Author Robert James Talks Movies and His Upcoming Book
Last week I reviewed author Robert James’s book Who Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, Volume 1, a book I thoroughly enjoyed in its light-hearted, but insightful, analysis of the winners (and such have beens) of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Around Oscar time James helped me out by giving me his Oscar picks, and now he’s gracious enough to sit down for an extended discussion, via Google Docs, where we discussed movies and his upcoming book. Here is the discussion in full.
Kristen: Well, the requisite question to start with: What enticed you to undertake such a grand adventure as reviewing all the films that did/should have won an Oscar? Considering that cinema has only gotten larger as moviemaking becomes more mainstream, were there any parameters in terms of what films you would watch that weren’t nominated, or just anything else released that year?
James: A “grand adventure” — I like the sound of that. How did I get started? I always wanted to be a writer, but teaching is my calling and being a good parent is even more important, so writing always got put off to the side. I have been writing my whole life, mostly poetry and unfinished novels, and although I’ve published quite a few scholarly articles, I’d never taken up a non-fiction book before. I didn’t intend for this one to turn into a series when I started it! I thought it would be just one book, but once the writing started, it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to do this right, it was going to take a series.
What I was dealing with when the writing began was my mother’s increasing dementia, and her daily struggle with recognizing the reality she was in. My father had passed away in 2007, with a sudden onset of brain cancer. His death, and the tragedy my mother was experiencing, hit me very hard (as were my own health problems, including parotid gland cancer, two resulting surgeries, radiation therapy, and an unconnected thyroidectomy.) My mother and father both loved movies, and my father left behind an extensive videotape and DVD collection. One afternoon, I starting going through the boxes of them in the garage, and I started thinking about my father, and then it struck me: would watching some of these old movies help my mother find some anchor that would let her cope a little better? Given that I was at her house almost every single day after work, and for most of the weekends, finding some way to lead her away from the nearly endless repetition of the same conversations would be a break for the both of us. It turns out it did work, for a time, as my mom became more fully engaged, and I got my mom back for a little while each day, as we shared our old pleasures of long-loved movies. She would even talk about what she remembered about going to see these movies in the theaters when they were released originally.
In all this sadness, my mom (and I) found some happiness in these shared moments, and even some laughter. As I showed her some of my Dad’s favorites, I even felt his presence at times, as I remembered when we had seen them together. As I talked to my wife and my kids about what I had done with Mom that day, the idea hit me that I might write some of these experiences up, if only to preserve them. I started jotting down some notes. I wondered what kind of use I could put them to, as articles or a book about dealing with a loved one with dementia, or perhaps a book about the movies?
The problem was, what kind of book could I write that people would want to read, and that I would be willing to devote precious time to writing?
I don’t really recall the exact moment the idea hit me, but gobsmack me it did: what if I was to go through each year of the Oscars, and argue over which movies and performances should have won — and not won? Which movies should have been included in the nominations, and which ones not nominated? I could not recall ever hearing about such a book, and it seemed like an idea which could act as a very useful frame. Although I discovered later that Danny Peary had published Alternate Oscars back in the Nineties — a book I have still not read, and won’t until I finish this series — he apparently only covered Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. I had already decided to cover as many of the categories as I could (I only dropped the ones that proved impossible (the short subjects, other than cartoons, and the documentaries), or too technical (sound) or beyond me (editing, which is the dark, unseen art of both writing and movies).
Before my mom’s dementia took away her ability to read coherently, she even saw some early chapters, and was very pleased — even though she didn’t remember the next day that she had read them. I think my dedication to the time and sheer willpower necessary to continue on the project comes from her pleasure and the last pleasant memories we shared together watching those movies. My Mom’s life and my own illnesses ended at about the same time — but whenever I wrote, from then until now, I feel closer to my parents.
As for my guidelines, I decided that I would A) watch every single film nominated (except for those either lost or in such faraway archives that I could not feasibly see them) and B) every film not nominated, which should have been. Finding the nominated films has been a major task; figuring out which movies the Academy ignored has been relatively easier, as they tend to be the ones that the test of time has passed. Wikipedia has a useful list of all movies released every year, and that has been a good starting point. I read some basic film histories, which helped as well. The filmographies of stars and directors have been critical. Asking friends who are film fans for suggestions also helps. A lifetime of movie-watching helped as well. For the first volume, I watched almost a thousand films in their entirety.
Kristen: A thousand films; you definitely have willpower! I kept track of my movie output last year and was just pleased to have cracked 100 (actually made it to 200 but I won’t toot my own horn). I have to say, movies really can help get through sadness/trauma in life. I had surgery last year, and found that watching movies really helped keep me energized during bed rest (and any excuse to watch a Thin Man marathon is worth it). I’ve seen blogs and other writers undertake watching all the Best Pictures, or at least review the Oscars in a limited form. I’ve heard of Peary’s book, as well, but haven’t gotten to it.
As an extension to that question, in doing this series what do you think about the Oscars then and now? When we discussed the Oscars this year you mentioned not seeing the recently nominated movies, but what do you think about the Oscars becoming more of a spectacle aimed at fashions and witty one-liners? I personally hate how the movies have become overshadowed, and the extension from five Best Picture nominees to a fluctuating scale has both pros and cons (genre movies now getting some love, but it seems to be more quantity than quality). In exploring the earlier ceremonies, anything the Oscar creators should utilize from the past shows for the future shows?
James: Yes, indeed, any excuse to watch William Powell and Myrna Loy! Or any classic film, which is one of my main definition of a classic film: one that substantial numbers of people are willing to watch repeatedly, over several generations. So watching those kinds of movies is pleasure, not pain — but having to watch the stinkers and duds would be a morally questionable substitute for waterboarding…
The Academy Awards show has always been a difficult ceremony. Early on, it was a party, an excuse to drink and dance, perhaps something more along the lines of what the Golden Globes feel like today. They also announced the winners ahead of time for a couple of years. The whole process was a learning curve, but very early on our main complaints — the length and the boredom of the speeches — was a bugaboo they’ve never really solved (slapping a time limit arbitrarily has been fair, but unfortunate in many instances; it may be biased, but the producer should really learn to postpone the wave-off when the nominee is on a great roll). They tried for several years to dictate how many thank you’s to say, but it never really works. Putting the show on radio, and then television in the Fifties, only ossified the process, even as it made the Academy independent of studio control. The witty one-liners became the main solution to the boredom, which is why Bob Hope hosted the show almost twenty times. A great one-liner, or a memorable speech, can make the whole night come alive. But I agree, the emphasis should be on the movies, which is why the In Memoriam segments have become so touching (and infuriating, when they leave obvious people out). All too often, the attempts to celebrate the history of the movies gets corrupted or short-changed, as with the attempt to honor movie music becoming a celebration of the current producers’ musical film projects. When the show works well is when the host truly loves the movies, as Billy Crystal does, or when there’s some genuine moments — and I’m not sure you can consistently script those.
I would happily ban all the dance numbers, and any musical number by anybody not significant (this year, Shirley Bassey made a lot of people happy, but I particularly remember Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Philadelphia.”) The Oscars shouldn’t be a variety show. They’ve already separated out the technical awards to their own show — perhaps they might move sound recording there as well to cut a bit of the length. What changes would you like to see?
Kristen: I agree. The Oscars, since they’ve been on TV, have always attempted to stay relevant. Only now, it feels like they’re dying to get the youth and thus act appropriately (said hopes of including genre films). With that, the hosting is what’s really been terrible. I’m personally for bringing in comedians because they’re not acting for the camera. Also, I think the stars desperately need a reality check. Several pasts hosts known for “controversial” opinions have been really tame for fear of offending delicate sensibilities. It’s why I find the Golden Globes to be funner because they’re not nearly as serious, and the aforementioned boozing helps as the night wears on. Hear, hear on banning all musical numbers other than the brief singing of Best Original Song. The simple facts are: less serious actors, better hosts not afraid to throw some barbs, and a contained show that has to remember the night for the movies.
Kristen: One of my favorite parts of the book was reading your personal commentary in the footnotes and other moments where you mention things as being overrated. I’ve gotten a few negative comments about mentioning my distaste for Leslie Howard (I just don’t understand why women wanted him in his films) and I got quite the barrage of nasty comments when I mentioned not liking Mrs. Miniver in my review. In looking at “sacred cows” (Gone With the Wind being a prime example) and mentioning that people can disagree with you, do you get people who think you’re bashing a certain movie/actor just to bash it? What movies/actors do you feel are overrated?
James: I’ve found one interesting division out in hearing back from people about the book. We all have our subjective favorites, and no amount of reason or argument can change our minds about loving those movies — nor should it. We’re all allowed our own choices, and I would never want to deny anybody their pleasures, guilty or otherwise. But most people can recognize that what they love may not be the “best” of the year — we just have personal reasons for why we love them. Trying to be objective, consensus can often be reached. One of my first readers told me he thought I’d done an excellent job dismantling sacred cows without getting cruel — although I came close on Leslie Howard, apparently. The great feminist critic Molly Haskell says in her book on Gone with the Wind that southern girls could recognize how sexy Howard was, in that kind of restrained intellectual way, but my personal response is that I think this explains, in part, why the South lost the Civil War…
He did make some good movies, where the feyness was missing — Pygmalion is an excellent example of this — so he obviously put it on. As for Mrs. Miniver, if people can’t recognize an overblown piece of pretty wartime propaganda from MGM, then perhaps they can’t be helped…
So far, the only really unhappy comment I’ve gotten back so far has been over Man with a Movie Camera. Sound and Sight named it as one of the ten best films ever made, which leads me to suspect professional movie critics need to spend more time out in the sun, with real people. I can see the visual technique, but the movie is a sincere argument in favor of how wonderful it is to be in a communist dictatorship. I expect people to disagree with me; that’s perfectly fine. In this case, the dissenter had a sincere argument that technique is more important than content, as in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. For me, content matters as well as technique, so I can’t praise what is essentially communist drivel. I just hope my arguments are coherently stated, so people can see I’m not just disliking what they like. Harlan Ellison once said that nobody is entitled to their opinion; they’re entitled to an educated opinion. I hope what I’ve offered are educated opinions.
Overrated nominees? Certainly. You’ve hit my most overrated actor, but I think certain lauded movies and directors were largely being given awards out of studio block voting. Most of the Best Picture nominees aren’t even movies we watch any more, much less celebrate. Many of the directors were studio hacks being rewarded for loyalty and commercial success, rather than quality. Often, Oscars were given as awards for less-than-superior work, because the voters had missed their chance the previous year to honor better achievements.
Kristen: That’s similar to my thoughts. If you can articulately explain your reasoning for liking/disliking something, it’s valid. I always hate to write “I can’t really describe why…” because it’s too easy to use that to explain away not liking something. I disagreed with your assessments in a few places, but I was happy to find someone who agreed on things I’ve gotten backlash for. I’ve seen a few of Howard’s films, and he’s just not believable getting beautiful women like Ingrid Bergman or Vivien Leigh, I personally call him “The Drip.” I also have to love your evisceration of Norma Shearer because I spent a few weeks reviewing her pre-Codes and didn’t believe her as a wanton woman for a second! For the most part, people are kind and say “I disagree…but I understand.” I think the one time I got a truly angry response, other than the Mrs. Miniver, was the email I received about not liking An American in Paris (which I hope you review in your second volume). I preface certain reviews by mentioning a love/hate relationship with an actor or director, and there’s not many films I enjoy that are directed by Vincente Minnelli – as Paris was – but this comment not only attacked my opinion but devolved into calling me stupid and having bad grammar. I distinctly remember the line “For an English major, you write like a ten-year-old.” I get everyone having films they’ll defend to the end (I love Showgirls…I realize I have a problem), but to attack an author for having an opinion, that’s rough.
Kristen: One thing you brought up is racism within film. I’ve gotten into a ton of discussions about racism in film with the common refrain being “well it was okay at the time, and we’re no longer ignorant so we can watch it as a reminder of our ignorant past.” I personally think that’s a terrible argument that I can’t believe we’re still using to rationalize racism in the past. What are your thoughts in watching so many movies with blackface routines that were nominated for awards, and the fact that blackface and other racist stereotypes were used in films for so long?
James: I do think we need to be aware of the historical record, so I would never advocate censoring past work for any reason (they’ve actually edited the racist Dr. Doolittle books to try to maintain their sales). What you’re running up against is a defense created to counter being politically correct, as when they just published a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s anti-racist The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I don’t believe in being politically correct, because we need to be willing to look at the consequences of each culture’s belief systems, but I do think we need to take a firm stand against racism in all its forms. Growing up in the Seventies, we thought racism was going to be a thing of the past; teachers stopped focusing on it, and it came roaring back in the next generation in the Nineties. Racism is a result of our tribal thinking, which is wired into our heads by evolution. Like selfishness, we need to train people to channel that us vs. them thinking that keeps roaring back. So, any movie that promotes racism, particularly in forms as bluntly offensive as blackface, needs to be called on it. And I do, repeatedly, in my books.
Kristen: Well said. I find it laughable, still, the attempts to censor smoking in classic movies (which is something that’s continued today with higher ratings being earned for showing smoking). With the changes in the rating system, and you’re going through the evolution of film, have you been noticing a trend in terms of content. I know we can all spot a pre-Code film from a post-Code film, but in exploring films from the 50s, 60s, 70s, have you noticed a shift in themes, etc that coincides with the changes in the rating system?
James: The short answer to that is that the Code and rating systems have been forced to change by the movies, more often than the other way around. The Code starts cracking in WWII; Volume Two covers that slippage thoroughly.
Kristen: A pretty common question I ask the few awesome people who are awesome enough to let me interview them. What are some of your favorite classic movies?
James: Without considering which ones were “best,” my personal favorites would include anything by Laurel and Hardy, anything by Buster Keaton, Chaplin’s City Lights, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, parts of the Marx Brothers’ movies, all of Duck Soup, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, King Kong, Top Hat, Ninotchka, Bringing up Baby, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach. I’m particularly fond of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Michael Curtiz in this period. I have a junk food love of the old movie serials, like Flash Gordon and Captain Marvel, and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes (despite what Nigel Bruce makes of Dr. Watson). Pretty much anything by Disney was cutting edge in the Twenties and Thirties, but Pinocchio and Fantasia are the finest artistic moments in animation history.
Kristen: City Lights has been recommended to me by a few readers, so I have no excuse anymore other than laziness for not seeing it. I’m dying to see Robin Hood after adoring Captain Blood, which is strange since I don’t generally enjoy adventure films. I think Errol Flynn and the films he picked are universal (despite him being a total cad). I’ve been taking an American Horror film class, and reviewing them, and rewatching those classic Universal horror movies have been fun. For general horror movies, which have devolved into cliche and gore, there’s so much symbolism!
James: Anybody who doesn’t like City Lights could use some extensive time with a mental health professional…
Frankenstein was clearly influenced by director James Whales’ experiences in WWI, which I hadn’t considered before. Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera makeup looks like some WWI veterans who had had their faces eaten away by gas. I grew up with an intense fascination for horror films, but when the slasher flicks took off in the Seventies — and I was in the prime audience of teenage males — I was immediately bored by them. There’s no complexity to them, no emotional depths — it’s just the gross-out shock-the-audience move (the same thing has happened to comedy in the last twenty years, for the most part).
Kristen: Haha, well to save myself some money on a mental health professional I’ll be sure to get to it ASAP. I’d never thought of the Universal horror films being representative of WWI, and now that you mention it, I can see that! The slasher genre definitely has its flaws; I personally hate their depictions of women, although I think you can say that in several places in Hollywood.
Kristen: Without spoiling things too much. What can readers expect from volume two, and what’s been the general consensus of films from the late 40s into the 50s? Movies getting better or worse?
James: Volume Two goes from 1944-1952, a period chosen because the studio system began to rupture at their greatest moment of commercial and artistic success. WWII audiences began to expect bigger pictures, but they also began to demand more realistic takes on the war, on love and marriage, and on social problems. Hollywood had lost a considerable amount of talent to the war, so much was mediocre, but Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity coalesced film noir’s roots, and presented a very adult take on lust and crime. A number of “problem pictures” addressed new topics like anti-Semitism, racism, mental illness, and alcoholism. For a brief time, it looked like Hollywood was going to grow up, but with the end of the contract system, the rise of independent star power, the decline of the movie-going audience (moving to suburbia and the baby boom) and the rise of TV, the assault of HUAC, and the Paramount decision cutting the studios from their theater chains, Hollywood turned to the Big Dumb Movies more often than not. So, movies got deeper and richer at times, and they grew more didactic briefly, but they also went running for spectacle over substance (not for the first time, and certainly not for the last).
Kristen: I can’t wait. In my time blogging, I’ve seen several movies from that time period so I’m excited to see where we agree and disagree. Thanks so much for sitting down for this unorthodox interview!
Interested in purchasing Robert’s book. Do so with the link below:
WHO Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1927-1943 (Volume 1)
Thanks so much to Robert James for working out this interview! Who Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, Volume 1 is out now. You can read An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, Volume 2 (1943-1952) in July.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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