Many people subscribe to the notion that movies were somehow better in the vaguely defined “good ol’ days” before comic book blockbusters, 3D surcharges and gourmet popcorn.
Seniors fondly recall Hollywood’s “golden age” before the advent of television in the 1950s, when going to the pictures was a dress-up affair. Middle-agers think of 1960s and ’70s cinema as an exciting era of risk-taking and foreign influence. Younger people can wax nostalgic about 1980s blockbusters or the indie breakthrough of the ’90s.
In each case, the past trumps the present. So it was a shock at the start of TIFF this month to hear the Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall, 83, going against conventional wisdom by stating that the “good ol’ days” are the here and now.
“I think movies are better than ever now,” he said at a press roundtable to promote his new movie The Judge.
“The actors are better than ever, the young actors. There’s room for everybody now. If you go worldwide, I think the actors are better than ever. The directors are better, the best of the best.”
Duvall’s words carry weight, coming from a man who has worked for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, James Gray, Jason Reitman and many others over a movie career spanning six decades and counting.
During the rest of TIFF, I put Duvall’s assertion to a few of his fellow actors and also to directors, to see if they agreed — and most did. I got a lot of interesting answers:
Bill Murray (actor, St. Vincent): “He’s right. A guy like Bob, he’s where the bugs don’t bite. He only gets great scripts given to him from people who know he’s Robert Duvall, you’d better not mess around with him. You’ve got to know that he knows more than you know and so it is great.
“To some extent, I’m way behind the curve of Bob, but it’s like that for me, too. I’ve done a lot of good movies, so there has to be a standard that comes to you … But now because of Turner Classics and satellite, people are able to see many more movies than I could as a kid. When I was a kid, there were just black-and-white movies up against The Tonight Show, late-night television interrupted by commercials.
“And now that you can see a lot more movies, there is a lot more culture and people who really want to know about movies can do so … But television is ultimately brutally boring. The most interesting things on television are movies and sports, those are the things people end up watching. That’s what I watch, anyway.”
Jane Fonda (actor, This Is Where I Leave You): “I agree that the talent pool is greater now, which means it’s more competitive for us. But I don’t know if movies are better. In general, the better writing is on television now.
“Studios make big tent-pole movies with big special effects, so it’s a pleasure to see Warner Bros. do a movie like This Is Where I Leave You. It’s not the only one like that this year, but it’s harder to get character-driven movies made, way harder, and since these are the kind of movies I like, it pains me how hard they are to get done. You have to scrounge for financing.
“A lot of the movies I made in the 1970s, including Coming Home and On Golden Pond, would never be made by a studio nowadays. I am kind of nostalgic for that reason.”
Al Pacino (actor, Manglehorn, The Humbling): “I think that’s partially true (Duvall’s assertion). Really it is. That is true. You see it. There’s always a tendency to think that things were better back then, but they weren’t. There are more actors now, there’s more material, there are more sophisticated filmmakers. My youngest children, they’re making movies now on their iPhones.”
Mike Leigh (director, Mr. Turner): “I think it’s true. Which isn’t to say that the entire archives are a complete collection of bad movies. That would be ridiculous. But I think in general, it’s extraordinary what’s being done today.”
Julianne Moore (actor, Maps to the Stars, Still Alice): “I’m thrilled to hear that Robert Duvall said that, because he should know, right? I honestly do feel like the movie business has gotten wider and broader and more diverse. And I think when people complain about Hollywood movies, they’re really talking about a section of the movie industry that does a global export that goes all over, X-Men or whatever.
“Those movies are not for me. They’re for somebody else. So I don’t have a relationship to that. But in the 30 years I’ve been doing this, I feel like I’ve had a great relationship with filmmakers and talent and scripts. And I feel it keeps proliferating. Look at the festival right now. There are so many movies I want to see, so many really, really great things that are out there.”
Channing Tatum (actor, Foxcatcher): “I don’t know how you can compare movies like that. I don’t know how you can say movies were here at some point (he indicates mid-level with his hand) and now they’re better. Every movie is different. I think it’s crazy that we even give awards at the end of the year, because we’re not all doing the same stuff. We’re not all doing the same part.”
Mark Ruffalo (actor, Foxcatcher, Infinitely Polar Bear): “What I think is interesting is there’s a hybrid between what used to be considered an independent film and what used to be considered a studio movie. There’s a move toward one another. Studio movies are feeling more like independent films and independent films are starting to look and feel more like studio movies. That has blurred, and there’s this kind of a nice hybrid now.
“So you have independent movies that are really accessible to a massive audience. And you have studio movies that are crossing over, because of the character work or they’re more culturally reflective — something like Batman or The Avengers — that are appealing to more deeper-thinking film audiences.”
Steve Carell (actor, Foxcatcher): “I agree with what Mark said. I also think that there’s a stylistic difference. I look at movies that I grew up with. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a very different movie stylistically than one that might be made today, but I can’t make a distinction between one being better or of a higher quality in any way.”