Oscar Sunday: Predictions and Historical Context

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It’s Oscar time again, when movie lovers get together to discuss, make predictions, and debate with fervor who is deserving of the most prestigious awards in screen acting…and who is not. In my family, we have a yearly Oscar get-together with longtime family friends, complete with a very competitive Oscar pool for which we all research the latest statistics and predictions up to the very last minute.

Today, I would like to explore some historical context for this year’s nominations. There are some parallels, connections, and trivia connected with classic Hollywood that I think are worth noting, especially with La La Land dominating the nominations.

La La Land has tied with All About Eve for a record number of nominations.

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While the record was first tied when Titanic was nominated in 1998, there has been no movie in history that has beaten All About Eve‘s record of 14 nominations. Prior to 1950, Gone With the Wind held the record with 13.

If La La Land wins everything for which it’s nominated, it will be only the 4th movie in history to win “The Big Five.”

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It Happened One Night (1934) was the first movie to win what is known as “The Big Five”–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay. For over 40 years, it remained the only movie to have done so, until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, which was followed by Silence of the Lambs in 1993. If La La Land manages to secure all these awards, it will join a very prestigious group of movies.

Granted, I don’t think this is going to happen. La La Land is supposed to win about 10 awards tonight, and a few of “The Big Five” categories have been pretty locked in for other nominees, based on my research. But we may be surprised.

Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to win Best Actor. Nearly forty years later, Denzel Washington was the second.

Before Sidney Poitier, Hattie McDaniel was the only African-American to have won an Oscar. Poitier was not expected to win, so he made up a speech as he made his way up to the stage, which included the line “It is a long journey to this moment.” After Poitier, no African-American won another Best Actor Oscar for another forty years, until Training Day in 2002, when Denzel Washington won. He’s nominated again tonight for Fences, and is a top contender to win.

Here are the Oscar speeches by Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.

Only once in the history of the Best Director category has a nominee won Best Director without a Best Picture nomination.

Oscar history won’t be made tonight in this arena. All nominees in the Best Director category have nominations for Best Picture. Only at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930, when Frank Lloyd won for directing Divine Lady, has someone won Best Director without at least a nomination for Best Picture.

There’s a caveat to this bit of trivia. At the 1st Academy Awards, there were two categories for Best Director–best director of a comedy, and best director of a drama. Neither of the comedies nominated for Best Director of a Comedy were nominated for Best Picture. But now there’s only one category, and Divine Lady‘s record stands.

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Frank Lloyd with his Oscar for Divine Lady.

Any other classic Hollywood Oscar connections with this year’s Oscars that I missed? Feel free to comment with your favorites, and I’ll update the post with your comments. Enjoy the Oscars tonight!

From @Filmatelist on Twitter:

“Tonight is the third time a movie called THE JUNGLE BOOK was nominated for an Oscar (the previous incarnations were 1942 & 67). This is only the 4th time ever a single title had three different versions all nominated for Oscars, spread out years apart from each other.”

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Remembering Mary Tyler Moore: ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

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Mary Tyler Moore’s death on Wednesday was an enormous loss for the entertainment industry. It is hard to overstate the importance of Mary Tyler Moore’s influence in shaping how women are portrayed in media, and in paving the way for more nuanced female characters. Onscreen, Moore took the standard portrayal of a woman as a housewife and mother, subservient to her husband, and turned it on its head. As capri-wearing, outspoken Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was an equal to her husband and was often portrayed as the more level-headed of the two. As single working woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she broke ground as a female executive in a newsroom, unafraid to stand up to her boss and stick up for herself. The barriers she broke for women on television have not gone unnoticed, as words of gratitude have come pouring in from women in the industry today, from Oprah Winfrey to Samantha Bee. Offscreen, she was one of the first female studio heads, founding MTM Enterprises with husband Grant Tinker in 1968, a studio that produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs, as well as such shows as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

Moore was modest about her status as a trailblazer, and downplayed her role as a feminist icon. She was timid about participating in the feminist movements that defined the 1970s, and remained somewhat more traditional offscreen than her beloved onscreen characters would lead us to believe. The role with which she identified most, she once said, was her Oscar-nominated performance as the distant, emotionless Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.

Coming after the likable, fun roles of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, it is startling to see Moore playing a character so different. Director Robert Redford had seen something in Moore’s previous roles, a hint of sadness or vulnerability, that led him to believe that she could play the role, and he wanted her for it. The story of a family coming to terms with the drowning death of their son and the suicide attempt of their other son, Ordinary People is stark and raw, filled with inner rage under a meditative surface, and featuring spectacular performances from Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton.

Ordinary People came at a difficult time in Moore’s life. Her much younger sister had just recently died of a drug overdose, and her son was troubled with drugs as well (he would die later that year). Thus, it is not difficult to imagine Moore living the role of Beth Jarrett, a mother going through the hardest time in her life. Beth emotionally distances herself from her surviving son, and comes off stone cold, uncaring and heartless.

Moore said later in an interview with the Archive of American Television that an interpretation of Beth Jarrett as heartless and brittle was not seeing the character at all. She was a victim, she said, and a woman “who wanted to do the right thing and was taught ‘how to do the right thing,’ and never let it spontaneously erupt.”

While starkly different from her groundbreaking roles on television, Ordinary People is very much a continuation of Mary Tyler Moore’s trend of empowering female characters. With her nuanced performance, she turns a woman who could, on the surface, be written off as an emotionless person, into a powerful examination into the complex emotions surrounding motherhood, death, mourning, and fear.

Ordinary People is often difficult to watch due to the built-in tension, but it is a triumph of acting prowess. If you would like to watch it, it is available on Netflix and to rent on Amazon. This is truly Mary Tyler Moore at her best and most vulnerable. She was a force of good for women in the entertainment world, and will be painfully missed.

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At the Academy Awards with Jack Lemmon, where she was nominated for Ordinary People.

Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)

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I have been living with Marion Davies as a subject since November of 2013.

When you write a biography, your subject stays with you 24/7, informing your interpretations of the world and of the things you see and hear. I often think about how to make a paragraph flow better, and when I read a new bit of information about an era in which Marion lived, I wonder about how to incorporate it into her story. There’s no getting around it–and with Marion Davies, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I often say that Marion Davies is the greatest subject I could have ever chosen. Many people who knew her well are still alive, and further, the first words out of everyone’s mouth seem to be “Marion was a wonderful woman.” Her kind and generous nature, as well as her fun and generous spirit, are palpable even today, 55 years after her death, and I feel like I’m the luckiest writer in the world to have her in my life.

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Marion (left) with her mother and sister Rose, circa 1904.

Her birthday was January 3, 1897, but like many actresses of her era she liked to shave a few years off. She usually gave her birthdate to magazines and interviewers as January 1, 1900, creating a digestible round number that was easy to remember. Sometimes she went further. On her death certificate, it says she was born in 1905–upon her arrival at the hospital for the final time, she told the staff that she was born a full 8 years after her actual birthdate!

Marion frequently celebrated her birthday on New Year’s Day, and often in conjunction with her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, who was born on December 31. But her own birthday celebrations paled in comparison to the magnificent and grand celebrations that she organized for William Randolph Hearst, the love of her life and companion for more than three decades. Marion’s own celebrations would be relatively small, and frequently tied to New Year’s Day or Charlie’s birthday. She never thought much of building herself up, and instead threw herself into the celebration of others. For Hearst’s birthday, hundreds of guests would gather at his ranch at San Simeon (today known as Hearst Castle) or Marion’s Santa Monica beach house for a grand party–circus-themed, western-themed, Spanish-themed–and while the two of them organized the parties together, the grandness was all Marion’s doing.

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At the circus-themed birthday party for Hearst, 1937.

Marion’s general attention to her own birthday was typical of who she was as a person–her modesty and lack of pretense defined her, preferring to give a party than receive one. But every year on her birthday I think about how fortunate I am to be her biographer, and how she truly embodies what Tennessee Williams once said about her–remarking on the self-involved, indulgent community that whirled around her, Williams remarked that “Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood.”

Happy birthday, Marion, I feel lucky every day to be working with her.

Debbie Reynolds, 1932-2016

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I’ve been fascinated by Debbie Reynolds for as long as I can remember.

One of my earliest movie memories involves sitting in my living room at age 5, watching Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Gene Kelly sing “Good Morning” on our VHS copy of Singin’ In the Rain, one that seems to have been worn from overuse even in my earliest youth.

As I watched the number, my eyes constantly drifted to Debbie Reynolds. She was smaller than the boys, clearly younger, and wore a dress and high heels as she danced. But dance she did–fearlessly, confidently, keeping pace with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do, and as if there were no difference between them and her. In the years that have passed since, I have come to realize what a significant effect that scene had on me as an impressionable young girl. Debbie Reynolds showed me confidence, and inspired me to believe in my own capabilities as a female.

Her cheery, twangy Texas accent was roundly criticized in 1950s Hollywood, and was frequently an impediment to her ability to sing her own numbers in movies, but I always especially loved listening to her speak. Her voice seemed to fit her–an imperfect, no-frills soprano coming from a spunky, rough-and-tumble personality. Her voice deepened as she aged, but her personality, on and off the screen, remained larger than life.

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She was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932 in El Paso, TX. Her family moved to Burbank when she was 7, and at the age of 16 she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest, attracting the attention of Jack Warner. He gave her a contract in 1948, and she played a few small roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When Warner Bros stopped producing musicals, she moved to MGM. There, she continued to appear in supporting roles, including a memorable part in Two Weeks With Love with Carleton Carpenter.

Her performance in Two Weeks with Love so impressed Louis B. Mayer that he cast her in Singin’ In the Rain, a big-budget production about the coming of sound in movies. It would be Reynolds’ first starring role, and she would be acting with two dance veterans, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Reynolds was not a dancer, but Gene Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen both wanted her for the role. Kelly took her under his wing and taught her about film dancing. She later said about him “He made me a star. I was 18 and he taught me how to dance and how to work hard and be dedicated.”

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After Singin’ In the Rain, Reynolds was a sure-fire hit. She made a splash in Susan Slept Here in 1954, and fell in love with singer Eddie Fisher. She married him in 1955, and their first child, Carrie, was born in 1956. Their second child, Todd, came along in 1958. After Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959, Debbie’s relationship with her children, especially daughter Carrie, became the most lasting and meaningful of her life. She was an ever-present mother, advocating for her children’s welfare even when her constant attention was undesired by her teenage children.

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Reynolds’ role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and she followed it up with The Singing Nun. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, her career began to shift toward high-profile television appearances, but in the midst of this shift she also found time to provide the voice for the spider Charlotte in the 1973 version of Charlotte’s Web.

As her career moved toward television, her daughter Carrie Fisher’s own film career was on the rise. Carrie made her film debut in 1975 and in 1977 her career skyrocketed when she landed the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. Even as Carrie was becoming a star herself, Debbie was omnipresent. She felt personally insulted when Star Wars producer George Lucas bought coach airplane seats for Carrie and the rest of the cast, so she called him herself to advocate for her daughter procuring a first class seat. As it turned out, when Debbie called, 19-year-old Carrie was sitting right next to Lucas. “Mother,” Carrie yelled into the phone, “I want to fly coach, will you kindly f– off?” Through her daughter’s myriad issues in life, through her own stardom and addiction and struggles with mental illness, Debbie was always by her side, whether Carrie liked it or not. She was a devoted mother, and Carrie’s 1987 book Postcards From the Edge, which became a 1991 movie, was based on her own unusual but deeply loving relationship with her mother.

As Debbie aged, she continued to work in television and appeared in documentaries and in small parts in movies, but began a new career on the Las Vegas circuit and in costume collecting. She rescued a huge number of costumes from the MGM lot when they liquidated their inventory to make space, and had dreams of opening a museum. Sadly, the plans fell through and she was forced to sell the costumes at auction, in a gigantic mass sale that took several years. Among her many possessions at auction were a pair of the ruby slippers, the Marilyn Monroe dress from The Seven Year Itch, and costumes from both the 1934 and 1963 versions of Cleopatra, the latter donated by her old romantic rival Elizabeth Taylor, with whom she had long since mended fences.

Her final significant role was a recurring one, as Grace Adler’s mother on Will & Grace. Debra Messing remembered Debbie Reynolds on her Facebook page as “pure energy & light when she came on stage. She was loving, and bawdy, and playful- a consummate pro- old school and yet had the work ethic and investment in her craft of a new fiery up and comer. She was always running off to Vegas or somewhere else ‘on the road’ to be a hoofer, to sing and dance and make people laugh. She performed 340 days out of the year. An inspiration on every level.”

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I had the great fortune to meet Debbie Reynolds briefly in 2012. I was covering the Cinecon classic film festival for the blog, where Debbie gave the keynote address at the awards dinner at which Carleton Carpenter received an award. She was exactly how I expected her to be onstage–playing the crowd, cracking hilarious jokes that left everyone in stitches, and all-around stealing the show. Afterward, however, when I went up to her to introduce myself, she was entirely different. Calm, sweet, and generous, she emphasized how much she appreciated being able to be there for Carleton Carpenter, who had been so instrumental in setting her on her course toward stardom. It was an eye-opening experience into who Debbie Reynolds was. Far more than the crowd-pleasing, show-stealing star that she was, she was a gracious human being who gave back to those to whom she owed her livelihood.

Debbie lived on a large estate in Los Angeles that once belonged to Edith Head, on which there were two houses–one belonging to Debbie, and one belonging to Carrie. Debbie’s health had been declining in recent years, and the day after Carrie died of a heart attack, Debbie went to the hospital with a stroke. Carrie died on December 27, Debbie died on December 28. The loss of a child is painful enough–Debbie’s loss of Carrie was a devastation from which she could not recover.

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6-year-old Carrie Fisher watches her mother onstage.

Debbie Reynolds was a force of nature whose energy will be terribly missed in this world. I am grateful to her for showing me a confident, courageous woman who could keep up with the boys, and for modeling offscreen what a strong woman and a devoted mother looks like. Her rich legacy lives on in her movies, her television appearances, and the larger-than-life humanitarian spirit that informed all she did. She was our lucky star.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival: DAY OF SILENTS, 2016

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Readers, many apologies for my extended absence. I don’t like to go too long without a post, but having been busy with my Marion Davies work and other outside issues, I find myself having gone for over a month without writing here.

Naturally, it is the glorious San Francisco Silent Film Festival that brings me back. After the main festival event in June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has a day of silent movies at the Castro theatre in the winter, to whet our appetites for what’s to come in the summer. The annual Day of Silents this year was held last Saturday, and I am happy to be able to tell you about the day…at least part of it. My day at the Castro was cut short due to the tragic fire in my hometown of Oakland, CA the previous evening. Elaboration on that point will come in a later installment, because it deserves its own post. For now, however, I would like to focus on the movies. It’s been a dark year, and I think we could all use a bit of movie talk.

I managed to see two movies on Saturday afternoon and both were stellar examples of different types of silent filmmaking. The first was a wonderful 1926 Ernst Lubitsch comedy called So This is Paris, a lighthearted tale of rekindled romance between a woman practicing a revealing dance with her performance partner…and the man who comes over to tell her to cover up.

Even this early in his career, Lubitsch was already developing a signature style. The beginning scene with the revealing dance is a beautiful moment of early Hollywood self-awareness, something in which Lubitsch later excelled. The dance the two partners do is very “sheik”-esque, calling to mind the serious acting of Rudolph Valentino–but it is done in a very halfhearted and parodied way, inciting laughter in the Castro audience and undoubtedly in the audiences of 1926. Self-awareness at that level is great fun to see, as only a few far-between silent movies show that the movie industry had a sense of humor about itself. The beginning of So This is Paris and the entirety of Show People are prime examples of Hollywood’s self-awareness, a trope that wouldn’t become frequently employed until much later.

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Parodying Valentino.

The second movie that I was able to see was Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 debut film about a pre-Revolution worker strike. Though it was his first movie, it was already typical Eisenstein. Filled with symbolic and often shocking imagery, it clearly influenced his later Battleship Potemkin, and was quite difficult to watch. Watching Strike and already being familiar with Battleship Potemkin, I came to the realization that one of Eisenstein’s go-to methods of shocking his audience was in showing graphic scenes having to do with children. The famous scene in Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage rolls down the Odessa steps is reflected here in similar frightening scenes involving young children, and these serve to set the audience against the villains of the story.

On a related note, I always appreciate the frequent Russian programming at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I have a strong connection to Russia, having lived and studied there, but opportunities to speak and read it here in the United States are few and far between, so the movies at the silent film festival offer my brain a much-needed Russian treat.

Sadly, I had to leave after Strike. But I very much look forward to the larger silent film festival in June. Stay tuned, and thank you Day of Silents!

Smithsonian Seeks Funds to Maintain Ruby Slippers

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The ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum, taken on my trip to Washington, D.C. last year.

A few days ago, it came to my attention that the Smithsonian was raising money to keep one of their most visited and prized artifacts from deteriorating further than it already has.

The ruby slippers housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of 5 pairs worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), are now nearly 80 years old and have begun to show their age. Sequins are falling off, the signature color is fading, and the threads on the shoes are beginning to break–all signs indicative of standard costuming practices at the large studios in the 1930s.

In the days of the studio system, costumes were made not to stand the test of time, but to provide the bare minimum of was needed for a movie at the smallest cost possible to the studio. The material was the cheapest that could do the job, and with the lack of foresight into the era of television rebroadcasts and lasting celebrity, the studio executives saw no need to account for preservation. Saving money and maximizing a film’s profit was their first and foremost concern. When a movie was over, the costumes were just filed away into the studio’s storage–sometimes to be re-used for another movie, sometimes to collect dust.

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In relatively recent years, movie costumes that have survived have become a source of fascination for filmgoers and collectors, if not for studio personnel. When MGM liquidated its costume storage inventory at an auction in 1970 to expand space on their soundstages, former MGM star Debbie Reynolds spent nearly $600,000 rescuing what she considered to be living history. “They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it,” she later said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”

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But at the National Museum of American History, preserving costumes and props is considered synonymous with preserving the cultural past of the United States. When visitors walk into the museum and make their way to the second floor, they can see the original Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s living room set from All in the Family…and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. These are all visible and identifiable parts of American heritage, and the Smithsonian treats them with the same respect and care that they take with Lincoln’s shawl and the flag that inspired the national anthem.

With that in mind, the curators jumped into action when it became clear that the ruby slippers would need further attention to keep from deteriorating further. Being a modern museum that relies on both federal funds and the public, they decided to go to the grassroots level to fund the slippers’ care–with a Kickstarter campaign to meet the restoration goal of $300,000. In a matter of hours, their initial goal was well on its way to being met.

The money will go toward a special case for the slippers, which would contain a non-oxygen gas and a meter that would measure barometric pressure that can be adjusted according to conditions. The curators would need to determine the correct amount of light and humidity that the slippers can receive, and design the case accordingly. The idea is not to refurbish them, but instead to maintain their state as they are now. To prevent further loss of paint and sequins, the slippers will be treated with a special coating. “While the slippers undergo treatment their appearance will not change drastically, and we don’t want them to,” reads the Kickstarter summary.

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From the Kickstarter site–museum conservator Richard Barden examines the slippers.

This undertaking is staggeringly expensive and the Smithsonian still needs our help in order to finance the preservation that the curators have deemed necessary. As of this evening, the donations have reached $225,000.

Please visit the Kickstarter campaign site and consider donating. Any small amount is greatly appreciated by the museum. Some of my favorite perks of donating:

-$1 or more: Smithsonian offers its grateful thanks and sends exclusive updates on the project.

-$10 or more: A beautiful digital poster created especially for the project.

-$50 or more: A tote bag created especially for the project.

-$150 or more: A Smithsonian Museum membership.

And if you REALLY have a bit of money to spare…

-$1,000 or more: Lunch and tour with a curator

-$7,000 or more: Your own pair of replica ruby slippers

-$10,000 or more: Watch the restoration as it’s being done.

As many of my regular readers know, The Wizard of Oz is very important to me, as it was Judy Garland who started me on my path toward classic movies. I ultimately have her to thank for much of what I have become, what I have done here on the blog and with my Marion Davies work. I feel a special obligation to pay it forward and make sure that the ruby slippers are protected–not only to preserve the legacy of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, but to preserve for future generations a tangible example of the American experience–the movies that make us who we are.

New Prompt on Backlots, and Why.

As a site focusing on classic movies, I have largely tried to keep Backlots away from political matters. When I felt it necessary, I have made commentary on events that have affected us all, linking those events to classic movies and how movies are a panacea to help us get through our hard times. But up to now, that commentary has been unifying and apolitical, despite my own passion for current events.

But this morning, I would like to make a brief political note regarding a button you may have noticed at the bottom of the site.

The other day, a good friend of mine and fellow classic movie aficionado posted an astute observation to Facebook. She had noticed that the vast majority of her classic movie-loving friends, regardless of political affiliation, were vehemently opposed to the current Republican nominee for president. Not just casually brushing him off–but persistently rejecting the notion that he should ever come within 10 feet of the White House. The general nature of her feed seemed to reflect the current trends of the country, but those who knew classic movies were especially passionate. As classic movie fans come from all parts of the country, from all political, social, economic, and cultural stripes, she wondered why that phenomenon might be.

As it turns out, I have noticed the same. And many people who made comments on my friend’s post seem to have noticed the same. Thinking about why people who know classic movies might think this way, I came to the conclusion that there are indeed explanations. In addition to an awareness of historical precedents, knowing how political figures rise based on behind-the-scenes research on the movies we love, I think there is another, more chilling reason.

We’ve seen this movie before.

 

 

What were once surrealist, dystopian fantasies have become our reality. 24-hour news networks have created a modern day Howard Beale, and “Lonesome Rhodes” is now one step away from the White House. These stories were deemed unrealistic and even offensive at the time of their inception, but they now seem eerily prescient. Both of these fictional characters ended in disgrace, and given the events of the past day, it even looks as though this election cycle might end in much the same way “Lonesome Rhodes'” did. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who know these stories should sit back and relax.

I know that much of my readership is comprised of people who are familiar with classic film, history, and culture. The satirical stories of Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayefsky have come true in a much starker way than either of them could likely have imagined, and many of us who have seen this on film have had chills running up our spines for some time.

And so I have attached a button to the bottom of the site, urging my readers to register to vote, and to actually go do it. There is far too much at stake here.

Thank you, and may we soon get back to the more pleasant side of classic movies.