Everyone should have a conspiracy theory, it’s the sign of a healthy and active mind that one can connect the dots between several seemingly unrelated matters and detect a secret evil masterplan.

Of course, although we all should have them, only a blithering idiot would share them and purport them to be truth.

Probably not the smartest way for me to introduce my conspiracy theory, eh?

But here is my theory anyway….

I believe that there is a secret blackmail ring in Hollywood. A collection of highpowered agents are conspiring to make record amounts of money through the blackmailing of some of Hollywood’s top film directors. This, inadvertently has lead to the current dip in the quality of cinema.

OK, I don’t believe that, of course. It’s a construct I’ve created merely to frame a strange and worrying trend that I’ve noticed which has – to my mind – driven three of the greatest directors of the last three decades spectacularly over the hard shoulder of mediocrity and into the ditch of uninspired crap.

They are three directors whose early films genuinely deserved the all-too-often-used-these-days title of ‘genius’ but have found themselves neutered by one similar, seemingly incomprehensible, choice over the last decade or so.

Let’s see if you can work out the link if I list the three directors…




Aside from being geniuses, what do those three guys have in common?

Yes, they’ve all been making generally not-very-good films for the last decade, but what links the not-very-goodness of their output?

They all seem to have settled on one leading man.

The mildest, yet most comprehensive case here would be Tim Burton. Comprehensive because his almost singular involvement has spanned longer. Since first working with Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands in 1990 (good lord, where did almost 20 years GO???), Depp has been his leading man in seven of  his eleven feature films since then. I feel this is a milder case because, well, they’re actually rather well suited. Depp is a talented actor with great range and a clear understanding of Burton’s intent. The four films he was not in (Batman Returns, Mars Attacks, Big Fish and the risible Planet of The Apes remake) actually suffer for it and appear to me to be the four worst of the eleven (although I might swap out Big Fish for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and we’ve yet to see where Alice in Wonderland sits). Despite their obvious fondness for working together and generally good results, it just gets a bit moribund. It feels like whilst Depp is out there playing other new and challenging roles and opening his world up constantly, Burton is just happy to wait for him and basically lives to make gothy reimaginings (since Scissorhands, only ONE of the films he has directed has been generated from original material, all of the others have been adaptations or remakes) starring only his favourite actor. His films have ranged, generally, from OK (Big Fish, Sleepy Hollow) to excellent (Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd) to utter dirge (Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes) but even the excellent ones have felt somewhat stale because they’re just so damn BURTONESQUE. Black and white, Johnny Depp, creepy-weirdy. He is a filmmaker who, despite his immense talent, seems resistant to pushing his own boundaries. I think of Terry Gilliam as the flipside – also a filmmaker who has an easily definable ‘style’ and penchant for a certain type of material but who is fearless in experimenting with actors, genres and tone. He’s had some misfires but they have been BRAVE misfires. You couldn’t go ‘that’s uninspired crap’ you could only go ‘that didn’t work so well’. Burton, however, has become safe, obvious and stale and I do wonder how much of that rests on his dependence on Depp. With Depp on board, he will always attract good funding, presumably always have fun and always feel safe. Perhaps that is detrimental.

There can be less ‘perhaps’ about Ridley Scott whose artistic career seems to have been blindsided and derailed by the juggernaut of awfulness that is Russell Crowe.

About ten years ago, when I saw Gladiator in the cinema, I said ‘Wow! That HAS to be Ridley Scott’s worst ever film!’ and this from someone who had actually seen G.I. Jane. I thought it was a great idea for a film and I think technically the directing is fine but found Russell Crowe to be a genuinely terrible leading man. I’d liked his brooding presence in L.A. Confidential but have since realised that his performance is merely the masterful work of Curtis Hanson. Often, actors aren’t as good in roles as you think they are, it’s not them acting so much as the director knowing how to use their presence and edit it into a performance. That’s why enigmatic and brooding in L.A. Confidential can turn into wooden and empty in Gladiator and most of Crowe’s performances subsequently.  It’s a truly interesting phenomenon to observe and a great way of assessing both bad actors and great directors. In Jim Cameron’s hands, Arnold Schwarzenegger can be terrifying, erudite, complex and human. In pretty much any other director’s hands he becomes an awkward lump of gristle. That’s because Cameron is an amazing director and Schwarzenegger is a terrible actor. (it can go the other way too – without Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing and Harrison Ford, George Lucas’s jig would have been up way earlier than Episode 1).

Russell Crowe is a terrible actor and Ridley Scott has, cince Gladiator cast him as leading man in five of his nine films since 2000. This is inexcusable. Especially the mawkish ‘A Good Year’ in which the ailing director trusts the Ozzy brute to play a refined businessman learning the error of his ways. Ugh. In Provence. Bleurgh.

There is, however a chicken and egg syndrome at play.

Ridley Scott defined himself as genius early on with the triumverate of The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner. He continued with sterling, if not groundbreaking, work on Legend, Someone To Watch Over Me and Thelma and Louise but by the time Gladiator rocked up, he was already on the slide with 1492, White Squall and GI Jane were hardly worthy of mention, let alone his talents. After the disappointment of Gladiator, he went on to direct the Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal (a terrible book converted into a silly unsubtle mess) and then a string of ‘intelligent action thriller’ films more suited to his brother 80s-twat Tony Scott. These films are undeniably more suited to Crowe’s ‘talents’  but they’re sad and paltry offerings from a director capable of so much more. So the ‘WHY ARE YOU STILL USING HIM?’ factor is at play slightly differently with Scott to Burton. One gets the feeling it is endemic of a general drop in quality rather than the direct cause of it.

The final case is the most heinous. Matin Scorsese – the man who brought us Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino. A truly great and influential film-maker who has devoted the best part of his last decade to the negligible leading-man talents of Leonardo di Caprio. This I JUST DON’T GET. Of the three I’ve listed. Scorsese is clearly the greatest director. Of the three actors, di Caprio is clearly the least charismatic (I think Crowe is technically the worst actor but at least there are certain parts he slips well into, di Caprio is resolutely uninteresting at all times. I can kind of see where Scorsese is coming from, he had set a precedent very early on – of the 16 films which preceded his relationship with Leonardo di Caprio (translates literally into English as ‘Crappy Lenny’), eight featured Robert De Niro as the lead. So you could see that Scorsese might have had an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude to casting which left him struggling when De Niro got middle-aged spread and a penchant for making rubbish comedy films. But was di Caprio really the answer? (Maybe he was – but only to the question ‘Who is really shit but famous right now?’ Was it not telling that Titanic – which was a pretty shit film that for some reason most people were blind to at the time – got nominated for Oscars across the board. Except for him. The leading man. Even Billy Zane got nominated! (OK, he didn’t but how funny would tha have been, right?) Luckily for him, although the Academy Awards, BAFTAS and Critics Choice awards snubbed him, he was nominated – AND WON – the Best Actor award for his role in Titanic at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards. Good Show. Anyway…

The madness began with Scrosese’s highly anticipated Gangs of New York. It was to be the combination of his experience with portraying organised crime and a historical epic. We all knew it had taken years to make and that the Weinsteins were pumping money in. It could have been the greatest film of the decade. But he hung the biggest and bravest film of his career on a pipsqueak actor with little charm or talent who was eaten alive onscreen by a rampagingly great Daniel Day Lewis. Di Caprio just never had the chops to face him, a solid script and strong direction couldn’t even save him. Subsequently, Di Caprio has played the lead in ALL of Scorsese’s  films. He was unconvincing and uncharismatic as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He was dull and vastly outclassed by Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone in The Departed (although he was ably matched in the boring stakes by co-lead Matt Damon). The trailer for Scorsese’s latest – the thriller Shutter Island – actually looks rather good. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow looking splendidly creepy, a supporting cast performing realistically worrying looking mental patients, and then in comes di Caprio who proves that he can’t even wear a hat convincingly. A hat. He is such a poor actor, he becomes a black hole in which even clothes suddenly take on an air of implausibility due purely to their proximity. He ruined The Aviator, co-ruined The Departed, is clearly set to ruin Shutter Island and, they’ve just announced will be working with Scorsese to ruin the biopic of Theodore Roosevelt.

Hooray for rubbish!

Published in: on August 4, 2009 at 4:00 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting blog, Jon.

    I see your point about reusing actors, but one cannot underestimate the pressure that comes from studios to repeat a money-making formula, even if that formula is clearly unsuited to a given film.

    Ridley Scott frustrates me for other reasons than his choice of leading man. There is a delicacy to his three early films, informed as they were by the 60s and 70s purple patch of British and American cinema, that was utterly focus-grouped out of existence in the consumer-minded 80s. The desire to keep working and to draw in large audiences in accordance with the “blockbuster” model seems to have overpowered his artistic aims.

    Such compromises are understandable, but having jumped on the blockbuster bandwagon Scott has now paid his dues to Hollywood and has little left to prove as a commercial film-maker. He is now 70 years old and I’d love to see him step away from Hollywood and put his heart into a low budget project that he really seems to care about.

    • Rick, I basically agree with you and understand about the studio system and the pressures inherent therein… BUT…

      All three of these film-makers are VERY established. These are not guys who are fighting to either prove themselves artistically or commercially or even make a living at this point.

      It is very fair to assume that not only are all three of these men multi-multi-millionaires but that not one of them actually NEEDS the studios. Were any of them to make a film independently there is no doubt it would get picked up for release on the basis of their name alone.

      Terry Gilliam has never compromised on his vision or gotten lazy, some of his films are made with big budgets for studios, others he has to raise funding from a wide variety of sources.

      I think my blog was about the disappointment when real progressive artists become complacent and lazy. The reliance on the same leading man being just endemic of this. I can’t believe any studio is saying to Martin ‘fucking’ Scorsese ‘if you don’t cast di Caprio, you can fuck off’.

      Whilst Gilliam and Spielberg are still mixing it up, I can’t see a reason for these three to have become so dull.

      One break I will cut them is that we are living in dull times artistically. Isn’t it bizarre that the first time Scorsese wins best director it’s for his worst film – The Departed? Bleurgh.

      • Yeah, I think you have a point about the laziness issue.

        Gilliam, for all his flaws, is a pretty fearless film-maker. When he hits, he hits big, but he clearly has either the guts to be prepared to fail spectacularly or a willful lack of self-preservation. Probably both!

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