Thursday, February 25, 2016

10 Films Once Controversial Now Classic

This year, the Academy Awards is embroiled in controversy. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has been widely used on social media to shed light on the racial makeup of Academy voters. Any changes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes internally will be historic, so we asked Jeremy Geltzer, author of Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment to reflect on some controversies of years past. Some of the films Geltzer examines in his book on media censorship were quite controversial at the time they were released. (It is hard to imagine A Clockwork Orange not being enormously controversial.) However, despite controversy over surrounding themes like race and violence, two of the films explored below went on to win Best Picture Oscars.

You can catch author Jeremy Geltzer at The Book Stall in Winnetka, IL, on Saturday, March 5th at 1PM. Follow Jeremy on Twitter at @HollywoodBabel.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing comedy has been regarded by many viewers as one of the funniest films of all time with Marilyn Monroe in her finest form. But this classic was not a laughing matter to the Production Code Administration and the Catholic Legion of Decency; both monitored Hollywood movies to ensure clean, wholesome fun in the theaters. Some Like It Hot riled the regulators who branded the movie as “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency.” The censors were way off base, but as Joe E. Brown said in the film’s final line, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Psycho (1960) 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shocked audiences when it was released—American filmgoers had never before encountered a mainstream slasher film. The low budget black & white film changed the industry by demonstrating that audiences were ready for more daring and provocative pictures. But Psycho was also controversial for two less obvious reasons. The Production Code Administration nearly denied the film a Seal of Approval because of the “incestuous relationship between Norman and his mother.” In addition, the PCA advised caution in showing a toilet in the bathroom—Hitchcock’s edgy film was the first time a flushing toilet was seen in an American motion picture.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Once upon a time a dirty word was a shocking event—it was scandalous when Clark Gable didn’t give a damn in Gone with the Wind (1939) or James Stewart uttered the word “panties” in Anatomy of a Murder (1959). But potty mouth went mainstream when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton let loose in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. According to Life Magazine, the film contained eleven goddamns, seven bastards, five sons of bitches, and assorted phrases such as screw you, up yours, and hump the hostess. The PCA and Catholic Legion of Decency warned the film was morally objectionable. But the intense language made Liz and Dick’s volatile relationship that much more believable.

Do The Right Thing (1989)

Any discussion of race can get real heated real fast. That didn’t stop Spike Lee; in fact it encouraged him. Set on a swelteringly hot day in Bed Stuy Brooklyn, an Italian pizzeria owner faces off against his African American neighbors—the pictures of white celebrities on his restaurant walls is a believable trigger. Film critics and columnists were afraid the film would provoke violence—Newsweek wrote that the movie was like a stick of dynamite under every seat. Instead of riots, the film provoked discussion. Do The Right Thing remains a unique and important social commentary…but could a film like this be made in Hollywood today?
Ben-Hur (1925) 

Ben-Hur was a best seller when it hit bookshelves in 1880. When it debuted on Broadway, the play sold out every seat. MGM chose the project as its first blockbuster film and the epic delivered—with a sea battle, chariot race, and a series of close calls with Jesus Christ himself. The film lived up to expectations and helped establish MGM as a major studio. But the picture flustered Mandarin bureaucrats in China. They banned Ben-Hur saying it was “Christian propaganda decoying the people to superstition, which must not be tolerated in the present age of revolutionary enlightenment.” No word on how Paramount’s 2016 Ben-Hur reboot will play in the People’s Republic.
Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or 

Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel were the shock artists and agents provocateur of the French film scene in the late 1920s. Their aim was to arouse and offend—they wanted to spark a riot. Un Chien Andalou (1929) contained scenes of eyeball slicing and severed hand poking. Instead of outrage their film was hailed as a classic. Their next picture, a surreal comedy about sexual mores and Roman Catholic hypocrisy, did achieve the original goal. L’Age D’or (1931) provoked violence in theaters and was banned all over Europe for its shocking content. Once so controversial, these pictures are now considered influential masterpieces of art film.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin’s World War II satire was not the first Hollywood film that parodied Hitler. Larry, Moe, and Curley—the Three Stooges—beat the Little Tramp to the punch releasing You Nazty Spy! in January 1940, nine months before Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The US had not yet joined the war and many studio execs and politicians were concerned with offending Hitler. Chaplin’s fearless parody went as far as picturing a balloon globe bursting in the hands of the fascist dictator. Hitler, who had been a great Chaplin fan for years, was heartbroken to see Chaplin’s impersonation. The Great Dictator was promptly banned in Nazi Germany.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) 

With surreal stylings and eye-popping ultra violence, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was a film like no other. In the US the movie received an X rating and was condemned by Catholic censors. In Britain, where the story was set, it was even more controversial. In a trial, barristers suggested Clockwork was linked to several manslaughter cases involving violent youths. Kubrick responded by asking Warner Bros. to withdraw the picture in the UK. It remained an underground cult classic for over 20 years until 1993 when clips were played in a television documentary. Today the film is restored to its rightful place as a blisteringly powerful and controversial social commentary.

Schindler's List (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List (1993) was hailed as a heartfelt masterwork. Presenting the Holocaust in a new light, through the life of an anti-hero who saved Jews while using slave labor, the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 7 including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. But the film didn’t play so well in Indonesia. Government censors banned the film because "it contains too much violence and nudity" but also disapproved of the sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish cause. Schindler’s List remains a classic in America and Europe and persona non grata in many Muslim nations.

Rambo (2008)

This action-packed sequel to First Blood (1982) finds John Rambo retired and living in a sleepy Thai village. Called back into action, the violent vigilante heads into the mysterious and mystical land of Myanmar to rescue Christian missionaries. With high caliber firepower Rambo singlehandedly takes on the Burmese army—and proves unstoppable. The film was reasonably successful around the world—except in Burma where the military junta banned the movie in theaters and on DVD. Tribal rebel forces got ahold of bootleg copies and adopted some of the film’s dialogue as their slogan: “Live for nothing or die for something!”

More info
Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment explores the movies—both the controversial and the classics—that helped shape the law. From cinema’s humble beginnings as nickelodeon amusements, motion pictures emerged as a force that resulted in greater creative freedom for all. By looking at risqué foreign films, banned B-movies, and edgy studio releases, Dirty Words reveals how legal battles over film content helped to broaden long-held interpretations of the Constitution, expand personal freedoms, and open a new era of free speech.

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