One of my life’s projects is to watch all the movies on the AFI Top 100 movies list. I’ve seen almost all of them, with a handful of exceptions (MASH, Duck Soup, American Graffiti, The African Queen, and Sophie’s Choice), and now I’m also trying to make my way through Oscar winners and other notable films.
What’s surprised me the most is how much I’ve learned from these movies. I don’t mean things like, hey, this Alfred Hitchcock guy is a pretty good director! Or this Jimmy Stewart fella seems to be in literally every single notable movie before 1965. It’s shown me what issues people at the time were grappling with. The things that people worried about. And most of all, what values they prioritized and prized.
“On The Town” (1949) is a great example of this.
Watching it, I learned two things — first, that post-war America was really optimistic and energetic and seemed to be brimming with potential. I knew this was the case, but it’s different knowing a fact and actually experiencing what that really means. It was truly a thrill watching Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra learn that “the Bronx is up and the Battery is down!” as they traveled around NYC on location in 1949. Watching this movie, I understood why some people are so nostalgic for an America of the late 40’s and 50’s. I got a visceral sense of why they thought America was great then, and appreciate why they want a return to those values. The possibilities for greatness and happiness seemed endless. Who wouldn’t want that?
Which leads me to the second thing I learned. There are cracks in that vision, and they’re not small. It’s not hard to figure out who, exactly, this new world was made for. You had to be a straight, white male to feel on top of the world — literally, as shown by scenes on the top of a skyscraper that overlooked Manhattan. You had to conform to a certain, narrow range of masculine behavior — note how many ensemble musicals came out in those decades. No room for individualism or virtuosity.
The women of “On The Town,” even though they had a certain amount of strength and agency, still existed to serve the men’s desires — see how Betty Garrett and Ann Miller’s characters kept manipulating their men to hook up with them, or how they kept trying to help Gene Kelly successfully romance Vera-Ellen.
If you were a person of color? Pfft. The best thing you got from “On The Town” was that uncomfortably racist song-and-dance number set in the anthropology museum.
It’s really fascinating watching movies evolve as newer archetypes are created and how our values have changed. In “The Broadway Melody,” the 1929 winner for Best Picture, you can see actual jazz-age flappers! But you also see that for a budding female star on stage, her ultimate success wasn’t stardom, but *leaving* the stage to get married and settled in the suburbs. Contrast that with, say, “Tootsie,” and its own ideas of what a successful star ‘woman’ looks like, and you can see how much has changed, and has still yet to change. Is Dustin Hoffman *really* the best voice for women? Especially given what we now know about him slapping Meryl Streep in “Kramer vs. Kramer”?
Or compare the roles of black actors/actresses in movies like “Casablanca” or “Gone With The Wind” to “In The Heat Of The Night.” When Sidney Poitier slaps a racist in the face in that movie, it feels like a literal break from the past.
Another Sidney Poitier movie, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” featured a moment that I hadn’t known about, that took me by surprise and utterly floored me. It was one of the first films to show interracial relationships in a positive light — a white woman falls madly in love with a black man (Poitier) in Hawaii, and when her father asks Poitier what life will be like for their children, he says that his girlfriend believes that every single one of them will “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”
I watched that movie while Barack Obama, a biracial man born in Hawaii, was still president, but before Donald Trump was sworn in. I had to pause the movie for a long time.
And today we have Wonder Woman and Black Panther headlining superhero movies, wildly successful ones. But that wasn’t remotely even the case back then. “Black Panther” made $1.3 billion dollars; “Cabin in the Sky,” a 1943 all-black musical featuring heavyweights like Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, was banned from being screened in many southern cities. A crowd gathered in one location in Tennessee to protest the movie and threatened to “pull the switch” — the movie was cut off after 30 minutes.
This is what people mean when they say representation matters. This is why it’s important to tell all stories, not just stories for a white, heterosexual male audience. Because if they don’t, then progress will never be made, and things will never change for the better. If you’re a white, straight male and you wonder why people keep making such a big deal about the fact that there’s a woman main character in Star Wars, or an all-woman remake of Ghostbusters, don’t. Instead be thankful that you already have a male Star Wars lead, or an all-male Ghostbusters, and that you don’t need to demand Hollywood to show more of your stories.
Here, this is where Hollywood has been — and still is — shamefully behind the times when it comes to LGBTQ+ people.
In movies, LGBTQ+ people were coded for the longest time, and had to meet tragic ends. Even a recent critical darling like “Brokeback Mountain” featured the sad, conflicted gay who meets a sticky end.
Sure, we now have movies like “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name” and even “Love, Simon” showing different approaches to storytelling, but it wasn’t Hollywood that paved the way for this. It was a TV show starring a lesbian named Ellen DeGeneres.
And Hollywood is still dragging its feet. It’s extremely likely that the upcoming Queen biopic might show a decidedly not-gay Freddie Mercury. Straightwashing still exists.
And I’m still waiting for that fabulously gay mainstream superhero character. Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, of the X-Men, is gay in the comics. When will we see him come out in the films?
JK Rowling has come out and said that Dumbledore is gay, but in the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts” movie that features Dumbledore and, literally, the man he was in love with, that gay relationship isn’t likely to be shown, either. If a Dumbledore is gay in a forest, but nobody is around to see it, is he really gay?
Still, there are many, many gorgeous, magnificent movies, movies that feel timeless, movies that can make you laugh and cry. Compare movies within a certain genre, too. There’s a certain thrill and melancholy in watching a silent great like Charlie Chaplin do the dinner roll dance in “The Gold Rush,” and compare it to the raw physicality of someone like Buster Keaton in “The General.” See how musicals take on very serious subjects (racism, discrimination, nationalism) with very different results — a colorful, stylized, thrilling “West Side Story” versus a darker, smokier “Cabaret,” which only uses bright colors in one single haunting, unforgettable sequence (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me“). Compare and contrast John Wayne’s mean, racist, cynical Western “The Searchers” to Gary Cooper’s pointed anti-McCarthyism in “High Noon.” Take in the scope of epics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and wonder how a single director managed to accomplish all three.
When we talk about American culture, it’s our movies that define us, our movies that show us who we really are. We’re watching ourselves when we watch them.