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. Here are 10 films (considering the Godfather pair as a unit) that reflect America’s ambivalence about its business sector:
The year of Bonnie and Clyde was the wrong one for a film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. The only thing young moviegoers wanted to know about business then was which one Benjamin Braddock must go into (“Plastics”). David Swift ll’s breezy satire remains largely unseen, even by TV audiences that later come to embrace its leading lady, Michele Lee. Robert Morse, singing “I Believe in You” to a mirror, set a standard for overachievers everywhere.
Nunnally Johnson’s hit film, adapted from a bestseller by Sloan Wilson III and starring Gregory Peck as an alienated businessman, has a favorable reputation it really doesn’t deserve. Though its title became a catch phrase to describe the mindset of Eisenhower-era corporate America, Peck is wooden, the message obvious, and the alienation alienating.
Or, as Al Pacino’s character might have called it, Death of a F-—n’ Salesman . In this case, the salesman who is dying, almost before our eyes, is Jack Lemmon, squirming and sweating through perhaps the best performance of his career. David Mamet’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play about real estate salesmen is overpumped and unconvincing as a realistic look at the business—but it’s intoxicatingly nasty fun as a horror show about salesmen in hell.
Michael J. Fox, looking eerily like Robert Morse in How to Succeed , goes from the mailroom to the board of directors in practically no time at all, thanks to the real secret of his (and the movie’s) success, the tangy Margaret Whitton as Fox’s aunt (by marriage), wife of the chairman of the board, whom he is sleeping with. Great work if you can get it. The material, which may have been touched up by playwright Christopher Durang (who plays a small part), is silly on the surface and witty on the inside.
Rarity of rarities, a movie about a visionary American businessman! The keyword for Francis Ford Coppola’s bio-epic on the life of Preston Tucker, an automobile designer who challenged and almost succeeded in shaking the Big Three of the auto world, is enthusiasm, from Coppola’s ebullient directorial flourishes to Jeff Bridges’s lead performance. (Joan Allen, as his wife, strikes a more somber, realistic note. If she had handled the business end, Tucker might have succeeded.)
Jack Lemmon, who seems to specialize in this kind of role, won an Oscar as a desperate and burnt-out garment salesman. Despite Lemmon’s on-the-edge performance—or perhaps because of it—the film was not a financial success. Three years later, director John G. Avildsen was to discover with his immensely successful prizefight epic Rocky that uplifting is better for business than depressing.
One of two views of American business from Billy Wilder, this one cynical, the other (One, Two, Three) more cynical. The Apartment is the one with Jack Lemmon—who else?—as a guy trying to get a foothold on the corporate ladder who lends his superior, Fred MacMurray, a key to his quarters so he can carry on there with Shirley MacLaine. The film won the Oscar for best picture in 1961, but now it seems dated and predictable (particularly the romance between the two exploited workers, Lemmon and MacLaine).
A Cold War satire centering on an American Coca-Cola executive in West Germany (James Cagney, his energy barely diminished by an unremittingly strenuous film career that spanned more than three decades, in one of his last screen appearances) seems fresher and funnier today than The Apartment does.
There are numerous versions of Arthur Miller’s self-consciously classic tragedy out there, but it took the German director Volker Schlöndorff to finally get it right by shooting the movie within the confines of a single stage. (How to escape that usual filmed-theater sense of confinement? Through the adroit use of flashbacks, which also help to build emotional power to the climax.) Dustin Huffman is Willy Loman, with John Malkovich as Biff.
Francis Ford Coppola’s great epics of the American underworld have virtually nothing to do with the lives of real-life mob leaders and everything to do with America’s fascination with unscrupulous business magnates. When Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth tells Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel!,” the line draws nostalgic sighs from both former steel executives and old Mafiosi.