised from popsicle-fellating contests to an oral stunt with the barrel of a loaded gun. But for all their sexy bravado, these girls are a fractious sisterhood, trapped in an end game of beach-blanket Survivor. Not to be mistaken for feminist poster girls, they're like bad Barbies on drugs. They spend most of the movie in bikinis, as playthings of a drug lord who bails them out of jail (and as this gangsta rapper manqu6, a snaky James Franco upstages his harem of co-stars at every turn). Even as the film congeals into a feminista revenge fantasy, there's no romance in this joyride to oblivion.

In other words, we've come a long way from Thelma & Louise. It's been 22 years since that landmark film, and you'd think it might have launched a trend by now. But the promise of the female outlaw road movie remains unfulfilled. As Potter observes: "They jumped off the cliff and that was it. Bye." Potter revisited Thelma & Louise while making Ginger & Rosa, which echoes its title; she says it was hard to find precedents for dramas of young female friendships. Most are stories of schoolgirl cliques and crushes-from Mean Girls to Lost and Delirious.

Set in 1962, Ginger & Rosa is about a pair of inseparable London teens who, auspiciously, were both born on the day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are soulmates who teach each other how to kiss boys and smoke cigarettes, and who share baths to shrink their jeans.

But their desire takes different forms. Ginger is a rebel poet with an angst that Potter compares to "what gypsies call dor, a state of longing necessary to sing." Rosa just has a craven need for romance. While Ginger is drawn to Ban the Bomb protests, Rosa is drawn to Ginger's free-loving father (Alessandro Nivola), a leftie who lost his moral compass on the way to the revolution. And as the Cuban Missile Crisis approaches, Ginger's doomsday fears find a shattering resonance on the home front.

In buddy movies, says Potter, "it's all about being cool, whereas young women are passionately ardent in their attachments. Female friendships happen in small spaces, a bus shelter or a bathroom, but their dimensions are without limits. Girls share all their secrets and hopes and fears." What makes Ginger & Rosa unusual, she says, "is that they're dealing with issues of sexuality and how to shrink their jeans, but they're also trying to save the world and figure out if there's a god."

While Potter's film is infinitely more intelligent and mature than Spring Breakers, what they share is a Svengali figure, an older man who serves as a toxic catalyst. A Svengali also plays a key role in The Sapphires, based on a true story about a singing quartet of Aborigine Australian sisters. But he's a gentle impresario, an Irish drunk (Chris O'Dowd) who weans the girls off country music and turns them into a red-hot soul act to entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam. With him as both saviour and corrupter, the four unleash their urges onstage and off, as war rages around them.

Nothing complicates coming-of-age like the spectre of war. In Ginger & Rosa, Potter threads a narrative fuse from the trauma of a nuclear family to the terror of the nuclear bomb. And these days, she says, kids fret about the future of the planet: "Every generation faces its own apocalypse."

But no one has conflated the sexual torment of female adolesence with the fear of cosmic annihilation quite like Stephenie Meyer, whose books have spawned the Twilight franchise. The Host, a post-apocalyptic romance based on Meyer's 2008 novel, puts a whole new spin on fraught sisterhood: it has two rival teenage girls vying for supremacy within one body. The premise? An alien species has colonized Earth, possessing human bodies with their own souls. (The counterfeit humans aren't hard to spot-their eyes glow like those of the vampires in Twilight.) These aliens are benign body snatchers, utopians who have eliminated war and cured the environment. But there's a fine line between utopia and dystopia. The colonizers may have banned the bomb and global warming, but the human race is hanging by a thread.


Our heroine is Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a fierce teenager who belongs to an underground resistance of humans holed up in a biosphere of desert caverns. She has been taken over by an alien soul, yet remains stubbornly embedded in her own body, fighting for control with the occupier. It's All of Me meets Gattaca. The Hostwas in fact written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the dystopia specialist behind Gattaca and The Truman Show. But its loopy paradigm of romantic rivalry is pure Stephenie Meyer. Within one girl's body, Melanie and her alien tenant are madly in love with two different young hunks. Shades of Twilight: once again a teen heroine negotiates an interspecies love triangle--or quadrangle. But after a tussle for supremacy, the rival girl souls begin to co-operate and conspire. And even in this dire post-apocalyptic scenario, Melanie and her alien invader find a mutual divinity in Meyer's shiny vision of utopian romance, which has colonized girlhood fantasies the world over.

By contrast, for a truly infernal view of adolescent female passion, it's hard to beat Beyond the Hills. Based on a true story and directed by Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), it's a harrowing tale of two Romanian girls who grow up in an orphanage, become fleeting lovers, then go separate ways after one girl enters a convent. Later her friend comes to coax her away, but finds herself in a love triangle with God. The nun, like a latter-day Joan of Arc, is possessed by visions, prompting, the Orthodox priests to initiate a brutal exorcism that feels no less extreme than an alien abduction. Mungiu's epic overwhelms us with the Spectre of medieval ignorance in a modern world, but also with the ferocious power of the female spirit that it's struggling to repress.

For Hollywood, which thrives on comic book heroes and fanboy ambition, girlhood is still an undiscovered country, as remote as Romania. The volcanic passion of young women in Beyond the Hills and Ginger O" Rosa makes you wonder where it's been all these years. The sleeping giant awake , says Potter dryly. "It's like people are suddenly seeing the power, the interior life that has come out of this great cultural silence. The stories haven't been told, but it's not as if they're weren't there to be told."

Johnson, D. Brian

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

So long, Hollywood: Spielberg may be heading Cannes' jury, but the A-list stars, and the action, are very far from L.A.

A VICIOUS STORM was blowing in from the Mediterranean. Bulldozers were at work to save the beach from being washed away. And France had just officially slipped back into recession. But under a vast seaside tent battered by torrential rain, the royal court of Cannes was in session, and blissfully immune. Nicole Kidman and Carey Mulligan, ethereal in sculpted hair and ivory gowns, glided through a sea of stolen glances. A goateed Leonardo DiCaprio--star of what the French call Gatsby le magnifique--wore the air of a heartthrob who has graduated to patriarch. Women swirled around French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, whose footwear makes flashy cameos in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, about the gang of teenage burglars who made a habit of looting Paris Hilton's closet. (He wore black loafers with pearl-strung tassels and his signature red soles.) Nearby, as if probing an alien life form, Steven Spielberg poked a spoon into an isle of white-onion mousse on a caviar crust circled by a moat of chilled petit pois soup.


At the opening-night dinner of the 66th annual Cannes International Film Festival, the king was clearly Spielberg, president of the powerhouse jury that will rule on the latest fashions in film on May 26 when it awards the Palme d'Or to one of 20 movies in competition. Its nine members, who include Kidman, actor Christoph Waltz and director Ang Lee, own a collective haul of eight Oscars. For Hollywood's most successful filmmaker--who launched his career in Cannes with The Sugarland Express in 1974, and blew the roof off the Palais in 1982 with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial--it was a triumphant return; his $200-million mega-yacht, Seven Seas, was moored offshore.

Since Spielberg premiered his first movie in Cannes at 28, the place has changed. And so has its relationship to America. Hollywood and Cannes have been engaged in a long and rocky affair, a romance that came into full bloom with a string of landmark American movies that won the Palme d'Or--Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now (1979), Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Barton Fink (1991) and Pulp Fiction (1994). An American film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, won in 2011, but it was an independently financed art-house epic. Hollywood studios chickened out of competition long ago, and now treat Cannes as little more than a glitzy international showcase. That was the case with last week's opening gala, The Great Gatsby, already a box-office hit in North America--and the first film in living memory to open Cannes that wasn't a world premiere. Clearly, the festival was desperate to have the picture, and its stars, but lacked the clout to force Warner Bros. to postpone the release.

Gatsby can at least boast some local provenance--F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the novel just up the coast, while his wife, Zelda, had an affair on the beach where the Palais now stands. In any case, what matters at Cannes is the competition, which remains the Olympics of world cinema. Hollywood may still be the ultimate movie capital, but lately, the Dream Factory has been so consumed with making robo-blockbusters that the romance of film has emigrated. Oscar-pedigreed actors and directors, refugees from Hollywood's monoculture, are finding a haven in TV and foreign productions. And at this year's Cannes, U.S. movies made the biggest splash in years, but no thanks to Hollywood.

The best-actor competition offered a showdown between two Americans enjoying success at opposite ends of their careers, both cast as musicians in showbiz sagas. In the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, the relatively unknown Oscar Isaac plays a failing folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village, with the kind of astonishing breakout performance that Cannes exists to discover. And as piano divo Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas rebounds from stage-four throat cancer to stage a miraculous late-career comeback. Soderbergh--whose own career was ignited in Cannes with Sex, Lies, and Videotape--made the movie for HBO after every Hollywood studio balked at the notion of a gay love story with Douglas and Matt Damon. And the Coens' film, a purebred American fable, was financed by French TV.


There are exceptions, such as Alexander Payne's Nebraska, backed by Paramount. But as a black-and-white film starring a septuagenarian Bruce Dern, it's a long way from me Hollywood mainstream. What's striking about this festival is the wild gumbo of global forces behind the movies. In Only God Forgives, a France-Denmark co-production shot in Bangkok, Canada's Ryan Gosling rejoins Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) to play the manager of a Muay Thai boxing club. In Jimmy P.: Psycho therapy of a Plains Indian, France's Arnaud Desplechin directs Benicio Del Toro as a Blackfoot veteran of the Second World War being treated in Kansas by an eccentric Hungarian shrink (Mathieu Amalric). And with Blood Ties, Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis team up with French director Guillaume Canet to remake a French crime movie in New York.

International producers, along with broadcasters, are filling the creative vacuum left by Hollywood. A clutch of worthy Palme d'Or contenders emerged in the first half of the festival. Without sacrificing rigour, they ventilate the art house with crowd-pleasing touches. With the unplugged perfection of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens go beyond their usual cynicism to show strains of affection, compassion and whimsy. There's even a runaway cat in a prominent role--a literal running gag. And the best foreign titles are less austere than usual. Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, a kind of Chinese Pulp Fiction, presents sensational vigilante gun violence against lyrical vistas-a trenchant critique of the country's reckless commercial growth. The Past, shot in Paris by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is a tale of a divorcing couple that unfolds as an onion-skin riddle of secrets and lies. It's torqued with enough revelations, it would be melodrama if it weren't so exquisitely rendered. Word quickly spread through the festival that Kidman was moved to tears.

Unlike Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), The Past has no political overtones, and as a French production, it escaped the scrutiny of Iran's censors. But both Jia and Farhadi have honed their art under strict state controls--and found more leverage for human expression than most directors in the grip of American studios. Farhadi, in fact, said in Cannes he has "assimilated" state restrictions, which he has tried to turn into "an asset, a tool for creativity."

Film's marketplace can be as ruthless as any censor. In Seduced and Abandoned, a satirical documentary shot at last year's festival, director James Toback and Alec Baldwin try to raise money for Last Tango in Tikrit, a movie inspired by Last Tango in Paris, to be shot in Iraq with Baldwin and Neve Campbell. The doc, which premiered in Cannes last week, casts a nostalgic eye at the festival's glory days, while looking under the rock of film financing to find a world indifferent to art and driven by fast money from Russia and China.

Yet on the French Riviera, which Somerset Maugham called "a sunny place for shady people," Cannes still serves as cinema's high altar, a place where filmmakers are born--such as Quebec's 25-yearold Chloe Robichaud, who was competing for best-feature debut with Sarah prefere la course (Sarah Would Rather Run), a tale of a young track star.

While Hollywood may still be the world's movie capital, Cannes remains the magic kingdom on the Cote d'Azur. To watch the stars ascend the red-carpet staircase of the Palais flanked by choir-like rows of tuxedoed photographers is to see the antithesis of tabloid America's paparazzi hell--a place where the stars can believe briefly in their own divinity. It may be a grand Euro-trash illusion, but the meta-narrative has enduring power.

Of course, everyone tries to second-guess the jury. Will it grace Soderbergh with the symmetry of a second Palme d'Or? Can the Coen brothers win another one? Will Spielberg give it to an American? "The great thing is, no one's on trial for their life here," Spielberg told me with a grin at the Gatsby dinner. He seemed happy just to be on the other side of the glass, as judge rather than defendant. Happy not to be grinding through a three-month Oscar campaign for Lincoln only to lose best director to Ang Lee. Sometimes even the king of Hollywood has to find his fantasy elsewhere.

Caption: Red carpet: (left) Marion Cotillard, The Great Gatsby's Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire; Nicole Kidman

Caption: Triumphant return: Spielberg (with wife Kate Capshaw) is happy to judge

Caption: Camera, action: Damon stars in the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, one of two major American films at Cannes funded by television


To see a slideshow of stars on the red carpet at the Cannes film festival's premieres, see this week's iPad issue of Maclean's

Johnson, Brian D.

Moving Parts; This story is not quite equal to the setting

I saw Gravity several weeks ago, so it's interesting to reflect on what kind of staying power this box office sensation actually has. Once you're out of the theater and away from director Alfonso Cuaron's mind-boggling success in convincing you that you're actually watching astronauts struggling to survive in outer space, does its spell persist?

The answer is no. If Cuaron, who directed the movie and wrote the script with his son Jonas, had managed to create a rich plot and populate it with interesting characters to go along with the astounding visuals, Gravity would have been among the cinema's historic high points. But he didn't, and it isn't.

Even so, Gravity deserves every 100 million dollars it's earning. It is, without question, one of the greatest technical achievements in the history of popular culture; and, as the audiences flocking to it demonstrate, its immense visual splendor is more than enough for any one film.

Describing what makes Gravity remarkable is pretty tedious work, as evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of extremely boring words reviewers before me have used. Basically, it comes down to this: Everything is in motion in this movie, as (I gather) it would be if you were in zero gravity. You could probably see Gravity four or five times just to focus on different spots on the screen to watch what's going on in them. Cuaron says it took him four years to develop the techniques that would make it possible to execute this hyperrealistic depiction of objects and people in orbit. Those were four years well spent.

On the basis of this movie and his previous near-masterpiece Children of Men (2006), Cuaron is the key visionary working in cinema today, with an unparalleled sense of how to depict movement on screen. Oh, how I wish he'd make a musical. Children of Men features the two greatest chase sequences in the history of the talkies. (For my money, the greatest chase sequence ever involves Buster Keaton, 100 women in wedding dresses, and an endless number of boulders in a 1925 silent called Seven Chances.) In some sense, the entirety of Gravity is a silent chase scene, as all the elements on screen are, in effect, boulders chasing Sandra Bullock in the soundlessness of space.

She plays Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first shuttle flight. She is not an astronaut but, rather, an astrophysicist who has figured out how to repair something broken on the Hubble telescope. She is accompanied by a veteran flyboy played by George Clooney, who quips away while she fusses with the telescope and tries to restrain her motion sickness.

But movies have enduring power due to story, not atmosphere; to character, not setting.

Here, story and character merge into one: A catastrophe occurs, and Ryan Stone is stranded alone with only an hour and a half to figure out how to get back to Earth. It is a lot to ask of an actress to carry an entire movie, and it was canny of Cuaron to cast the immensely likable Bullock, who performs without grandiosity or actorly showiness. She is the audience's stand-in and must represent us in depicting what it would be like to face the unspeakable terror of death in a fathomless void.

But while Sandra Bullock may be "relatable," to use the obnoxious neologism Hollywood loves, Ryan Stone isn't at all. As conceived by Cuaron and played by Bullock, she is a depressing mope with a backstory that does not make her seem like us; rather, she seems more like one of those people we barely know on Facebook whose life is marked by senseless tragedy. Ryan is reserved and glum, unable to banter with the cheerful Clooney because sometime in the past she had a 4-year-old daughter who hit her head on the playground and died.

We are, therefore, to understand that Ryan is dead inside, simply going through the motions. This is a silly notion. First, a woman as depressed as Ryan wouldn't have the wherewithal to get into a spacesuit and be sent into orbit by NASA. And it's highly doubtful that NASA would clear such a depressive for that kind of mission. Second, if she doesn't have anything to live for, why wouldn't she see the calamity visited upon her as the answer to her existential problems and simply let herself go?

Those are more plausible character arcs for Ryan Stone than the one Cuaron chooses for her. He wants the experience to bring her back to life. Indeed, he depicts this almost literally: At one point, she enters a space capsule, removes her suit, curls into a fetal position, and seems to go to sleep--as though she is in utero, waiting to be reborn.

It's a beautiful shot, but it's really pretentious, and it's unearned. I came close to giggling, as I did at the very end, when faced with another beautiful shot that is even more pretentious. The thing is, Ryan Stone is on a voyage in which the stakes could literally not be higher. Turning that amazingly visceral journey into some kind of metaphorical "voyage of self-discovery" reduces the grandeur of Gravity to the level of a New Age self-help tract.

So no, Gravity isn't a great film. But it's a great something. And that's not nothing.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard's movie critic.

John Podhoretz

Screen Test; How the movies did business with the Third Reich

Between 1942 and 1945, Hollywood produced a plethora of antifascist movies. Of the 1,500 titles released during this period, over half of them referred to the Second World War; 242 made reference to the Nazis, and 190 mentioned Adolf Hitler. The role American movies played in helping the United States defeat fascist Germany--in the populist version of history--reads almost like a screenplay: Brave producers and directors invested time and money on motion pictures that stood for freedom and democratic principles, Hollywood was declared a bastion of democracy, and Hitler was defeated. The End.

Casablanca (1942) fits perfectly into this narrative: The plot involves two lovers sacrificing their romantic friendship in order to continue the fight against tyranny. Shortly after its release, Variety commended Casablanca for its "anti-Axis propaganda." But if one is to analyze the actual history of Hollywood's relationship with fascism, a more sinister picture emerges. Ben Urwand's study is the result of nine years of research, much of which he accumulated from German censorship records and the dusty archives of various Hollywood studios. His thesis is a controversial one: arguing that the Hollywood studio system, by using motion pictures as a propaganda tool, actively assisted the Nazis to fuel their campaign of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1930s. There is irony in this, of course, since the powerful executives who supposedly put Reichsmarks before moral values were all Jews.

To help the reader understand how the decade-long relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis developed, Urwand recalls a forgotten moment in Hollywood history: the first public showing of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany.

The premiere was due to take place in the Mozartsaal cinema in Berlin on December 5, 1930. Three hundred Nazi protesters bought tickets for the performance and started a riot as the curtains came down. Joseph Goebbels, who would go on to become propaganda minister in the Hitler regime, described All Quiet--based on the bestselling work by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque--as an attempt to destroy Germany's national prestige. After just six days, it was withdrawn from German cinemas. A year later, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, offered the German Foreign Office a "revised" version of the film; it was approved and became a roaring success.

From this moment on, the moguls of Hollywood began to make concessions to the German government, ensuring that all movies met its standard of approval. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the Nazis employed a permanent representative to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, whose job was to educate and train Hollywood studios about German "pride" and "tradition."

Gyssling also played a key role in invoking Article 15, a legal clause that the German government had imposed on the film industry the year before. Its aim was simple but effective: threaten American studios with the loss of their import permits for the German market if they distributed any movie that was considered anti-German.

As long as dollars kept pouring in from Germany, studio bosses were happy to keep meeting Nazi demands. A letter that Urwand produces here confirms this. It was sent in January 1938 from the Berlin branch of Twentieth Century-Fox directly to Hitler's office. "We would be very grateful," it says, "if you could provide us with a note from the Fuhrer in which he expresses his opinion of the value and effect of American films in Germany. ... Heil Hitler!" Even as late as December 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, MGM, then the largest motion picture company in the United States, was receiving bonds in exchange for loans it provided to German arms companies.

All of this ended, of course, when America entered the Second World War and the studios began investing in antifascist propaganda.

The facts presented here are all true: Hollywood was guilty of appeasing Nazi Germany--as long as it yielded profits--throughout the 1930s. But Urwand's argument is not placed in any kind of historical or cultural context. The actions of the moguls were, indeed, brutal and selfish; but Urwand seems to miss a very salient point: The studio bosses were ruthless businessmen aiming to make money in what they felt was a healthy marketplace. They were not, as Urwand's title suggests, "collaborating" with Nazis. Their decision to do business in Germany was based on practical, rather than ideological, principles. It is also difficult to believe, as Urwand suggests, that the studio heads derived some sense of schadenfreude from witnessing the misfortune of fellow Jews.

Urwand's anger towards men who had working relationships with Nazis is more than justified. But the tone his narrative employs seeks to blame and scapegoat, rather than fully explore the subject. Urwand also fails to answer adequately a question he poses: "Why did these powerful executives ... choose to do business with the most anti-Semitic regime in history?" The best reason he comes up with is that "the Hollywood studios put profit above principle in their decision to do business with the Nazis."

Here, the author mistakes Hollywood for a bohemian movement that had moral integrity. It did not. The studio system--from its conception in the early 1920s to its breakup in 1948--was a large corporate enterprise. Its sole motive was profit, not art--a fact Urwand consistently ignores.

Urwand also suggests that Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel It Can't Happen Here (1935), which was due to be made into a film but was never produced because of censorship restrictions, "could have been a triumph for democracy and American culture." Statements like this miss an obvious but important point: Hollywood movies from this era were politically cautious in tone. Why? Because courting controversy might have disturbed the steady flow of revenue.

Whether, three-quarters of a century later, one agrees with the moral implications here is a personal choice. But it's something that should at least be mentioned in a book that claims to explore an important chapter in the history of American cinema.

The culture of censorship that existed in Hollywood, both domestically and internationally, in the 1930s isn't given enough attention either. Due to the Supreme Court ruling that emerged from Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio in 1915, the motion picture industry became the only form of media ever subjected to legal restraint in the United States: Movies were not granted the same freedom of speech as newspapers or radio.

In other words, censorship was a standard procedure for all Hollywood movies of this era.

Towards the end of his narrative, Urwand introduces a Jewish hero into the story: playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht, who tried to publicize the anti-Semitism of Hollywood and campaigned for Jewish refugees to be brought to the United States. Hecht, writes Urwand, "saw Hollywood as one of the great Jewish achievements. The only problem, in his view, was that the studios did not share his pride. In fact, they removed all images of Jews from the screen."

Again, Urwand misses the paradox: The majority of Jews who ran this massive film empire had escaped European poverty and pogroms and became rich because they did their best to erase their past and assimilate. By creating a fictional, squeaky-clean American culture that hid their Jewishness, these ambitious immigrants appealed to a mass American audience. When it came to international markets, the same model was followed. And in 1930s America, making antifascist movies was not smart business for Hollywood.

Hollywood executives may have acted immorally, cowardly, and with self-interest that is shameful when we reflect upon it today. But Urwand's argument is too simplistic and reductive to give this subject the analysis it deserves.

J.P. O'Malley is a writer in London.

J.P. O'Malley

Star in Reserve; Robert Redford and the power of understatement

There is only one person on screen. We hear him in a brief voiceover at the beginning of the movie, after which he speaks a total of 40 words during the 106-minute running time. What we do is watch this man as he copes with a disaster at sea. The movie is called All Is Lost, and it's nothing short of amazing.

Robert Redford plays the man. He had his first hit 46 years ago in Barefoot in the Park, and what was true of him playing a young newlywed in that romantic comedy, and the cooler-than-cool Sundance Kid, and a con man in The Sting, and a British adventurer in Out of Africa, and a storefront lawyer in Legal Eagles is true of him at 77 in All Is Lost: His power as an actor comes from withholding.

Indeed, Redford is the foremost exemplar in Hollywood history of a great truth about movie stars: They capture the public imagination by keeping some fundamental part of themselves inaccessible. If movie actors are too open, too friendly, too desirous of the love of their audience, no matter how attractive they are, they will eventually come to seem overbearing. After all, they are being projected on a screen that is 30-feet tall and 70-feet wide. They are objects of infatuation, and everyone who has ever experienced a crush knows how infatuation can become more intense when the love object stays out of reach.

Redford played that part in The Way We Were (1973), when he served as the cinema's ultimate male love object--the morally ambiguous golden boy for whom everything has come too easily--paired off with the over-intense Communist girl, played by Barbra Streisand, who had to have him no matter what. And even when she gets him, she doesn't really have him, because no one can.

Redford came to fame in the midst of the Method-acting histrionics of the 1970s, but represented the very opposite--always keeping it in reserve, keeping himself at a remove. He had, and has, such economy that he does his acting mostly with his wildly expressive blue eyes.

This means that at the few moments when he does let loose, it feels like a jolt of pure energy. There's a great example at the end of a cute caper film called The Hot Rock, from 1972, in which the dominant emotion Redford expresses is quiet irritation with his manic brother-in-law (played by George Segal, who is wonderful but exactly the kind of overly needy performer whose time as a star was therefore shortened). Redford exits a bank, having pulled off the perfect heist. He is on Park Avenue in New York. He has to meet his brother-in-law a few blocks uptown. He starts to walk. Then a little faster. Then he begins to break out into a run. He gambols up the street. He's suddenly full of joy, and so are we.

There is no joy in All Is Lost; this is a movie about purpose, concentration, focus. Redford's character is (I surmise) on a solo voyage around the world. He's in the Indian Ocean on a sailboat called Victoria Jean. He's asleep in the cabin when there's an odd noise, and water begins rushing in. A shipping container that must have fallen off a huge cargo vessel has slammed into the side of his boat and torn a hole in the worst possible spot--disabling his communications equipment.

For the next hour and 40 minutes, this man does everything he can to save his boat and to save himself. He does not talk aloud, so we can only watch him as he moves about. It almost seems as though Redford is doing nothing in this movie, but of course that's another aspect of the power of the withheld performer. This movie is gripping from first to last, and we see almost nothing but his face and body. Nothing is anthropomorphized here; the boat does not become a character, and there is no volleyball-turned-best-friend (as was the case with Tom Hanks's solo turn in Cast Away). There is only Redford, and he's awe-inspiring.

Indeed, the man Redford plays is himself a character only to the extent that he is the embodiment of a profoundly admirable and very prosaic quality: competency. Redford's character is skilled, careful, and knowledgeable, and doesn't waste his time with excess emotion. Redford's peerless ability to remain self-contained on screen is the perfect match for writer-director J.C. Chandor's vision for this extraordinary piece of cinema--a story of a man keeping his wits about him in the most desperate of circumstances.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard's movie critic.

John Podhoretz

Oscar syndrome: Awards ceremonies grow ever sillier and more self-important

'Prizes are for boys,' said Charles Ives, the American composer, upon receiving the Pulitzer in 1947, 'and I've grown up now.' He was using humour to make a serious point, but it would be lost on many people today. Never has there been a lusher time for self-congratulation; when all, as in Alice in Wonderland , must have prizes.

Not all prizes are bad. Nathan Filer, who collected the Costa last month for his first novel, The Shock of the Fall , was granted the kind of recognition that evades most first-time authors. The Costa, formerly the Whitbread, has a reputable tradition that values quality of writing above commercial considerations. Good for them.

There was a time when you could say something similar about the Evening Standard drama awards. No longer, alas. Last year the judging panel had Helen Mirren down as best actress, to the surprise of three members, who, being ignorant of Mirren's nomination and peeved to learn of it, promptly resigned. The Standard also minted special gongs for Kevin Spacey, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Maggie Smith, presumably because they are very good and very famous, and Evgeny Lebedev, the Standard 's retiring proprietor, likes to see pictures of them in his paper.

This weekend brings the Baftas, which has been transformed uncomfortably in recent years from a domestic event, well worth watching, into a Hollywood-style beanfeast, complete with American stars, in a hamfisted attempt to make it 'international'. It has lost a bit of dignity but it will never, one trusts, descend to the crassness of the Grammys, which this year brought us Beyoncé (a pop singer, m'lud) dressed like a tart. The lifetime achievement award went to the Beatles, half a century after they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show , whereupon Ringo Starr presented the idiot's grin he has spent the last 50 years trying to perfect to an audience that had stood to honour Paul McCartney.

The Beatles were giants of popular culture. It is harder to make so bold a claim for Ant and Dec, who dominated last month's National Television shindig, picking up something called a Landmark award. It didn't stop Bruce Forsyth, a superb popular entertainer, comparing them with Morecambe and Wise, which must have left a few viewers of a certain vintage choking on their fig rolls.

'Landmark'! Doesn't it sound grand? But wait, what about the GQ awards, held last autumn at the Royal Opera House, which offered its audience a Legend, an Icon, an Inspiration and a Genius! When words lack meaning, as these do, awards become interchangeable, and last year's icon is next year's genius. When Piers Morgan and Russell Brand are honoured, if that is the verb, then it really is time to reach for one's hat.

For consistently choosing the wrong people, though, the mummers take some stopping, and there is plenty of scope for embarrassment at next month's Oscar ceremony, with or without Woody Allen. The Golden Globes was merely the starting gun in this annual parade of tosh. Does any serious film-goer really think that a phrase like 'Oscar-worthy' offers any indication of merit? Yet year after year we are invited to believe that these awards truly honour the very best work.

Members of this duffer's academy have, over the decades, revealed an overwhelming ignorance of the trade they represent. This is the body of men and women who, in 1974, gave the best actor award to Art Carney when Jack Nicholson was up for Chinatown (Al Pacino was up, too). The folk who withheld an award from Cary Grant, the finest leading man in Hollywood history, and who snubbed Alfred Hitchcock. Full marks to Anthony Hopkins, who told the truth last year about the endless lobbying and back-scratching that goes on. If you're in that game it is compulsory.

Are there any awards we can respect? You can't take the Turner Prize seriously: it's a carnival of mediocrity. The Brits is a jamboree for teenagers of all ages and even the Man Booker Prize, while throwing up the occasional Barnes or Ishiguro, cannot claim to represent fiction in its brightest colours. Nor, for all its lofty aims, does the biggest literary prize of them all. Pearl Buck is a Nobel laureate. Tolstoy and Conrad are not.

Perhaps the one that comes closest to the ideal of recognising work of true distinction is the David Cohen Prize. Established in 1993, with the intention of celebrating the life's work of British and Irish writers, it has to date honoured the likes of Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. Proper writers, whose work is likely to keep readers interested for decades to come.

For, as Tony Bennett replied, when he was told he had not had many hits: 'I like to think I have a hit catalogue.' That's an ideal we can all salute.

Henderson, Michael

Quantifying the Oscars' Woman Problem

Every awards season prompts a flurry of articles asking whether the Oscars have a "woman problem." Usually that conversation centers on behind-the-camera categories - such as directing, writing and producing - in which women are a perennial minority. But often someone will notice on-screen disparities as well. "Only three of the nine films nominated this year even have women in leading roles: American Hustle, Gravity and Philomena," writes feminist critic Holly L. Derr of this year's slate. Two years ago, Anita Sarkeesian pointed out that a mere two of the 10 nominated films passed the Bechdel test. Indeed, a quick scan of recent best picture nominees and winners shows a dearth of female-driven stories.

Focusing on particular years and films, though, can easily devolve into tiresome debates full of anecdotes and speculation. What specific female-centric films, someone might ask, are obvious replacements for specific male-centric films this year? Did Bridesmaids fail to get nominated two years ago because it's about women, or because it's a comedy? (Or because it was a sometimes very gross comedy?) Cue some pointing out how the singing ladies of 2002's Chicago beat The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and we fade out....

This is why I like data. Being a professional numbers nerd, I decided to cross-reference 80-plus years of data on acting nominations and best picture nods to see if any patterns emerged. The gender differences were surprisingly distinct. First, I noticed that actresses, unlike actors, are more likely to be nominated for performances in films that are not nominated for best picture. Films with meaty roles for women are, by and large, considered lower caliber by the Academy.

Meanwhile, within the universe of movies that do get nominated for best picture, women-centric films are much less likely to win. Zero Dark Thirty and Black Swan, for instance, were good enough to make it to the final round in their respective years. But they joined a long line of actress-driven films that failed to win. In other words, the problem is not just that Hollywood produces too few films about women (and therefore smaller raw numbers of potential nominees). It's that even among those select films that meet the Academy's nomination threshold, the success rate for female-centered films is dramatically lower than the success rate for male-centered films. Women's stories, the data show, are not particularly valued by the Academy.

Data Snapshot: What Films Do Actors and Actors Get Nominated for?

With a few exceptions, 10 actors and 10 actresses* are nominated for Oscars each year (combining the lead and supporting categories). Often, those acting nominations come from films that have also been nominated for best picture. This is no surprise - the quality of a film depends in part upon the strength of its featured players. Overall, around 46 percent of all acting nominations come from best picture-nominated films. Break that figure out by gender, however, and differences start to emerge.

* For clarity I use actor and actress in this article, though generally I like the trend of referring to all thespians as actors, regardless of gender.

Only 40 percent of women's acting nominations come from best picture-nominated films, as opposed to 52 percent of men's acting nominations. Nearly twice as many actors (14 percent) as actresses (8 percent) were nominated for films that eventually won best picture. In other words, men more often get recognized for their performances in films of the highest perceived quality.

We could derive various hypotheses from this initial finding. Perhaps the relationship is causal. Maybe men are just better at acting than women, and their superior acting skills help elevate a film into best picture territory. This seems unlikely and also unprovable.

More likely, given the wealth of previous evidence, is that simply too few meaty roles for women exist in the majority of movies - including the best films of any given year. Gravity has room for only one woman, for instance, and films like The Wolf of Wall Street don't exactly provide key roles for the ladies. By this theory, actresses are reacting logically to a scarcity problem by seeking high-quality parts in lower profile films, rather than competing for the small number of well-developed women's roles in the year's greatest films.

But what if our whole definition of great film is itself gender-biased? So far we've been looking at the acting prizes through the lens of best picture, but let's flip that focus. Can the acting categories instead help us glean information about the types of films the Academy respects the most?

What Stories Are Considered Best Picture-Worthy?

Around 500 films have been nominated for best picture. Did these films tend to focus more on men, women or a mix of both? Watching them all would take months. Instead, I used acting nominations as a convenient indicator of the film's focus. Stories that are predominantly about one gender tend to have more nominated performers of that gender. Think of 1954's On the Waterfront, with four nominated actors and one nominated actress, versus 1950's All About Eve (four actresses, one actor). Of course, in many cases the balance is less skewed, so it's harder to be certain without qualitative information.

That's why we can learn a lot by comparing the two most skewed subsets of films: Best picture nominees where only actors or only actresses were nominated. If Oscar had no gender bias, we'd expect similar stats for these two extremes of the spectrum.

In the history of Oscar, 83 of the films that have been nominated for best picture also had nominations in at least one of the women's acting categories but zero nominations in any of the men's acting categories. Let's make the assumption that these films are, on the whole, more centered on female characters. Out of these 83 female-centric best picture nominees, only six have actually won the big prize - 7 percent.

Now let's look at the alternative scenario. There have been 146 films nominated for best picture that featured at least one nominated actor but zero nominated actresses. Again, we'll assume these films tend to be centered on male characters. It's already noteworthy that this pool of nominees is so much larger than the pool of female-centric films. The kicker is that, of these 146 male-centric nominees, 29 went on to actually win best picture - 20 percent, which is nearly triple the rate for the actress-heavy films.

The difference becomes even more glaring when we further restrict these pools to best picture nominees with two or more acting nominations. Multiple great performers must mean it's a pretty great movie, right? Well, yes, if those performers are men. Out of all the best picture nominees with multiple nominated actors (but zero nominated actresses), 44 percent ended up winning the big prize. Only 7 percent of the best picture nominees with multiple nominated actresses (but no nominated actors) went on to win. That is worse than the 9 percent win rate for films with no acting nominations at all.

There are also 44 films that never even got nominated for best picture despite having two or more actress nominations (but no actor nominations) - this list includes films like 1975's Carrie and 1991's Thelma & Louise. Only 22 films with multiple nominated actors (sans actress noms) failed to get a best picture nomination.

Finally, films where both actors and actresses are nominated seem to do better when men are the dominant force. Films with two or more nominated actors and a nominated supporting actress (but not lead actress) were much more likely to succeed than the reverse situation. Recent examples include 2010's The King's Speech, which featured a trio of acting nominees: Colin Firth as the King, with Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter supporting. That film won best picture. The 2008 film Doubt - with a lead actress nomination for Meryl Streep and supporting nominations for Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman - was not even nominated.

Time Is Not a Cure

My data set covers the entirety of the Academy's 80-plus years of awards. But don't be tempted to place blame on an earlier, more sexist era for skewing the data. I split the data set into two halves and re-analyzed, and the results were disappointing.

The modern era has shown an even stronger skew away from female-dominated films. In fact, 1997's Titanic is the only modern best picture winner to feature nominated actresses and no nominated actors. By contrast, 17 post-1970 best picture winners have nominated actors and no nominated actresses.

Of course, that list includes such acclaimed films as The Godfather, Schindler's List, and No Country for Old Men. I don't mean to imply that any given best picture winner is unworthy. But it's hard to look at the lists of winners and losers and not see evidence of Hollywood's devaluation of female-centric stories. I love 2006's The Departed, but if male and female stories were given equal respect, might The Queen have won instead? How many films have missed out on nominations, let alone wins, because they focused on women and were dismissed as unserious? How many films never got made because Hollywood didn't think the stories were worth telling?

The Road Ahead

The "actors only" and "actresses only" best picture nominees represent extremes on a spectrum, and unfortunately those extremes are not balanced. The good news is that a plurality of best picture nominees throughout history have featured nominated actors and nominated actresses, and those films also have the highest rate of actually winning best picture. Two of this year's frontrunners fall into this middle ground: American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have male and female nominees in their casts. In the grand distribution of things, it would be ideal if stories full of interesting male and female characters took an even greater share of the pie. If, however, some acclaimed films focus more on one gender than the other, it would be nice if that didn't predominantly mean men. Who knows - maybe Gravity or Philomena will pull an upset and help balance Oscar's ledger a bit.

On the other hand, I strongly suspect that a data set with race variables would show an appalling bias towards stories about white people, which 12 Years a Slave could help counteract. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times revealed not just how overwhelmingly male the Academy Awards voters are, but how white and aged they are as well. The composition of Academy voters - which has a median age 62 - is "nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male" according to the Times. It shows. Regardless of which film wins best picture this year, Oscar voters have a long way to go towards proving they can identify with people who don't look like themselves.

Of course, the Academy does not exist in a vacuum. It reflects cultural biases in addition to contributing to them. We all subconsciously incorporate some cultural preferences into the types of stories we applaud or dismiss. I'm sure many people will roll their eyes if I suggest that 1995's Sense and Sensibility is a better film than best picture winner Braveheart, but how much of that eye roll is about quality and how much is a culturally absorbed feeling that Jane Austen is frivolous and war epics are important? Even if women's stories were only very slightly undervalued relative to men's - the archetypal "A" grade versus an "A-plus" - it would be enough to dramatically skew rankings in aggregate. The Academy, however, is in the unique position to codify that skew into nominations and gold statues. Was last year's winner Argo definitely better than Zero Dark Thirty or Beasts of the Southern Wild? How did the poorly rated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close get nominated two years ago but Bridesmaids and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did not? Was the hero at the heart of 2000's Gladiator really more compelling than the heroine (and metaphorical gladiator) in Erin Brockovich?

These are all entirely subjective questions. And in any given matchup, it's difficult to single out gender as the sole reason why one film triumphs over another. But, by taking the long view, the data can help reveal deeper biases. We need more parity in the films that get added to our cinematic pantheon. It's not enough to just beef up roles for women in the types of stories Hollywood already esteems. We need a broader definition of what makes a great story in the first place.