Whither the Crowd-Pleasers?
The list of nominated films differs so radically from any catalogue of commercial success that it's tough to avoid the conclusion that critics intentionally emphasize their differences with ordinary moviegoers.
The National Board of Review, for instance, chose The Hours as the best movie of 2002 — honoring a lyrical but profoundly depressing picture about suicide and madness, artistry and AIDS. Despite its starry cast (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris), the limited release schedule for the film demonstrates that even Disney/Miramax, its sponsoring studio, recognizes its modest box-office potential.
Meanwhile, the New York Film Critics and the Seattle Film Critics (a group in which I'm a voting member) gave their best-movie award to Far From Heaven, a 1950s period piece about a middle-class family shattered by the father's homosexual affair. The San Francisco and Boston film critics chose Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama, The Pianist, and the Los Angeles critics anointed About Schmidt, with Jack Nicholson as a lonely insurance executive struggling to cope with his retirement, his wife's sudden death and his adored daughter's upcoming marriage to a lunkheaded loser.
America's largest critical organization, the Broadcast Film Critics Association (another collection of reviewers of which I'm a member), won't announce its final selections until Friday, but has offered a list of 10 nominees of which only two (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can) qualify as mainstream hits. Rings: The Two Towers also is the only crowd-pleasing favorite in the American Film Institute's top 10 films.
Recent Development in Movie History
Of course, some of the big commercial winners from last year richly deserved to be overlooked by critics. Not even the most generous viewer could find much to praise in the mediocre Men in Black II or the execrable Scooby Doo. But some of the box-office top 10 received strong reviews when released and might have made plausible contenders for critical honors. Signs, for instance, offered unforgettable chills along with spiritual complexity, and the warmhearted and satisfying My Big Fat Greek Wedding provided enough earthy, affecting performances and emotional connection with its audience to become the top-grossing independent film of all time.
In fact, My Big Fat Greek Wedding's very success may have contributed to its failure to earn serious recognition from the critical establishment. Film reviewers, like most people, long to feel needed, and the public hardly needed us to tell them that My Big Fat Greek Wedding was great. On the other hand, without critical drumbeating and nagging, very few moviegoers would feel tempted to experiment with odd, off-beat and largely ignored movies.
Endorsing such movies not only enhances a critic's conviction that he serves some important purpose, but also strengthens his sense of superiority, suggesting that the reviewer possesses knowledge, refinement and sophistication that set him apart from ordinary moviegoers. When the Los Angeles critics select Edie Falco in the painfully obscure Sunshine State as their best supporting actress, they send a message to the general public that says “we know something you don't know,” or at least declares that “we saw something you didn't see and almost certainly never will see.”
This distinction between critical and popular favorites has become so obvious and predictable that we easily forget that it represents a relatively recent development in movie history. In the past, some of Hollywood's biggest hits —Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and even The Godfather — not only became massive commercial triumphs, but also earned nearly unanimous critical praise. More recently, however, the overwhelming financial success of a movie may often work against its critical or even Oscar acceptance. Conventional wisdom argues that the huge box-office returns for such movies as Star Wars, E.T. and 2001's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring helped to prevent these movies from winning Academy Awards for best picture.
True Public Service
With the ever-increasing emphasis on motion pictures as art rather than entertainment, the gap between critical darlings and mainstream blockbusters may seem inevitable, even healthy. But this obvious division between elite and popular tastes defies the richest traditions of Western culture. William Shakespeare not only delighted aristocrats (and eternity) with his incomparable plays, but also earned an enthusiastic following among “groundlings” — poor, uneducated Londoners who stood on the bare earth to watch Romeo and Juliet. Ludwig van Beethoven achieved such overwhelming popularity in his lifetime that 25,000 Viennese of every social class thronged to his 1827 funeral. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain not only earned recognition from cognoscenti for their literary genius, but also published a long series of triumphant best sellers and addressed huge crowds with their lecture tours. In the early days of cinema, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin not only drew ecstatic critical notices for their contributions, but also connected with hundreds of millions of eager moviegoers around the world.
This record doesn't mean that the public is always artistically correct when it embraces some populist entertainment artifact; after all, Fear Factor, Jackass and Joe Millionaire all became major television hits. Nor would anyone suggest that when reviewers promote some underappreciated, unconventional little film, they do so only out of snobbery; in fact, some of the critical pets last year (especially About Schmidt and Chicago) represent worthy and audacious cinematic efforts.
Nevertheless, the yawning chasm between the so-called critical community and the mass audience that so cheerfully ignores us hardly represents a positive development for popular culture. Those of us who evaluate motion pictures for a living should never forget that we are supposed to serve the public, not just the movie industry, and we ought to pay more attention to the values of the people who buy the tickets.
Like the creative personnel within the self-enclosed, self-referential (and self-reverential) world of Hollywood, we face a real danger in isolating ourselves from everyday reality and talking to each other rather than addressing the vibrant and diverse nation beyond the movie bubble.
Film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio talk show on the intersection of politics and pop culture. He also is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.