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Does today's Hollywood stack up to the Hollywood of decades past?

October 29, 2010 |  6:43 pm

One of the perks, or hazards, of writing about contemporary films is that you often get letters and messages from readers about the weakness of said films. Nothing today, goes the refrain, is as original/good/uncynical as it once was (which is probably why the remake trend both exists and gets people so riled up).

Like analyzing World Series teams from different eras, these are questions entirely without resolution,  but not without arguments (and arguers). Are "Inception" and "Avatar" as groundbreaking in this era as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" were in theirs? Could Humphrey Bogart or Marlon Brando act circles around Matt Damon or Javier Bardem?

The cable network TCM has now tried to see how pervasive these feelings really are. To commemorate its upcoming airing of the seven-part series "Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Contemporary Hollywood," the channel polled 1,000 people (nearly half of whom self-identified as “classic film enjoyers”) to see how the current film era measures up in the popular imagination.

Certainly there are some achievements that, quite literally, can't be compared. Even if an overhwhelming number of respondents (71%) believe that Denzel Washington "carries on the tradition" of Sidney Poitier, most of them wouldn't deny Poitier faced obstacles few contemporary black actors do.

And one hopes that some of the findings aren't representative -- such as when nearly 25% of respondents said they believe that Antonio Banderas exemplifies, more than anyone else, Errol Flynn in the modern era. (The survey design may also skew the results, as the questions cite the older era but all of the multiple-choice answers come from the present-day; it might have been more instructive to include choices from a number of eras and see where each landed.)

Still, in many respects the survey shows that we believe the present is, in fact, just as good as the past.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents, for instance, believe that Steven Spielberg's influence matches that of Alfred Hitchcock. And 73% were willing to say that modern power couples such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones stack up favorably to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

There may be a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. In the abstract, we might think that the old days were better. But when we actually get down to specific comparisons, we rather like our current stars and films.

There were, of course, some exceptions. When asked if there was a contemporary version of Marilyn Monroe, "None of the Above" outranked everyone, even Jolie. Some things really were better in the past.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Gone with the Wind. Credit: MGM.