No More Working-Class Heroes

In today's movies, everyone is rich—even the people next door


| July-August 1999


Michael Douglas' New York home in A Perfect Murder is a 10,000-square-foot compound, not counting the top floor, with marble everywhere. In Stepmom, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris zip in a Land Rover and a BMW between a sleek, two-story SoHo loft in New York City and a three-story 1860 colonial in suburban Nyack. Married on the Queen Elizabeth II despite no apparent income, the young couple in Parent Trap grow up to reside at a sprawling Napa Valley winery and a luxurious London mansion, both with full-time butlers. Meg Ryan's children's bookstore in You've Got Mail is one Dr. Seuss from bankruptcy, but she still lives in an Upper West Side apartment that would cause blood lust in many a young doctor.

Hollywood has always rewarded itself with fat paychecks and the finest material possessions platinum cards can buy; fledgling screenwriters who hit it big can pocket $1 million a script, and studio executives obsess over who's driving a Ferrari Maranello. Now Hollywood's notorious taste for luxury has spread to its product, creating an epidemic of wealth in the movies that has moved from the vaguely annoying to the nearly pornographic. A growing number of filmmakers drown their supposedly everyday characters in spectacular real estate, designer clothes, and swank cars, and still pretend that they're the people next door.

On-screen excess isn't new, but this wave of conspicuous consumption is different. The rich and famous life-styles showcased by Busby Berkeley and his Depression-era contemporaries were portrayed not as middle-class reality, but as obvious fantasy. The rich, furthermore, were often depicted critically; protIn agonists were frequently working-class folks, not robber barons. Today, the character played by Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail is the owner of a Barnes & Noble knockoff that crushes a beloved family-owned business. Nonetheless, he's a romantic hero.

Just because Time Warner stock is soaring doesn't mean the rest of the country is doing well; these films don't reflect the truth of a top-heavy economy. "Film can be a fantasy escape. But it doesn't have to blind us to what's going on in everyday life," says Steven Ross, author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, 1998). "We are becoming a two-class nation. And yet these films are now saying not only that we are all middle class, but also that the middle class is now closer to Cecil B. De Mille's wealth and glamour of the 1920s than it is to the poor."

Today's movies encourage people to be unhappy with what they have, says Richard Sylbert, production designer for The Graduate, Chinatown, and Reds. "What they are saying is, 'You think it's good now? It's not good enough. This is where you should be going, this is what you should be doing with your money.' "

Hollywood still embraces its reputation as a left-leaning community concerned with social justice, but its actions—like lines of gas-guzzling limousines idling outside a rainforest benefit—often speak louder than its quasi-liberal words. In many ways, the movie business is deeply conservative, dependent on and wallowing in disposable income, and its creative output reflects that mind-set.