By Brian Hannan
Monday, 16 June 2014
WHY HOLLYWOOD LOVES A DEATH STORY
By Brian Hannan
AT least you know the ending! The three-hanky weepie The Fault in Our Stars was a big hit in America, outgrossing Tom Cruise blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow on its opening weekend.
Getting audiences to cry is no mean feat, especially in these cynical days when cinemagoers tend to be a lot more savvy about movies manipulating their feelings.
When I tell you the characters meet at a cancer support group, you might be already reaching for the sick bucket. But fear ye not! Based on a bestseller (natch) by young adult author John Green, the movie does not go down the soppy route, using a combination of acerbic wit and unconventional characters to win over hearts, minds and credit cards.
Bearing in mind how Hollywood has played the crying game in the past, the movie makers need not have worked so hard at trying at keeping the movie fresh. Even so, this movie does employ some well-known tricks.
Love Story, the king (queen?) of the soppy stories worked because neither Ali McGraw nor Ryan O’Neal had achieved stardom. They had not acquired annoying tics, nor had we pored endlessly over their love lives.
Hence, they appeared more real. Both were real cute. Heaven-sent looks, though, do help the heaven-bound as Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort can testify in The Fault in our Stars.
It was all a far cry from socialite Bette Davis in Dark Victory in 1939, which started off the whole rollercoaster of lucrative sorrow.
Davis was not first choice - Greta Garbo chose Anna Karenina instead. But Davis provided the sharp-tongued template.
Sweet November got made twice – in 1968 with Sandy Dennis and 2001 with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves – unfortunately, it was not Reeves who died, although sometimes his acting was so stiff you could not tell.
Leo McCarey liked his 1939 Love Affair, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, so much he remade it 18 years later as An Affair To Remember with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.
Sometimes the box office bell rang so loud the audience just switched it off – Julia Roberts was riding very high when she came down to earth with a bang in Dying Young (1991).
Men are good at dying, too. Tough guy James Caan (The Godfather) got his big break in a made-for-tv movie Brian’s Song (1971) as a football player on the way out. Robert DeNiro did the baseball version in Bang The Drum Slowly (1973).
Of course, some guys can never take dying seriously. Think of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List (2008). Or the Pythons in Life of Brian – taught from an early age that if they get strung up on a crucifix to burst into song.
Even John Wayne (himself dying of cancer) got into the act in The Shootist (1976), but audiences stayed away, preferring the big man to go suddenly like he did in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Cowboys (1972). Hollywood preferred the first – giving Duke an Oscar nomination.
Like any other genre, you have to shake it around a bit, so the twist in The Doctor (1991) was having William Hurt as an icy example of the species warming up a bit when he became a patient.
In My Sister’s Keeper (2009), the protagonist realised she has been born to keep alive her afflicted sister and decided (greedily) she wanted to keep all her organs to herself, thanks very much.
Sometimes all you had to do is put two charismatic stars in a film and keep the audience guessing which one was under a dark cloud; witness Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches (1988), confusing the audience as to who was in the premature departure lounge by having Midler sing the theme tune.
The twist in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was that the candidate for the hereafter was an ordinary bureaucrat who had already had every ounce of charisma surgically removed.
But death might yet do us all a good turn. Hollywood is always one trend away from financial stability, and the success of The Fault in Our Stars might spell the end of super-heroes and lowest-common-denominator comedies.
Who knows? We might get a decent drama.