Suzanne Fields

The movies aren't what they used to be. Hollywood still imagines that it's the center of the cosmos, but the movies, politically correct as they have become (think Al Gore's Oscar for a slide show), don't move us as they once did.

A friend of mine once won an Oscar for a documentary -- a real one, not propaganda -- and for a while she carried it around in her handbag. When she was told to wait at the bar for a restaurant table, she often popped it out and set it on the bar. A good table materialized like magic. Oscar got respect even when she didn't.

But even Oscar ain't what he used to be. Academy Awards night has come and gone, and mostly what we remember are the ladies' gowns. Movie stars are no longer the icons of yesteryear, and they're often known more for their romantic liaisons, their rap sheets and their half-baked political opinions than for their work on the silver screen. The days of the divas, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, have vanished. (Meryl Streep still has a reasonable facsimile of their aura.)

"Before demographics became the marketing mantra, the movies were the art of the middle," writes Neal Gabler in the Los Angeles Times. "They provided a common experience and language -- a sense of unity. In the dark we were one." That's dying, too. The old movie houses, with their elaborate chandeliers and rococo architecture, were secular cathedrals for a classless society. Nearly everyone could afford the price of a ticket, and whole families and different generations were entertained together. Dinner table conversation was often about the latest feature at the Rialto or the Tivoli.

Not every movie was wholesome, but parents readily assumed responsibility for gatekeeping. Children watched what their parents thought they should see. The stars often failed to live up to an idealized image off screen, but the studios protected the public from off-screen antics. A star couldn't even pop down to the supermarket until she was properly coiffed, her outfit stylish and her nails immaculate. No gym suit or ugly shoes for her.

Movies gave voice to common moral standards that were imbedded in the drama. Partisan politics was shunned. "If you want to send a message," Jack Warner (or maybe it was Sam Goldwyn) famously told his producers, "go to Western Union." Content today has splintered audiences into age groups, and politically correct messages have often replaced a good story. The change in the movies, however, may account less for declining audiences than competing alternatives readily available on the Internet.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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