It wasn't an especially merry Christmas in Hollywood. Too many bad movies, say exhibitors, looking at the worst money-making year of the last decade. Too many bad movies, say critics, looking at the leanest batch of Academy Award contenders in years. Too many VCRs and people renting movies, say some studios, who turn around and sell their movies to the home video market within months after they fail in theaters.
Whatever and whoever the culprits, it wasn't much of a year, and it finished true to form. Look, for instance, at the movies that two months ago were thought to be the industry's great upcoming Oscar hopes: "A Chorus Line" left critics muttering about how it didn't come close to the play; "The Color Purple" got mixed reviews; "Out of Africa" was well received but without much overall enthusiasm; and "Revolution" had its screening audience howling at lines that weren't supposed to be funny.
It was a bittersweet Christmas for Universal Pictures, which started the year embroiled in a dispute with director Peter Bogdanovich over whether he could use Bruce Springsteen's music in "Mask" (Universal said he'd have to settle for the more cost-effective Bob Seger, and Bogdanovich got mad) and ended the year nearly forced to release director Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a movie the studio had deemed "unreleasable" but that nonetheless won the best picture award from L.A.'s film critics.
It was a mixed Christmas for Steven Spielberg, who started the year with all the money any human would ever need but who wanted respect, too. He produced "Back to the Future," the year's biggest hit, and that helped some even though it was another razzle-dazzle kids' fantasy. He produced "Goonies" and that didn't help, since it was a relative financial disappointment and another razzle-dazzle kids' fantasy. He produced "Young Sherlock Holmes" and that didn't help, since it turned a tale of Victorian sleuthing into another razzle-dazzle . . . well, you know. He produced "The Money Pit," which was postponed until 1986. He supervised "Amazing Stories" and TV critics and viewers were unimpressed. He directed "The Color Purple" and got some respect -- not enough, probably (the movie did quite well in limited release last weekend, but critics were squarely divided), but some.
It was, however, a merry Christmas for Sylvester Stallone, who made two films that, as they say, ran the gamut from A to B and set lots of records (the latest: "Rocky IV" is now playing in an unprecedented 2,232 theaters, breaking the record set six months ago by Stallone's "Rambo"); for Cold Warriors, who saw three year-end films adopt an "Us Versus Them" stance vis-a -vis the Russians ("Rocky IV," "White Nights" and "Spies Like Us") while a fourth, "Revolution," was similarly patriotic but cast the British as bad guys; and for Betsy Ross' descendants, since by December three movies were displaying the American flag in their ads ("Rocky," "White Nights" and "Revolution"), a motif also prominent in the earlier "Invasion U.S.A."
By the year's end, in fact, it was no wonder a movie called "Born in the U.S.A." was in the works -- though it wasn't, as some inferred, a screen treatment of Springsteen's record, since years ago Bruce himself borrowed the title from director Paul Schrader, who'd already written the script.
It's a mixed Christmas to finish an odd year. What can you say about the film industry at this juncture? You could ask songwriter-turned-screen-writer Randy Newman, who's had only peripheral involvement in movies until now (he wrote two scores and got an Oscar nomination for "Ragtime") and is currently working on a script with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels and who, in other words, is as much a movie-biz expert as, say, hopeful 20th Century-Fox owner Ted Turner.
"Why are people so interested in the film business?" Newman asks. "It's a little piddly business run by little piddlers. The press covers it like it was a big industry, and it's a nothing business. So why all the interest?"
A pause. "By the way, I'm curious: Do you know how much 'The Color Purple' cost?"