Hollywood’s Heroism Deficit: Wealth, Drugs and Divorce

James Bowman in the American has an article describing Hollywood’s heroism deficit. [Hat tip: Dirty Harry.]

Bowman believes that Hollywood’s slow abandonment of heroism and heroes on screen was a result of the post-WWII consensus that heroes were no longer needed, and then dark nihilism envisioning a war of “all against all” in the post 1968 era:

The point of all three of the kinds of hero in which Hollywood has specialized over the last 35 years has been to make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience. It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire. The subtext of films featuring the whistle-blower hero, the cartoon hero, and the victim hero is that heroism—heroism of the, say, Gary Cooper type—belongs to the public and communal sphere, now universally supposed to be cruel and corrupt, and therefore is really no longer possible or even, perhaps, desirable.

Here Bowman is more right than he knows. The rest of the piece argues that broad social changes in the post WWII era influenced Hollywood. Moving it away from depicting heroism in terms of ordinary people living ordinary lives, and acting heroically within the community, to one of socially isolated anti-heroes (merely cool and cooler villains), whistle-blower heroes, victim-heroes, and super-heroes. Bowman is wrong, on that, of course.

Bowman misses the biggest force driving Hollywood’s depiction of heroism, or more accurately, it’s refusal to depict it in anything other than cartoon/superhero form, for the last forty years or so. It is not the broad social changes in America. Rather, the changes in Hollywood. Which along with other economic elites has become far wealthier, with a greater percentage of wealth, and the inevitable social isolation that comes with it. But the wealth effect alone cannot explain why Hollywood is so socially isolated. Two important developments that hit Hollywood earliest and hardest also played major roles.

Hollywood cannot create movies in which ordinary people are heroes within the social context of ordinary heroism. The way that Bowman compares the 1957 version of “3:10 to Yuma” with Van Heflin and Glenn Ford displayed an ordinary man acting heroically, for and with his ordinary community. Part of the reason it cannot is because Hollywood is comprised of people who are far wealthier than ordinary people. Who lives removed socially and physically from ordinary people. Who don’t understand at best and despise at worst the ordinary people who make up their potential audiences.

It is not America as a whole that has rejected heroism, rather it is Hollywood. Which is a very strange and inward focused place.

Recently, UC Berkeley Professor of Economics Emmanuel Saez has released a study of income inequality and wealth. You may find his papers and date here. Graphs included below derive from his data, in Excel format, which the good Professor has helpfully provided! I highly urge everyone to read his summary for the Lay Public, which is fairly intriguing. Below is a graph showing the percentage of income of the top income earners for the period 1913-2006.

What Prof. Saez points out is that two key changes shaped how the very wealthiest people in America gained wealth and how much of America’s wealth they had. First, the very wealthy in the pre-Depression years had most of their wealth from investment income. The classic “rentier” deriving wealth from previously generated capital. This changed radically in the 1980’s, when wages and business income generated most of the wealth. In lay terms, moving from say a person like Paris Hilton, who’s wealth derives from investments made generations ago by the Hilton hotel dynasty, to say Demi Moore, who’s wealth derives from her work as an actress and producer.

Next, in the Depression, World War II, and immediate post-War years, the top income earners did not have larger shares of wealth, compared to the pre-Depression, and post 1985 eras. As Prof. Saez notes, this distribution looks like a U. With profound implications showing for how the wealthy elite relate to the rest of us.

Hollywood is a good example of this dynamic. In the heyday of the Westerns, both in movies and TV, while Hollywood stars might live lives of luxury and social isolation, this was not the case for most of Hollywood, including work-a-day writers, directors, and producers who while well-paid, would live in largely middle class neighborhoods, associate with middle class people, hold middle class values, and earn middle class livings. It was this great mass of Hollywood’s writers, producers, directors, and lesser actors that shaped Hollywood’s culture. Which was solidly middle class. Of course they could conceive of themselves as heroes, and heroes fighting to preserve, protect, or extend the existing middle class social order which they found essentially good, if in need of periodic reform.

So what happened, in the middle to late 1960’s, to destroy the social fabric that created a solid defense of middle class values and “middle class heroism?” Since clearly, Saez shows the income disparity did not really hit full stride until the mid 1980’s. The era of the computer revolution, and as Saez notes, rising income among the top 10% from wages/business income instead of inherited capital gains.

It’s simple. Hollywood got stoned. Then divorced.

Drugs, historically, have always been a problem in Hollywood. Screenwriter Robert J. Avrech has noted that the silent era had massive substance abuse problems, including drugs. The studio system ruthlessly stamped it out, with great effort, in the 1930’s, in order to maintain their popularity among a suddenly impoverished nation. With greater wealth, and more permissive attitudes alongside that wealth, and a weakening studio system, drugs came back into Hollywood, slowly. This is not surprising, poor people who don’t wish to be poorer and want to climb out of poverty embrace discipline and morality. They need a strong social structure. Wealthy people can afford to be dissolute.

By the late 1960’s, drugs were common, and Hollywood experienced a “snowstorm” of cocaine in the 1970’s that wrecked careers and reached to every levels of Hollywood’s hierarchy. Including the middle class writers, directors, producers, assistant producers, and character actors.

Along with this permissive attitude came the Sexual Revolution. The pill and the condom, being cheap, available, and above all reliable, led to a lot of affairs all over Hollywood. Again critically extending throughout Hollywood’s middle class base. Predictably, this led to divorce. Hollywood has always been a more socially permissive place than say, Ross Perot’s EDS, or IBM in it’s 1960’s heyday (when everyone wore dark suits and white shirts). It’s one of the factors that allowed it’s creativity full reign. However, this social permissiveness led it to become far more vulnerable to drugs and divorce.

Which in turn led to middle class people, often struggling with drugs and divorce, turning away from middle class values. Their families in ruins, or that of those around them, it was hard for the middle class creative people, who do the bulk of the work in Hollywood, to endorse middle class society, much less a heroic, middle class defense of that society. It’s interesting that the last gasp of the “ordinary” middle class hero, DIE HARD’s “John McClane” (Bruce Willis) is a NYC cop, separated from his wife and heading for divorce, as a fish-out-of-water in a ritzy LA Highrise. His fight to save his wife is his way of competing in her glamorous, rich, wealth, and very pointedly socially isolated world. That very deliberately didn’t have much use for “cowboy” McClane who liked Roy Rogers.

If McClane fought for his family, to preserve it, most of Hollywood by the late 1960’s was struggling with the end of their family. This pattern has continued, with Hollywood’s legendary long work hours, permissive attitudes towards sex and affairs, and constant bed-hopping acting as a destroyer of families. It’s hard to write or create a hero defending a society that has in effect denied or destroyed one’s own family. Even if the destruction of said family was entirely the predictable result of affairs.

The situation got even worse in the 1980’s, when a hit movie could transform an ordinary screenwriter into a “superstar” millionaire. Joe Eszterhas (BASIC INSTINCT, FLASHDANCE) being a good example. Now, even a journeyman screenwriter like Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) can live in a Malibu mansion, with several Porsches in the driveway. The money is that good. Naturally, with that kind of money, social attitudes are very different than that of ordinary Americans. During the recent writer’s strike, writers who formerly would have been obscure and unnoticed by anyone but Hollywood insiders, such as Jane Espenson (staff writer for cult TV shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), had fans approach them on the picket line and gush their admiration. Probably the only time such writers would ever experience talking to a middle class person. Even then it was the kind of hero-worship an acting superstar gets.

Screenwriters making that kind of money spend very little time and effort trying to understand what ordinary people want and then giving them what they want. Instead, they act the way writer Joss Whedon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) recommends, giving the audience “what it needs” instead of what it “wants.” What it needs of course as filtered through the wealth, power, social isolation, and inevitable condescension for middle class people and values that characterize Hollywood’s power brokers. Who have the power to hand out million dollar plus paydays to writers, directors, producers, assistant producers, and even character actors, or not. All of Hollywood is oriented towards finding out what powerful, capricious, and often decadent men want and giving it to them, instead of of course, the audience. Men like former CAA head Michael Ovitz, or former head of New Line Cinema Bob Shaye don’t want middle class heroes.

Which is Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Wracked by decades of divorce and drugs, wealthy beyond belief, destroying even casual middle class values and associations for the great bulk of Hollywood, the creative class there cannot even conceive of middle class life being desirable. Much less a middle class hero acting in concert with society to protect and defend both it’s values and members.

The “whistle-blower” hero of course is the direct result of Hollywood writers being totally immersed in Hollywood society, actually caring about their relatively low position on the social totem pole (despite which they belong to the top 1% of income earners in America), instead of focusing on the challenges of preserving middle class society.

If you’re Stephen Gaghan, or Joss Whedon, or Alan Ball (AMERICAN BEAUTY) and you actually care that a studio exec was rude to you, or cheated you out of an extra million that was due you (leaving you only $8 million on the deal), and that forms your whole social environment, then yes, of course your view of heroes would be either nihilistic, middle-class society rejecting anti-heroes, or whistle-blowers who show “how corrupt the system is.” Of course Hollywood is corrupt. But Hollywood is not America.

The social isolation of course leads writers/producers to make that error. Which results in the victim-hero (“poor me”) by people with far too much money concerned about Hollywood status instead of creating good stories that people will pay to see. Which leaves the cartoon/superhero as the only venue for heroism, and that far removed from both ordinary society, but embodying the “Big Man” jerk-style personal behaviors that Hollywood writers and producers have adopted as the norm. HANCOCK’s grade-A jerk embodies how Hollywood’s creative people see themselves. BETTER than you and me, and the rest of America.

However, no situation is stable forever. Hollywood is about to get a rude awakening. Essentially answering the question, what if during the Depression Hollywood acted like it was still 1925?

More on that later.

But for now, it’s pretty clear that Bowman is wrong. America certainly did change, but still likes and wants it’s middle class, ordinary heroes. DIE HARD’s classic status is proof of that. No, the reason Hollywood has s heroism deficit can be reduced to these reasons: too rich, too stoned, and too divorced.

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Conservative blogger focusing on culture, business, technology, and how they intersect.
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