Hollywood: Land of the Lost Imagination

Back in 1998, Gus Van Sant, an interesting new voice in Hollywood, decided to do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal classic Psycho, a film that still gives me a raging case of the creeps no matter how many times I see it.

Naturally, the first thing I asked myself was “why???”  Then I found out that what Van Sant was doing was not just a remake, but a shot-for-shot carbon copy of the original, only with different actors and filmed in color.

Well, I avoided the thing like the bubonic plague for years, until one Saturday afternoon it came on one of my cable channels and I was home alone with nothing else to do, so I figured, what the hell, and I sat down and watched.

It was, in a word, painful.

Roger Ebert, a critic whom I generally admire, opined in his mostly negative review that Van Sant made an inferior film while using a more talented cast than the original.  I take issue with this one very strongly.  The two best actors in the cast were Julianne Moore and William H Macy, and while I would probably give them their due as equals to the great and underrated Vera Miles and the truly great character actor Martin Balsam in the original, the problem was that the film itself was working against them.

For starters, Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen, unlike Janet Leigh and John Gavin in the original, had zero chemistry together.  Whereas Leigh and Gavin were quite the sexy pair considering that to all intents and purposes the original was  a film of the Fifties.

Then there was poor Vince Vaughn.  What ever made that man think he could step into Anthony Perkins’s shoes, I shall never know, but to be fair, probably no one could have succeeded as Norman, a role that Perkins made so much his own that it plagued him for the rest of his career.

And despite the carbon-copy nature of the film, there were a couple of differences.  Moore’s character is a Lesbian in the remake, for no apparent reason, and nothing is made of it, so it seems to me a rather pointless thing to do.  And in the famous scene where Norman watches Marion undress through the hole in the wall, the remake makes it quite obvious that he is masturbating.  Now, I saw this alone in my apartment, and not in a crowded theatre, but I would bet money that that scene drew laughs.

Anyway enough of Psycho; suffice it to say that I was so disgusted that I avoided Van Sant’s films for over a decade until I was given the DVD of Milk as a birthday present.  Milk redeemed Van Sant as a director of power and vision.  What he was trying to do with Psycho I do not know; all I know is that it was a bomb.

Which brings me (at considerable length I know) to the point of this, well, diatribe.  For it seems to me that Psycho was only the beginning of a rash of remakes of films that, quite frankly, did not NEED to be remade.  Most notably, there were not one but two remakes of The Poseidon Adventure, a film that I happen to like but no one ever accused it of being great art.  And as one might have predicted, both remakes were, you should excuse the pun, disasters.

Of course, the biggest and most egregious of all these remakes also happens to be the one that not only made the most money, but garnered a ton of Academy Award nominations as well:  James Cameron’s three-and-a-half hour piece of ass ache called Titanic, a movie that took a real-life drama that had been told in riveting, documentary style in 1958 by Roy Ward Baker in A Night to Remember, and superimposing a fictional teenybopper romance over the story, turned a historical tragedy of human errors and hubris into a silly, overblown teenage date movie.

Remakes have become an epidemic in Hollywood; they have revisited Halloween and Friday the 13th like cockroaches heading for the sugar bin, and I hear they’re looking to do A Nightmare on Elm Street over again.

I sort of blocked it out of my mind until a couple of months ago when TCM’s “The Essentials” broadcast John Frankenheimer’s brilliant, paranoid political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra in one of his best performances, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury as perhaps the most evil mother ever to grace the screen (If you think of her only as Jessica Fletcher, watch out).  And as I watched this brilliant film, one of those rare birds that rewards multiple viewings, it dawned on me that they had remade this one too.  I must have blocked it out, but it was indeed remade in 2004, once again by a very good director who should have known better:  Jonathan Demme.

I can’t comment on this one, because I have never seen it, and never shall, but I do know that they updated the story from the Korean War to the Gulf War.  How they managed the paranoia without the Cold War overtones of the original I shall never know.  But I do know that not even Meryl Streep can outdo what Angela Lansbury did with the role of Mrs Iselin.

There are other remakes I could mention.  Among them a disastrous retread of Sybil, with a much-too-old Jessica Lange playing the doctor and Tammy Blanchard doing a spot-on imitation of Sally Field in the original; in fact, Blanchard’s performance is so much a copy of Field’s that she must have watched the original and studied it as if for an exam.  And IMDb has had a remake of Fahrenheit 451 listed for a couple of years, though that one keeps getting pushed back and maybe God willing it won’t get made.

I know there’s talent out there in the film industry, but it seems to show itself more in the independent films than the studio product.  Hilary Swank’s seminal work in Boys Don’t Cry could never have come from a studio, and the gay romance Latter Days is another example of how great movies can be made without spending huge fortunes.

I just wonder if Hollywood is ever going to get the message.

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