Dustin Hoffman and Hollywood’s History of Self-Hatred

Dustin Hoffman

The Weinstein Co.

“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.”

That’s Dustin Hoffman, telling The Independent what he thinks of today’s film industry (he explains a little further, that any “small movie” – a.k.a anything that’s not a megabudget Hollywood pic – is barricaded off with increasingly smaller budgets and fewer shooting days). Hoffman’s is just one of two pointed Hollywood criticisms to become a talking point in the last week. The other would be “The WETA Effect,” a video detailing why today’s audiences are unimpressed by the CGI goodness that wowed them 20 years ago. In a nutshell, it’s because ’90s CGI was a tool integrated into a practical environment, while today’s Hollywood is so intent on crafting everything from whole CGI cloth- sets, actors, environmental effects, etc.- that it’s become a videogamey, unimpressive blur.

I’m not going to debate the merits of Dustin Hoffman or StoryBrain’s points. Loads of people have done that already, and it usually boils down to an affirming HE’S RIGHT, TODAY’S MOVIES ARE TRASH! or a list of incredible movies that came out this year that render the argument useless.

Instead, I’ll ask this: is saying “ugh, Hollywood is the worst right now” really anything new? Because today, everyone who’s anyone is lining up to say the very same thing.

“We’re living in a time where we’re making the worst movies in history.” – Billy Bob Thornton, 2010 (via 7×7).

“And, you know, the swings that Hollywood is taking are bigger and bigger… and that tends to mean that is has to be simpler and simpler. And, so, the complexity and the nuance starts to get run out of the movie – out of just fear.” — Matt Damon, 2013 (via Huffington Post).

“That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion – or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” — Steven Spielberg, 2013 (via The Hollywood Reporter).

And so on. Those quotes do kinda put the fear of film God into you. Are they right? I liked Furious 7, but is it just bloated, artless commercial product? I mean, it is sequel number seven, after all. But then I noticed something. Here’s the headline Deadline used to cover Hoffman’s teardown:

“Dustin Hoffman On Today’s Movies: They Stink!”

“They Stink!” being the operative words here, they make Dustin Hoffman sound a bit like Jay Sherman, don’t they?

Is Hoffman’s argument any different from Jay Sherman’s usual schtick? Blockbusters are growing too titanic and the smarter, sleeker little guys are being shoved aside. I can recall the same flavor of Hollywood hate back in the early ’90s, too- even if that recollection comes entirely from cartoons (I was in elementary school, sue me). Jay Sherman, who made a living castigating the film industry over wasteful, stupid sequels in 1994’s The Critic:

Or The Simpsons, which broadcast the episode “Radioactive Man” in 1995, tearing apart Hollywood for its obsession with megabudget, produced-by-committee comic book movies. Surely you’ve heard My eyes! The goggles do nothing! at least 100 times before. Although the gag at the end is the real killer- the bankrupted Radioactive Man: The Movie producers return to LA in shame, only to be rescued by an It’s A Wonderful Life– style pooling of the town’s resources. “We know you don’t have any more money left, but that doesn’t matter. Just take whatever you need from our boutiques until you can get back on your feet.” “Lean on Me” plays upliftingly in the background. Sarcasm drips from every orifice.

So did our cynicism toward the Hollywood machine take root in the mid-’90s? Or was it ten years earlier? That’s what a pair of essays from The Week and GQ posit. Back to the Future, Rocky and John Rambo taught Hollywood to chain together sequels while still pulling a hefty profit. Top Gun taught film to aim squarely at the MTV generation above all else (these days, that’d be the YouTube – or maybe Buzzfeed? – generation). Filmmakers were no longer the dominant force, ousted by an invading army of suit-wearing young execs brandishing “an MBA as the new Hollywood calling card.”

Or maybe it all began in late ’50s. Historically, that’s when Hollywood first started condensing towards fewer films with higher price tags. After the invention of television, studios sensed their own imminent doom and played any card they could to keep ticket sales high- gimmicks like 3D and Smell-o-Vision, but also giant-size films like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. By the time Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told were capsizing under record-setting budgets, I’m guessing at least a few voices were grumbling about the death of film and the unsung greatness of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

Maybe we’ve been on a continual downward slope since then, and every low point is just the newest, crappiest nadir. But somehow I doubt that. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more a Saturday Night Live thing. “Hollywood’s the worst it’s ever been” is no different from “SNL sucks now.” A cocktail of nostalgia and industry shifting that makes “right now” crappy and “25ish years ago” a rose-colored paradise.

Hoffman and “The WETA Effect” might make valid points about budgeting and CGI. Ditto for all those other naysayers, too. Just bear in mind that 50 years from now, the future’s going to be a cinematic hellhole and the 2010s are going to look relatively breezy.