No More Working-Class Heroes

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.

The enthusiastic money mantra springs in part from bizarre ideas about wealth. Many successful people in Hollywood don’t see themselves as upper class, so far removed are they from reality.

At the same time, there’s confusion about where a film set ends and a Hollywood home begins. On any big-budget production, anybody with the slightest clout angles to walk off with tables, chairs, carpets, and set dressings when the movie wraps. Kevin Costner hired production designer Jeffrey Beecroft to overhaul the actor’s Spanish-Mediterranean bungalow; some of the design (and even some furniture) came from Beecroft’s set for Head Above Water.

Some Hollywood filmmakers say moviegoers crave a couple of hours with people who eat with sterling on bone china, and, indeed, Stepmom, The Parent Trap, and You’ve Got Mail were all hits. The last big working-class hero was Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, but in classic have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too Hollywood fashion, the film ogled the lifestyles of the superrich before drowning them like kittens.

All the same, the idealized reality that rich producers now assume their audiences crave may alienate many blue-collar consumers. Take the Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black, whose biggest supporters included Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Ron Meyer, famously moneyed executives who call the shots at Seagram’s Universal Studios. The movie tells the story of William Parrish, a ridiculously rich media tycoon who examines his life after a visit from the Grim Reaper. Bronfman and Meyer were stunned when the country was bored by Parrish’s personal crisis. This time the message from moviegoers was simple: Maybe there is such a thing as having too much money.

John Horn is a senior writer at Premiere magazine in Los Angeles. From The Nation (April 5, 1999). Subscriptions: $52/yr. (47 issues) from Box 37072, Boone, IA 50037.

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