“I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been” – Is Dustin Hoffman right?
Two time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman recently made the bold claim that the film industry has never been worse than it is now. Speaking to The Independent Hoffman bemoaned the state of cinema while championing its smaller cousin; “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been – in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst”. Hoffman added that filmmaking was no longer about “whether you are good or not”, but “just about whether your films make money or not”. One of his major gripes was the fact “it’s hard to believe you can do good work for the little amount of money these days”.
When a respected voice like Hoffman is so firm in his disdain for the industry you can’t help but take note. The question is, has cinema really reached its deepest trough? Let’s just break that down, the bottom line is that the quality of films has never been worse since 1967 – the year Hoffman fell into spotlight has the hapless, and slightly creepy, Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
First things first, what are these atrocious films that have made 2015 so incredibly awful? For a rounded look at 2015’s most prominent releases I’m going to rely the two great cinematic authorities; the public and the critics. The winning combination of 2014’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture coupled with this year’s ten highest grossing films should provide a clear overview of this year’s glaring travesties.
Highest Grossing Films of 2015 Highest Grossing Films of 1967
1. Furious 7 1. The Graduate 2. Jurassic World 2. The Jungle Book 3. Avengers Age of Ultron 3. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner 4. Fifty Shades of Grey 4. Bonnie and Clyde 5. Cinderella 5. The Dirty Dozen 6. San Andreas 6. The Valley of the Dolls 7. Inside Out 7. You Only Live Twice 8 Kingsman: The Secret Service 8. To Sir, with Love 9. Minions 9. The Born Losers 10. Home 10. Thoroughly Modern Millie
Best Picture Nominees 2014/15 Oscars Best Picture Nominees 1967 Oscars
1. Birdman 1. In the Heat of the Night 2. American Sniper 2. Bonnie and Clyde 3. Boyhood 3. Doctor Dolittle 4. The Grand Budapest Hotel 4. The Graduate 5. The Imitation Game 5. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner 6. Selma 7. The Theory of Everything 8. Whiplash
Firstly, let’s compare those highest grossing films. Hoffman’s argument stands up pretty strong when you realise that highest grossing film of 2015 is in fact Furious 7. The industry is awash with sequels, spin-offs and reboots, but a seventh instalment is just taking the piss. Coasting off the loss of prodigal son Paul Walker, Furious 7 raced to the top of the box office despite the fact we’ve seen it all before. Six times before. It seems the best of the year can be broken down into two distinct categories, Blockbuster action and animation. The only glaring anomaly is the much maligned and not so sexy romp 50 Shades of Grey. Out of those films listed, only Inside Out and Kingsman could make a valiant case for being a good films, the rest of the bunch teeter from appalling, San Andreas and 50 Shades, to run of the mill.
It’s safe to say 2015 hasn’t been a vintage year for the box office, but how does it stack up to Hoffman’s heyday in 1967? The first thing that jumps out of 1967’s highest grossing list is the inclusion of three Oscar nominees; The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. Dustin Hoffman was the breakout star of 1967, but Sidney Poitier was unquestionably its star. He starred in two Oscar nominated films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night, along with To Sir, With Love which was both critically and commercially praised. In addition to these three impressive entries is The Jungle Book, one of the most famous animated films ever, Bonnie and Clyde, a seminal release that ushered in New Hollywood, and The Dirty Dozen, a highly regarded war film. Of course we can’t forget Bond. You Only Live Twice wasn’t Connery’s finest hour in the black tuxedo but it was still a decent outing in the burgeoning franchise.
Pitting 1967’s big earners against 2015’s is a no contest. Oscar nominees, cinematic landmarks and iconic star power litter the former’s list, making the latter’s offerings look truly lacklustre. Put it this way, in 50 years time I can’t see many people fondly remembering Minions and San Andreas. In fact this year’s list looks truly awful. However, when you look at the Oscar nominees for either year the differences are less clear cut.
For the sake of a fair fight add Cool Hand Luke, Le Samouraï and Far from the Madding Crowd to 1967s depleted list in order to bring it up to 2014’s eight nominees. With those three additions 1967 looks even more formidable than before, only Dr Doolittle seems out of place. We can’t write off 2014 though with the likes of The Grand Budapest, Boyhood and Birdman amongst its ranks. Those three are certainly the standout films of the past year. Each one has that special something that makes them truly unique and innovative. Bizarrely both Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler, two superb films, were omitted from last year’s Oscars. The duo could easily have claimed the gong themselves had they had a bigger marketing campaigns. On the whole though, 1967 films, in top earners and award nominees, are far superior to the last year’s efforts.
That’s not to say that Hoffman is unquestionably right when he says film has reached it’s ‘worst’ ever point. As I outlined, there’s been some excellent films in the last year worthy of going down in cinema history. Where Hoffman’s criticism stands up strongest is when you look at the big commercial productions – the Blockbuster franchises and money driven reboots. Quality films are still being produced, but people aren’t flocking to the cinema to see them anymore. Gone with The Wind, once adjusted for inflation, is the highest grossing film ever. When it was released in 1939 it heralded the Golden Age of cinema. The masses flocked to the cinema in search of romance, drama and, most importantly of all, escapism. Quality drama and critically lauded films becomes staple parts of people’s lives. It wasn’t until the 1950s that cinema took its first big hit brought on by the birth of mass produced television.
Looking at the 1950s highest grossing films it isn’t a million miles away from 2015’s list. Nearly half the top ten are animated features, such as Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan, while the rest are big budget epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. In response to televisions growing ubiquity and popularity cinema turned to tricks it knew its rival couldn’t replicate. As Hoffman mentioned, television has never been stronger than now in regards to programming. Series like Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Top of the Lake and True Detective are just a few examples of the superb dramas available from the comfort of your armchair. Cinema has responded in the same way as in the 50s by putting most of its effort and money into explosive action films and universally appealing animation.
The 1960s and 70s, Hoffman’s heyday, saw a resurgence of stellar filmmaking brought on by the influence of European cinema and the abolition of the restrictive Production Code. Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The Godfather, One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Midnight Cowboy were just a few of the classics that grew out the period. Yet bar this anomalous period, the box office has largely been dominated by the much maligned Blockbuster style production.
By the late 70s Jaws and Star Wars were dominating not just cinema, but all of popular culture. Spielberg and Lucas ushered in the Blockbuster era. As with most cinematic fads, it started out fantastically well with original ideas that brought invention and guile to the masses, but what we have now is a pale imitation. Blockbusters today are tedious, predictable and safe. In that sense Hoffman is bang on the money. The sad thing is that Blockbuster doesn’t have to designate an underwhelming special effects laden spectacle. It’s only in the last ten years that mainstream cinema has really stagnated woefully. Instead of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park we’ve got Transformers and Avatar.
When it comes to commercial, mainstream cinema Dustin Hoffman is right when he said that the industry is at its worst. Furious 7 at the top of this year’s cash pile attests to that. But looking at last year’s Oscar nominees and some of this year’s excellent releases since there’s still reason to have hope. Breath-taking, emotionally charged and distinctive films are still out there, you’ve just got to dig a little deeper to find them. Televisions getting all the credit at the moment, but think how much diabolical crap fills our screens in-between the rare bouts of quality drama.
Hoffman’s words have a heavy slice of nostalgia hanging over them. There’s a desire to harken back to the good old days with his damnation of the now. Perhaps it was a better time for film back then, however this decade’s contribution to the Arts can only truly be judged in the future. Time’s tide has a clever way of smothering the bad and only leaving the good. Something tells me that when we look back on 2015’s films, we’ll applaud it for giving us Birdman, Grand Budapest, Nightcrawler, It Follows and so forth, just as we’ll remember Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate and not Ishtar…