A Hollywood Ending: Academy Award Hopefuls Pay Homage to the Good Old Days — and Ways — of Filmmaking
In 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a classic of Hollywood’s golden age, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a delusional former silent-film star, an archetype explored in Damien Chazelle’s 'Babylon.' Photo: Bettmann/Getty images
Nicole Kidman sits alone in a cinema, the light from the projector creating a halo effect, as the Oscar-winning actor implores audiences to return to theatres after the pandemic ravaged attendance. The 2021 ad for AMC Theatres, which aired in U.S. and European theatres, inspired memes and parodies, and even prompted some audience members to cheer, recite lines and salute the screen. The sentiment — a longing to bask in the glow of the movies — is reflected in some of the biggest contenders for the 2023 Academy Awards.
The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical love letter to film, is perhaps the best among them. It even has a frame that echoes that holy image of Kidman in the theatre: a primal scene where the projector’s beam backlights a young child named Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) as he watches his first movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy — a stand-in for Spielberg — is entranced by the images that flicker across the screen. They will sculpt the young boy’s identity; as we all know, Spielberg went on to reshape the movies.
Widely touted for a best-picture win when the Oscars are handed out on March 12, The Fabelmans faces stiff competition from the Tom Cruise box-office behemoth, Top Gun: Maverick, as well as from The Banshees of Inisherin, a tragicomedy about two bickering friends played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and Everything Everywhere All at Once, the wild multiverse comedy starring Michelle Yeoh.
The Fabelmans wasn’t the only 2023 Oscar contender to recall that Kidman moment in the AMC ad. In the romantic drama Empire of Light, a fetishistic look at the cranks inside an English seaside movie house in 1981, director Sam Mendes uses the projector’s light to illuminate Oscar-winner Olivia Colman. She plays a theatre manager who finds emotional healing during a private screening of Hal Ashby’s 1979 film, Being There.
In Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s fawning ode to bawdy old Hollywood, Diego Calva plays a former movie producer who gets teary-eyed during a screening of Singin’ in the Rain. The 1952 musical he’s watching in a sold-out L.A. theatre reflects his experience in the industry, working alongside silent era actors (Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt) as they became obsolete when movies transition to talkies in the late 1920s. Chazelle might as well be sending smoke signals to Oscar voters, indicating they, too, should be weeping over the current transformation in filmmaking.
There’s an elegiac feel to these pictures, as if they are responding to the pandemic’s threat to theatres. They also cling to old-fashioned school modes of filmmaking — both The Fabelmans and Babylon were shot on celluloid, for instance — resisting the digital trend, and what Quentin Tarantino recently dubbed “the Marvel-ization of Hollywood.”
Tarantino, a filmmaker who, like Chazelle, has made nostalgia his tradecraft, joins veterans such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in criticizing the new Hollywood economic model. They say intellectual property (IP) rights are more revered than artistry, movie stars have been replaced by superheroes and the Marvel mode of content creation, where everything is digitally produced against a green screen, is suffocating creativity.
That’s why a movie like The Fabelmans, where Spielberg recounts the impact of his family on his identity and his art, feels so potent. Spielberg — who, with Jaws, made the blockbuster model a Hollywood priority — is here to remind us that filmmaking need not be compromised by commerce. In one of the year’s most poetic scenes, young Sammy projects a self-made movie into his palms, literally holding the power of cinema in his hands.
Sadly, Spielberg’s film did not draw crowds back to theatres. As of this writing, The Fabelmans hadn’t cracked US$15 million at the box office and was already available on video on demand, the latest sign that one of the most talented and successful filmmakers of our generation is losing clout among today’s franchise-focused moviegoers.
The movie that won the box-office crown in 2022 with a US$1.5 billion global gross, Top Gun: Maverick, is trading on recognizable IP, sure, but the Top Gun sequel directed by Joseph Kosinski is also a nostalgic ode to all things analog that chafes against standard green-screen monstrosities. In it, Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is pushing back against a navy that wants to replace pilots with drones. That central tension purposefully mirrors the way filmmaking is less hands-on, and mostly relegated to post-production facilities where entire movies are conjured — and then watched by audiences — on computers.
Cruise and Kosinski fly against the prevailing wind by shooting as much as possible for real, with IMAX cameras strapped into the cockpits of F-18 Super Hornets so we can see the actors’ faces as they are pummelled by G-force. The movie does things the old way with new technology. Its idea of going back is also implicit in the aircraft Maverick flies, which, as the film progresses, get more antiquated, from the futuristic hypersonic jet he tests in the opening to Cruise’s own Second World War-era P-51 Mustang. Top Gun: Maverick ends with Cruise, an old-school movie star maintaining his grip, piloting the antique plane himself.
The Oscars should salute him just for that extravagant do-it-yourself energy, which was on display in the most baffling and entertaining way. In a viral and very meme-able video message announcing Top Gun: Maverick’s streaming debut in December, Cruise jumps out of a plane and thanks audiences, as he’s skydiving, for seeing the film in theatres first. It’s like his gratitude for theatrical attendance is coming from the heavens, which makes it the perfect bookend to the AMC ad starring an angelic-looking ex-Mrs. Cruise, if we’re talking nostalgia.
If Top Gun: Maverick edges out The Fabelmans to win best picture, industry professionals would be showing their gratitude for a nostalgic film that celebrates the power of the moving image and gave audiences a reason to return to theatres. You know, like they used to.
A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2023 issue with the headline ‘A Hollywood Ending’, p. 56.