Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 16/31: 'The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays' by William Goldman.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Film William Goldman sets out his stall early in the introduction to The Big Picture, a collection of articles originally published in the likes of Premiere Magazine and the LA Times: “What you have here is a chronicle of the worst decade in movie history” Those of us who’ve sat through both Transformers films, watched the rise of torture porn and 3D conversions might imagine he’s talking about the Noughties (especially if we’ve skipped the copyright page) but the next sentence elaborates: “If you were to ask me what were the best ten films of the 90s my first thought would be the old joke ‘the girls in my town were so ugly that once we had a beauty contest and nobody won.’

For someone like me who became cine-aware in the 1990s, the decade didn’t seem too bad. As he lists in the following paragraph, it brought The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Babe, Hoop Dreams, Fargo, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Four Weddings and Groundhog Day, which is high praise indeed from someone who delivered the screenplays to All The President's Men, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. But his argument is that in comparison to earlier decades, when the studios were still making thematically strong films for grown-ups and nearly every film nominated for best picture had integrity and would go on to be considered a stone cold classic, in the 90s, Hollywood had fallen back on producing genre based entertainments and nothing more (not something which has arguably changed).

It’s this persuasive argument he returns to throughout the collection which contains roughly three types of essay, previews of coming seasonal attractions, Oscar speculation and ceremony reviews, interspersed with the longer polemicals that create the back bone of his argument with titles like “Who Killed Hollywood” and “Year of the Dog”. Mixing his own opinions and those fielded from friends in the industry, he makes his best guess as to how something like The English Patient will do at the box office and what chances it has at winning Best Picture, all the while pushing against the truism from his seminal Adventures In The Screentrade which has become to most quoted line in film journalism “Nobody knows anything”.

With an extra decade of hindsight (the collection was published in 2001), part of the pleasure of the book is the nostalgia for a time when Apollo 13 was new and exciting release rather than something that not too long ago was repeated once a fortnight on ITV2. Flicking through to the piece looking towards the release slate for summer ’93 and we find Cliffhanger, The Firm, The Fugitive and In The Line of Fire all ready to be obliterated by Jurassic Park, which also left Last Action Hero as a casualty (remember the rocket with Arnie’s likeness on the side?). It’s impossible not to want to line up a day reliving that group (and even Super Mario Brothers which also came out that year, though not Dennis The Menace). Twenty-ten looks weedy by comparison.

His longer essays are best. Goldman’s analysis of Saving Private Ryan is pretty seminal already with a structural deconstruction demonstrating why the last half hour is phoney as hell (who’s flashback is it?) and his neutering of LA Confidential is similarly painful (six minutes too long). He suggests Twister is “the worst movie in the history of the world” then offers some close comparison with Jaws to conclusively prove it which seems a bit unfair until you realise what he’s demonstrating the extent to which computer generated spectacle has replaced proper characterisation. This is exemplified in “And Where Will You Leave Jimmy Stewart?” in which he uses the death of the actor as a jumping off point to list the images which he believe best exemplify certain actors like “Bill Holden, running at the Kwai Bridge shouting ‘kill him’”.

In the end, Goldman was a soothsayer. As he predicted, Hollywood is no longer interested in the middle budget film preferring instead to plough their millions into goliaths like addicted gamblers going all in with the hope of jackpot. Which pays off quite often now because people are still desperate to go to the cinema even if whatever’s on is rubbish or at least that’s the only explanation I have for the aforementioned toy related franchise films doing the business. He’s no longer writing about films in the same way so we won’t know whether he thinks Inception or The Social Network will win best picture. I think he'd go with the former because it would show Hollywood congratulating itself for producing an expensive blockbuster that just this once made the audience think as though that absolves them from churning out the shit they do the rest of the time.

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