Twelve years ago, the western and the musical, two genres that were incredibly successful during Hollywood’s heyday, had been considered long dead with no hopes of a revival on the horizon. After all, why would either of these genres make a comeback? The western is a remnant of a sense of American cultural imperialism and pre-Howard Zinn history-writing long past, and the film musical requires such an astounding degree of suspension of disbelief that audiences who seek special effects that blur distinctions between the fabricated and the real simply aren’t willing to engage it.
But lo and behold, on December 25th, 2012 (always a day for big movies), a western (Django Unchained) and a musical (Les Miserables) will be launched into wide release on the heels of outstanding buzz (sure, Tarantino’s film is a revisionist western, but since revisionist westerns have been around for nearly fifty years, let’s just refer to them as the current standard western, shall we?).
It’s difficult to say how this particular revival of these Hollywood genres has taken place. Of course, the unexpected success of previous films of these genres that took a risk with audiences (3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, Moulin Rouge and Chicago) certainly helps create the terrain for more such films, but this doesn’t necessarily explain why updated versions of classical Hollywood genres come back into style. Arguably, there are a multitude of genres we could use today, but unfortunately have no contemporary examples of. For instance, the ’30s and ’40s-style screwball romantic comedy could save the dire mess that the contemporary non-indie rom-com is in, but it’s nowhere to be seen. But another classical genre has seemed to disappear entirely; or, if it does still exist, it’s taken on a strange, almost unrecognizable new form: the Hollywood melodrama.
The Classical Hollywood Melodrama
The classical Hollywood melodrama should be distinguished from merely calling a film “melodramatic,” a use that relegates the term to an exclusively pejorative function. The Hollywood melodrama was a genre that flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s through films like King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), hybrid genres like Michael Curtiz’s noir-melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945) and, of course, the many wonderful films of Douglas Sirk, like Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959).
The classical melodrama formula often involves the following:
- heightened emotion;
- a (typically single) adult female protagonist;
- that protagonist’s climactic act of personal sacrifice;
- and, most importantly, the exercise of giant systemic social issues, problems, and pressures that attempts to find some (often temporary) resolution to complex systemic injustices through the actions of the protagonist.
While classical Hollywood melodramas often encountered a camp reception because of the extremely heightened emotional states they depicted, these films used those heightened states of emotion in order to involve the audience deeply in the issues presented in such films, and the characters involved in those issues. Thus, while many melodramas (including Sirk’s work, though he has since been crowned the King of Classic Melodrama) weren’t seriously received in their day, they are now seen as important outlet for Hollywood to deal with fraught socio-political themes during repressive times.
The 21st Century Melodrama
The major problem with the seeming absence of the melodrama is that we now lack a conventional “Hollywood” means of engaging in relevant social issues outside of documentaries and awards-season issue-based dramas. A disproportionate amount of Hollywood’s recent social issue films aren’t interested in present-day problems (see: The Help or, better yet, don’t), and many socially relevant straightforward dramas employ a self-righteous veneer of self-conscious urgency (see: the upcoming Promised Land, which will likely be quite good on its own terms). Hollywood melodramas worked under the assumption that to cry in a movie theater is a form of engaged entertainment in the same way as laughing at a comedy or screaming during a horror film.
But the melodrama might not be gone. It just might not be where we left it.
One place where the melodrama is alive and well is in international arthouse cinema. Where Godard gave a European spin to the gangster film with Breathless, a small group of international filmmakers have taken up the mantle of the melodrama where Hollywood left off. Pedro Almodovar (despite the amazing and uncategorizable The Skin I Live In, which has hints of the genre but isn’t melodrama proper) is probably the best-known champion of the melodrama, as his films are well-known for depicting films about sacrificial mothers coping with intense social and interpersonal complications (see: All About My Mother). That, and his films are loaded with references to Hollywood melodramas (see: All About Eve).
But beyond Almodovar’s output, the melodrama seems to be evident in other international art films as well, albeit in largely disguised or muted ways. Some of the most celebrated international films thus far this 21st century – including Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I Am Love, Le Havre, last year’s Best Foreign Language film winner A Separation, and even The Lives of Others (An East German functionary crying? Really?) – employ several essential components of the genre, even if they don’t do so in the melodrama’s most recognizably traditional mode.
But can the melodrama be found anywhere in Hollywood? If Hollywood is primarily making movies for teenagers, is there any room for some socially relevant, rather than exclusively vampire-related, excess emotions?
This Fall, Hollywood has, seemingly under our noses, reinvented the male melodrama. Michael Philips of The Chicago Tribune recently celebrated the return of the mainstream film for adults, though with films like Skyfall, Lincoln, and Flight, this is a decidedly male return to maturity. But two of these films – Lincoln and Flight – seem indisputably melodramatic in the generic sense. Lincoln is a social problem film that, if John Williams’ score and the climactic amendment-passing scene is any indication, is a social problem film (yes, past-set, but allegorically relevant) about heightened emotion and personal (in this case, male) sacrifice (thanks, Thaddeus!). Flight is much more explicit as a melodrama, using Denzel Washington’s self-destructive protagonist to work through issues of dependence and addiction that ultimately (mild spoiler alert to an ending that surprised exactly nobody) results in the character making a personal sacrifice for self-betterment and the safety of others. That the film’s first act involves a harrowing and suspenseful near-plane crash is certainly a sleek way to involve an audience in a heightened emotional state.
And Skyfall, while excessive, is not a melodrama. However, Daniel Craig’s current iteration of Bond is most certainly rooted in tropes of the melodrama: we’re simply witnessing the hardening of his personality as a result of his prior melodramatic arc.
Where Almodovar and (to an extent) I Am Love embrace the classic Hollywood melodrama fully and transparently, melodrama is typically muted or hidden elsewhere, either in the restrained aesthetics of Le Havre and A Separation or the genre hybridity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Lives of Others. In contemporary Hollywood, however, melodrama seems hidden under stern, posturing layers of masculinity, as if melodrama were incompatible to male spectatorship or self-consciously “serious” filmmaking.
In obscuring the all-too-relevant legacy of the melodrama to contemporary cinema, much of present-day filmmaking assumes that past melodrama consisted of something that it largely wasn’t: bad movies.