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I went to the Oscars once when it was still at the Shrine Auditorium. I always rooted for the writers, the bearded guys. The guys who you knew were only going to get up there once in their whole life and worked 20 years or more to get there. If you’re not in the first three or four rows it’s not quite as glamorous. I mean look, you’re at the Oscars, but you don’t recognize anybody because their backs are to you.
The two best guys were Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. There were hipper hosts, of course. But those two didn’t try to assume any kind of superiority to the films, to the movie business. They looked up to it. Hope was an evocative, iconic figure of the past. He really had lived his life in the movies. And Carson was a TV guy who looked up to movies as more important than TV. He would have people on his show like Hope and Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria and he would just treat them like royalty. Carson in his way was very humble, a Midwest guy. It was just the right perspective. He never tried to be bigger than the movies.
The thing about movies is they’re always about the present. Gone With the Wind wasn’t about the Old South, it was about Britain in the late ‘30s. Of course, M*A*S*H wasn’t about Korea, it was about Vietnam. And all the movies that were made in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, the sword-and-sandals movies, were really about civil rights. The directors and writers were all liberal, I assume. They were making the civil rights case in a non-racial way. But everyone knew what was going on. It was pretty obvious to me when I watched the movies. They were rooting for the underdog.
And La La Land is about being young, it’s about the sky’s the limit. And the best part about it is it wasn’t about Lana Turner sitting at Schwab’s Pharmacy at the counter and somebody saying they liked the look of her in a sweater. It wasn’t about the lottery of Hollywood and looks. It was about two young people who were trying to make it but also inside them had a real interest in something. He was interested in the African-American world of jazz. And she was somebody who wrote. And he got her to go back to that final audition because they liked what she had to say, not what she looked like or whether she fit the costume, but liked what she had to say, damn it. The greatness of the movie is it sold the good, internal parts of these two lives, not the happenstance, the serendipity that you always see in a Hollywood movie.
Youth and optimism and personal mission is something this country is always going to have to treasure, and maybe we think the county is getting too busy or too crowded. But people still want to believe that about America.
I love the fact that there’s more diversity now. Hidden Figures, it’s almost like 20 Feet From Stardom, all these people who all their lives have been patriotic, hard-working people, fabulous in their field, but didn’t get in the spotlight. I think that’s a major movie and might well win [best picture]. I think that was maybe the most important movie of the year in many ways, especially after the wrath that Hollywood took — appropriately — for not having enough diversity.
I just am blown away by the fact that Hollywood figured out something about itself, which is it’s not about glamor and looks, and being picked out because you’re good-looking. It’s about people who have a real, personal commitment in their life. They go out there and say, “Here’s something I care about, and I’m going to make it work. Even in a superficial world I can make it by being real.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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