And the Oscar for best Hollywood courtroom drama goes to . . . the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The golden statuette was awarded Monday by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury, which ruled that if Mary Pickford’s heirs want to sell it, they have to offer it to academy officials for $10 instead of auctioning it off for as much as $800,000. Academy leaders took a Rancho Mirage woman, her daughter and a cousin to court after the women announced plans to sell the Oscar presented in 1930 to the silent-movie star known as “America’s sweetheart” and donate the proceeds to charity.
A century is a mere blink in the history of mankind, but it’s a long time in the history of show business. Just about a hundred years ago, a Chicago-born talent manager started a franchise called the “Follies” that set New York on its ear. He apotheosized the showgirl and changed the entertainment rulebook by making the revue an ethnic stew. He later went on to produce “Show Boat,” the first great American musical. But who knows much about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. today? To most New Yorkers he’s just a name on a dinosaurish single-screen movie house in Midtown.
Even the stars he showcased — Fanny Brice and Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Miller — are mostly just names in the pages of theater histories. Among Ziegfeld’s long A-list of “Follies” regulars, W. C. Fields alone forged a big-time career in the movies, ensuring the only kind of immortality that seems readily marketable today, the kind that can be uploaded onto YouTube in easily digestible nuggets.
In a pre-Christmas poll last year of religious Christians with kids age 2 to 18, 78 percent said they’d bought DVDs of movies or TV shows for their teenagers, and 87 percent said they’d bought these for kids 13 and under. “However, one-quarter of those adults (26 percent) did not feel comfortable with the DVD products they bought.” Likewise for music CDs: “About six of 10 parents bought these discs for their kids, yet one out of every three of those parents (33 percent) had concerns about the content.” As for video games, 39 percent of the parents of pre-teens were concerned about the content of games they’d bought, as were 46 percent of parents of teens.
Since the first days of the [Telenovela] institute’s research, I began to notice common patterns in the way each country related to telenovelas, and, at the same time, the way in which a country’s relationship to telenovelas revealed something unique about it. A Canadian researcher, Denise Bombardier, described it perfectly with her phrase “Give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation.” In general terms, however, telenovelas implement what the critic Tomás Lopez-Pumarejo (my principal theorist at the Institute) described as “the drama of the subconscious”: They are stories that revolve around ontological questions: “Where is my son?” or “Where is my love?”
There is a clear relationship in the way in which the telenovela soap operas explore the social tensions of a country and convert them into collective therapy. This process worked very well in countries that had recently emerged from communism, where people were casting about in a psychological search to deal with the class taboos that had dominated for so long. As a result, a drama centered on the impossibility of love because of social or economic obstacles was extremely powerful. Several studies of the time during which Los Ricos También Lloran was broadcast in Russia indicate that programs simultaneously broadcast from the US (such as Dallas and Dynasty) were popular but never generated the same level of interest, because Russians could not identify with the family problems of an oil millionaire in Texas. The higher production quality of those programs didn’t seem to matter either, and so companies like Televisa did not overly concern themselves with investments in production. It was the drama, the emotions worn on the sleeve, and in part the exotic settings that gave the telenovelas a special attraction.
Gekko’s character was written to create an engaging, charming, but deceitful and brutal being. I have nevertheless run into quite a number of younger people, who upon discovering that I co-wrote the film, wax rhapsodic about it . . . but often for the wrong reasons.
A typical example would be a business executive or a younger studio development person spouting something that goes like this: “The movie changed my life. Once I saw it I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.”
The flattery is disarming and ego-stoking, but then neurons fire and alarm bells go off. “You have succeeded with this movie, but you’ve also failed. You gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be.”