“You Have To Give A Sense Of What People Wanted”

Martin Scorsese has drawn on his own youth and his feelings about the past—and has rebuilt 1860s New York—to make a movie about the fight for American democracy. Here he tells why it is both so hard and so necessary to get history on film.

I spoke with Martin Scorsese in early September about his forthcoming movie Gangs of New York. The setting was the Park Avenue offices of his Cappa production company, where he was still hard at work, editing and finishing his film. The offices were spacious and well appointed, with shelves full of bound volumes of movie magazines and framed movie posters hanging on almost every wall.Read more »

Ms. America

WHY JANE FONDA IS A MIRROR OF THE NATION’S PAST FORTY YEARS

On the cusp of turning 60 in 1997, Jane Fonda decided to compile a video of highlights in her notably eventful life to present to guests at her forthcoming birthday party. In search of a guiding concept, she turned to her daughter Vanessa and asked for her input. She wasn’t prepared, however, for her daughter’s reply. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?’,” Fonda recounts. “Ouch. And so I thought to myself, Is that true.

 
Read more »

Show Business

A critic looks at 10 movies that show how Americans work together.

If the business of business is business, then it’s the business of Hollywood to be skeptical. At least about business. Virtually from the beginning, the movies have seen American business as an object of farce or satire at best or some vaguely defined evil at worst. From more than eight decades of filmmaking, one is hard put to name a handful of films that portray businessmen in a heroic or even nonpredatory way. One might suspect Hollywood of an antibusiness bias if not for the fact that the film industry’s view of labor is even darker.

 
Read more »

The Kid

JACKIE COOGAN REACHED THE PINNACLE OF SUCCESS AND STARDOM WHEN HE WAS FIVE. THEN HE SET THE HOLLYWOOD PATTERN OF PAYING THE PRICE FOR EARLY FAME.

 

Once he had been the most famous child in the world, praised by the Pope, celebrated by the League of Nations, loved by millions—even by the Sultan of Swat. “Other boys went to see Babe Ruth,” Jackie Coogan said. “But Babe Ruth came to see me.” This might have seemed preposterous, coming as it did from a bald, heavy, 58-year-old man with a weather-beaten face, bulbous nose, and droopy mustache. But it was the simple truth.

 
Read more »

“The Supreme Laboratory Of The American Experiment”

One of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers takes on America’s greatest city: Ric Burns discusses his new PBS series, New York

Read more »

War In The Dark

Why World War II is so difficult to get right on the screen—and the movies that do it best

Well before the film’s debut we could hear the drumbeat of publicity. Steven Spielberg, America’s favorite moviemaker, was going to give us a film about World War II. The title, Saving Private Ryan , gave away nothing. Unlike Schindler’s List , which translated Thomas Keneally’s best-selling book on the Holocaust to the screen, Saving Private Ryan would build its plot around an obscure incident from the invasion of Normandy.

 
Read more »

Christmas Without George Bailey

Twelve classic holiday movies worth seeing when you can’t sit through It’s a Wonderful Life one more time

Every American knows what Christmas means. It means Miracle on 34th Street , A Christmas Carol , and It’s a Wonderful Life . Year after year. For readers who have found themselves finally half wanting Porter Hall to lock up Edmund Gwenn, Scrooge to fire Cratchit, and James Stewart to jump, here are twelve titles just as good that have avoided such wearying ubiquity. They may even reawaken that old holiday spirit in you.

Read more »

Smoking and “Business”

Why, with cigarette smoking under attack everywhere, does everyone still light up on the movie screen?

There was a “Nightline” a while back during which Jeff Greenfield delivered a puzzled examination of smoking in the movies. The gist of it was that while smoking has declined in real life in the last thirty years, characters in movies smoke as much as they did in the hevdav of Bogart and Bette Davis. There has even been a study of this, showing the percentage of smokers among characters by age group. (But how do they tell if Christian Slater’s character is twenty-nine or thirty-one in a given movie?) Read more »

“My God, What An Act To Follow!”

LOCKED IN A STRANGE, TESTY COLLABORATION lit by the fires of a burning world, George M. Cohan and James Cagney produced a masterpiece of popular history in which everything is true except the facts

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grand jury in 1940 released testimony identifying James Cagney as among a group of “communist members, sympathizers or heavy contributors.”

The charge was not new. Cagney had experienced “professional difficulties” in 1934 when he was linked to a cotton strike in San Joaquin, but he had remained outspokenly liberal and pro-union. Now Cagney and his producer-manager brother William, about to form their own production company with James as the major asset, took the charge very seriously.Read more »

Hollywood History

The author sent dozens of historians to the movies to find out how much—and how well—films could teach us about the past

I‘d long suspected that colleagues in the profession shared my illicit interest in historical movies; their detailed contempt, like mine, betokened intimate familiarity. My recent experiences as editor of Past Imperfect , a collection of essays on Hollywood’s interpretation of history, have confirmed my suspicions. The indictment—and it is a broad one—can now be unsealed: Historians love movies about the past. Read more »