Dana, I’m so glad to reunite with you and Mark, and to welcome Kameron into the club. I’m writing my first dispatch from Tijuana, where old Hollywood partied during Prohibition. My favorite restaurant has headshots of Laurel and Hardy on the wall, and I just bought a 3-foot-long velvet painting of The Last Supper with Marilyn Monroe holding court and Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Clark Gable, and James Dean as her acolytes. (Yes, my home is very tasteful.)
Lugging my $10 masterpiece back to the hotel, I thought about how most of the famous faces who represent the movies have been dead for 50 years. Marilyn’s smile sells shot glasses, clocks, calendars, posters, and shirts in stores from Sunset Boulevard to Buenos Aires, Tijuana to Taiwan. What modern actor could earn a seat at her table? The biggest stars of my lifetime—Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock—never graduated past magazine covers to souvenir magnets.
If Hollywood played by its old rules, I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Call Me by Your Name’s Armie Hammer should be huge stars. They’re funny, smart, self-aware, charismatic, and freakishly attractive. Yet, they feel like underdogs, and I’m trying to figure out why. Robbie has made intelligent choices. Her scene-stealing introduction as Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in Wolf of Wall Street. Her classic romantic caper with Will Smith in the underseen trifle, Focus. She even survived Suicide Squad with her dignity intact. In I, Tonya, she can’t outskate being miscast as Tonya Harding, but bless her heart for trying. As for Hammer, Kameron, your review of Call Me by Your Name called him, “royally handsome,” which seems right. He’s as ridiculously perfect as a cartoon prince, and I loved how Luca Guadagnino made a joke of how outlandish the 6-foot-5 blond looks in the Italian countryside. Whether he’s unfurling himself from a tiny Fiat or stopping conversation with his gangly dance moves, he can’t blend in—and good on him and Guadagnino for embracing it.
But even if Robbie and Hammer each claim an Oscar nomination this year, I suspect they’ll stay stalled out in this strange time when great actors are simply supporting players in a superhero franchise. I’m fascinated by Robbie and Hammer because they’re like fossils of some alpha carnivore that should have thrived. Does anyone else feel like the tectonic plates under Hollywood have shifted and we’re now staring at the evidence that everything we know is extinct? It’s not just that the old rules have changed—no new rules have replaced them. No one seems to know what works.
Will Smith, the self-made sitcom star–turned–screen titan who signed on for Men in Black and Independence Day after calculating that audiences love creature movies like E.T., Jurassic Park, and Jaws, hasn’t had a major, original hit in almost a decade—and he’s been trying. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson seized Smith’s Most Likable crown but still hasn’t proved he can launch anything but a name-brand franchise. Both actors opened $90 million movies over Christmas: Johnson hit theaters with a reimagining of Jumanji, and Smith slid into Netflix with the orc-cop thriller Bright. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has done decent business among kids, but it’ll be forgotten in a month. Meanwhile, half the people I know have watched, or hate-watched, Bright, or at least turned it on and then wandered off to make a sandwich. Which actor made the better career choice?
Netflix swaggers like it’s the future, a one-stop, in-home film and TV production studio for all tastes from orc cop to Oscars. But despite its good taste in acquisitions like Mudbound (that Mary J. Blige performance!) and The Meyerowitz Stories (I’m ride-or-die for sad Ben Stiller), its Academy Awards campaigns aren’t clicking. Three of the films in my top 10 are Netflix releases—Casting JonBenet, Icarus, and Okja—and it’s been an uphill battle persuading anyone to watch them even though people could right now, on their couch, for free. Why is a bad film like Bright an easier sell than something good? I can’t explain it, and I wonder if Netflix can, though I’m sure its offices are full of geniuses trying to crack the code.
But hey, let me seize this moment to make my pitch for Casting JonBenet, the No. 1 film on my top 10. I squeezed Kitty Green’s documentary into my Sundance schedule because I wanted a schlock diversion. I wasn’t expecting anything more than shoulder pads and murder. Half the projects getting greenlit lately feel like a BuzzFeed listicle—“You know you’re a ’90s kid if you can spell Gillooly!”—but JonBenet isn’t peddling nostalgia for the dead (or merely kneecapped). Instead, it explores our cultural memory of the 6-year-old pageant queen’s unsolved death by interviewing actors auditioning to play her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey. At the time, the papers painted Patsy as a vain monster who jealously strangled her own child. That Brothers Grimm explanation makes sense the first time the actors say it but gets harder and harder to believe as the performers begin to try to understand the Ramseys as people, not as a tabloid amusement. This isn’t a detective story. The parents aren’t absolved at the end. And it’s not a scenery-chewing I, Tonya farce. Instead, Green finds points of connection between ordinary people and an infamous crime. Her actors make the Ramseys more human—and make the rest of us feel less so, ghouls who’ve spent decades gossiping about another family’s tragedy.
So, yes, as we head into 2018, I’m thinking a lot about empathy. And I’m also thinking a lot about collapse. The unnerving merger of Disney and Fox on top of Disney’s attempts to smother bad press about its business deals. The widespread union-busting that’s cost a lot of entertainment journalists their jobs. The women across the industry re-examining their lives through the lens of #MeToo. It’s all kindling. What would regrow if while wandering the ruins of rules that used to make sense, we grabbed Frances McDormand’s Molotov cocktail and that naked-lady lighter from The Florida Project and torched the whole thing?
Mark, I can’t disagree with your criticism that Three Billboards whiffs a crucial punch, but hearing an audience hoot for McDormand’s mule-headed Mildred was one of my favorite movie moments of the year. If there’s any green shoots of hope, it’s that 2017 was full of maddening, flawed, wonderful female roles. Three Billboards, Colossal, Raw, Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Bad Batch, Ingrid Goes West, Lady Macbeth, Beatriz at Dinner, Patti Cake$, The Post. What a pack of furies, and not a noble whore or saintly mom among them. As for Mother! itself, Kameron, you wrote that it was “the kind of movie that makes me want to avoid the internet for a century,” which makes me curious about how you and the rest of the gang have approached writing about tricky films in a moment where everything feels polarized between “this movie will save mankind!” and “this movie is literally ushering in the apocalypse!” The sink is not braced.