Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WHEN COMMENTS CARRY DIRE CONSEQUENCES


It has not been a good week for Stephen Sondheim or Gary Oldman. Both have gotten into hot messes for remarks they made regarding ‘the Hollywood system’. And almost as quickly, they recanted or apologized for their controversial musings. It seems that even in this day and age of 24/7 gossip and blogging, these two giants from the entertainment world still didn’t quite grasp the weight of their words, or the speed at which such contentious statements could spread online. Welcome to the age of instant info, guys. You’re only a couple of decades late in realizing the power of the Internet.

In last week’s New Yorker magazine, there was an article about Stephen Sondheim that focused a large portion of the profile on a recent Q & A he was part of at an event hosted by the Academy for Teachers. During the chat, he revealed that Disney had demanded some changes regarding the movie version they were making of his musical INTO THE WOODS (http://nyr.kr/1wycrCo). The dark satire on fairy tales apparently was too bleak for Disney executives who asked for rewrites eliminating the affair the Baker’s Wife’s has with the Prince, as well as the death of Rapunzel. I guess Disney can’t have adulterous mommies put on the big screen, nor have one of their core princesses killed off. Guess that sort of thing tangles up Rapunzel doll sales.


Some of the teachers and students present at the Q & A were not happy with Sondheim’s apparent willingness to go along with the cuts to make the movie more family friendly. They’ve got a point, considering the original show takes a hard look at the ugliness of life that happens after ‘happily ever after’. And it only got worse once that news exploded everywhere online.

Sondheim wasn’t prepared for the blowback at the event or the outrage over the news. In a matter of three days, he and his team were forced into full damage control mode to contain the controversy and not doom the pending film version’s release. That’s how quick such fire spreads in this modern age of media. The movie’s opening still may be six months away, but that is a long time for the term ‘compromise’ to stick to it and prejudice an audience against it.


It remains to be seen whether the movie version of INTO THE WOODS packs its proper punch, but the cuts that Sondheim mentioned give me great pause. Adaptations are always a tricky thing, and for every judicious change made, like eliminating the Baroness’ song “How Can Love Survive” from the film version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC to keep the story’s sympathies with Maria and the children, there are dozens made that tend to destroy the source material. I still cannot believe that the makers of the film version of A CHORUS LINE turned “Kiss Today Goodbye” into a Cassie love ballad pining for Zach when the song is supposed to be about dancers’ love for their profession. Cutting controversy out of a controversial show like INTO THE WOODS seems absurd to me, but I will refrain from final judgment until I see the finished product.

As for Gary Oldman, it’s no surprise that he too has quickly launched into damage control mode following his controversial remarks in this week’s Playboy magazine interview. He was quite outspoken as he defended bigoted words made by Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin from years past. He too has quickly released statements to try and stem the damage (http://wapo.st/Txj4qf). Why he made such remarks in the first place, knowing how such things sound, is hard to fathom. He was just asking for trouble saying Gibson got into hot water for slurring Jewish people because he works “in a town that is run by Jews.” And his sympathy for Baldwin’s anti-gay remarks just added more insult to the injury.

I do believe Oldman has  a point in observing that just about everyone uses blasphemous words or names in the heat of a moment and they may not mean it. (Right, Jonah Hill?) The problem is that Gibson and Baldwin have used idiotic idioms many times and such repetition tends to lose one's sympathy. And they didn’t exactly apologize immediately either which might have helped their bad words be forgiven more. Heck, even Oldman’s quote about “I see how insensitive they may be” in regards to his words may not quite do the trick for him. We shall see if his words ‘may be’ are as sufficient as the word ‘are’.

Interestingly though, I think one thing Oldman was trying to get at, which will likely not get talked about much now, is the issue of forgiveness. Words can carry as much weight as actions but should words such as bigoted slurs be seen as damaging to an artist’s standing in the business as say, actual crimes? It’s an interesting question when one considers how awarded and respected both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have been since their awful  acts.

I myself lauded Woody Allen as our greatest living filmmaker in this blog, and I stand by my assessment of his talent. But that doesn’t make those other matters in his life less awful to me. I love a lot of Polanski’s work too, and sympathize with him in lieu of the many horrors he’s endured in his life, but surviving the Holocaust and Charles Manson should not excuse things.  

One question that boggles even more though is why anyone in this day and age in the public eye can remain so oblivious to the fact that disheartening words and actions can have humongous consequences. Sondheim should have known the compromising changes to INTO THE WOODS would court controversy. Oldman should have known his outspoken comments would stir the pot. And Allen and Polanski should not be surprised that some in the world will never forgive them, even if a large portion of Hollywood surprisingly has.


By the way, James Franco and Seth Rogan, did you think your new film THE INTERVIEW, about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, wouldn’t stir the wrath of the Korean leader? Please tell me that you knew exactly what would happen when you ventured into the woods.

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