We Lost It at the Movies
By Martha SouthgateAugust 10, 2022
THE DAY AFTER William Hurt died, I dug out my battered script of Lanford Wilson’s 5th of July. Prior to launching his movie career, Hurt played wounded Vietnam vet Kenneth Talley in the 1978 off-Broadway production. I was a high school senior in Cleveland that year. I’ve never seen the play. The cover is a black-and-white photo of the cast, which features not only Hurt but also a very young Jeff Daniels. I own it because, in my senior-year Smith College acting-class production of 5th of July, I played Kenneth Talley, and I’ve kept it because I fell for Hurt — the man on the screen — after I saw Altered States in 1980 and have carried a tender place for him ever since. When I wistfully opened the book, to my surprise, I found a small, penciled note: “M. S. + W. H. Forever.” I was 21 when I wrote that.
Let’s get this out of the way first — Altered States is a completely insane film that’s also pretty sexist (though I didn’t recognize that part at the time). I think its absolute unhingedness has much to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who disagrees. In a crucial scene, Hurt’s character, Edward Jessup, shouts the wild monologue below at his wife and friends in a Boston bar. The tirade ends when he looks away from them all, a sweaty, mad mystic gazing up fervently at the ceiling and the heavens beyond. At that moment, I was sucked into the vortex with him:
I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody’s looking for their true selves. We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life […] Well, I think that that true self, that original self, that first self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate. And I’m going to find the fucker.
After this night out, Jessup becomes increasingly obsessed with alternate states of consciousness, using a sensory-deprivation tank and hallucinogenic drugs to the point where — wait for it — his body disappears completely, reduced to the primordial seed of the universe, only to be brought back to human form by the embrace of his loving wife Emily, played by Blair Brown.
You had to be there.
Which is kind of the point. It’s a movie. If I hadn’t been enveloped by those cheesy, yet compelling, images, swallowed up in the darkness along with those characters as they shouted their way through the strangely stilted dialogue, the overwhelming weird visions, and the nonstop flash, there’s no way that the film would have wormed its way under my skin. Watching it at home after Hurt’s death, I glimpsed how the repeated images of Hurt vulnerable and naked (spiritually and often literally), being protected by mother/wife Brown, spoke to sensitive young me at a level operating somewhere beyond language, a level unreachable when you haven’t had to leave your brightly lit living room to go sit in the unfamiliar dark, when you know you can stop the movie at any point to go to the bathroom or get a snack. The movie itself — any movie experienced in a theater — is both an isolation tank and the thing that brings you back from it, a dark retreat that can cure a kind of loneliness, the kind that my vision of William Hurt comforted in me.
I’m 61, a Black woman, a writer. Hurt was a white man successful in a business well known for abusing and neglecting people like me. I know now that he was accused of physical and sexual abuse by two women he was involved with; I don’t dismiss the seriousness of those charges, nor do I disbelieve them. But I can’t undo who I was or what his presence as an actor — as a movie star — meant to me. In the 1980s, the ways in which those stories would have been widely disseminated (or the culture in which they would be believed) didn’t exist. It’s not just that there wasn’t an internet to instantaneously spread word about everything — it was a time when the walls were eroding but they weren’t yet down; when rumors of abuse were ignored or glossed over, even when they were common knowledge in the industry; when fans didn’t have to wrestle with what was behind the façade, because they didn’t know. So, I’m gonna leave that fangirl with her pure, uninformed heart, not chastise or disavow her. I wouldn’t take her love for the movie version of William Hurt away for all the world. That face — and his movies, and the movie culture his films were a part of — helped her get through some really hard times, and for that, she … yes, I … will always be grateful.
Hurt died on March 13, 2022, a week before his 72nd birthday and two weeks to the day before the 94th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the first to be held maskless and in a large venue since the 92nd Annual Awards, held in February 2020. At the 2022 ceremony, as has been endlessly discussed, parsed, essayed, memed, etc., a different guy named Will (full name: Willard Carroll Smith Jr.), provoked by a joke about his wife’s shaved head, strode up onto the stage, hauled off, and “smacked the shit out of” Chris Rock. That blow did not only stun Rock. It emptied the isolation tank. It smacked the shit out of the Hollywood-loving girl I was — in some ways — right until that minute.
For much of my adolescence, I hoped to become a filmmaker. I read Donald Bogle’s seminal history of Blacks in cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, over and over. I took American Cinematographer and Film Comment out from the high school library. The words of Andrew Sarris and other New York film critics were my gospel. I went with my mother to see classics at the Case Western Reserve film society screenings — I’ll never forget the shock of the beginning of Harold and Maude (I won’t tell you what happens). I went to see what was then simply called Star Wars (it’ll never be Episode IV: A New Hope, as far as I’m concerned) 10 times in a month. The Turning Point, 10 times or more. The Breakfast Club, at least eight, once sitting in the theater for back-to-back screenings. The poster for Days of Heaven graced my dorm wall for my whole college career. I was heartbroken when I applied for a film fellowship at Columbia Pictures and didn’t get it.
The time of my formative passion for the movies came after the 1960s and ’70s, the period that transitioned from the liberal earnestness of Sidney Poitier’s heyday through so-called “blaxploitation” movies, but before Spike Lee’s arrival on the scene in 1986, with She’s Gotta Have It. Lee’s determination and the success of his film opened the doors for a rush of Black filmmakers and a range of Black stories to finally get greenlighted. From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, loving popular movies meant loving a lot of movies full of white people. And I did, without reserve.
A lot of the ones I love most are what you might call “regular” ones — some might say mainstream, others middlebrow. Sure, of course, hats off to the makers of masterworks — Scorsese, Coppola, and the like. But in my heart, there’s also Broadcast News. The Big Chill. Terms of Endearment. Ordinary People (though I have no problem conceding that it shouldn’t have beaten out Raging Bull for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980). The most skillful commercial films sometimes connected as intended and, other times, grabbed me in surprising ways. When I saw Fatal Attraction, I felt seen. Not long before I saw it, I went through a bad breakup with a guy I Could. Not. Get. Over. Granted, I didn’t stalk him. I didn’t boil his kid’s rabbit. But when Glenn Close sat on the floor listening to Madame Butterfly, her eyes staring into the void as she switched that lamp off and on, I shared the agony of thinking — of knowing — you are going to go crazy without this person, even though it makes no sense at all nor that the relationship is a disaster. As with Altered States, I was once again in the isolation tank, connecting with a universe that was both mine and not-mine. In the darkness, we make a compact with the screen to surrender until it’s over. Even if you walk out, the movie continues. Surrender can be beautiful. Surrendering to Glenn Close’s despair helped me connect more deeply with mine and began to heal it. That’s a beautiful thing.
I recently had a chance to surrender again to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, released in 1978. I saw it at the Paris Theater, the grand arthouse near the legendary Plaza Hotel. It was a glamorous spot when it opened in 1948. Marlene Dietrich cut the inaugural ribbon. In the years to come, the theater became known for premiering iconic foreign films such as Belle de Jour as well as arty English-language films like Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. As the years went on, faced with declining audiences and decreasing demand for a large movie theater, it closed in 2019.
But wait, there’s more! In 2020, just like in the movies, an unlikely, if self-interested, savior rode into town to renovate the theater and save it from certain destruction — Netflix. The company known for providing us with an overwhelming amount of stuff to watch at home decided that they needed a big screen venue as a prestige outlet for their Oscar hopefuls. They renovated the space and programmed thematically related classics in repertory with their original films. Days of Heaven appeared for one day only because Jane Campion cited it as an influence on The Power of the Dog.
I don’t remember whether I ever saw Days of Heaven on a screen as big as the one at the Paris. My moviegoing life overlapped with the birth of the multiplex, which began the process of screen-shrinking that has brought us to watching our phones; Days of Heaven is the antithesis of a phone-watch, from the exquisite photo montage scored to “Carnival of the Animals” that opens the film through the late Linda Manz’s final words, “Maybe she’d meet up with a character. I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.” Seeing this movie at its intended scale was staggering. The majesty that Malick and his cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler captured can’t be described in words or seen as it should be on even the biggest television screen — you’re just kind of getting the drift, a half-image of what’s happening. It’s not just a visual experience but a physical one — there were moments where I had goosebumps. The gorgeousness extends to the leading players: Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, and Brooke Adams are so radiant that it’s almost blinding. And Manz’s idiosyncratic voice and phrasing present one aural astonishment after another. The immensity of ambition and execution reminded me of why I wanted to be a filmmaker in a way I hadn’t been reminded of in years.
About a month or so later, I saw All About Eve at the United Palace, a lavish vaudeville-era venue built in 1930, in which nearly every surface is covered with ornate filigree. When you enter, you are greeted by a carpeted staircase so grand that you expect a golden-era movie star to come sweeping down, even on a rainy Saturday morning as you stand there in your jeans and T-shirt. The Loews movie chain owned the theater until 1969, but it became less and less financially viable as both the movie business and the neighborhood changed around it. Ultimately, it was purchased by the legendary Black evangelical preacher Reverend Ike as a place for his church to gather. A version of that community, the United Palace of Spiritual Arts, meets there still on Sundays.
As far as movies go, that was the end of the story for many years. But wait, there’s more! Starting in 2019, paused in 2020, and resumed in 2022, movie screenings returned, once again courtesy of an unexpected (and, in this case, noncorporate) savior — the Miranda Family Fund, a foundation created from the millions that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic success has brought to him and, from him, to the places and people he loves. One of the places he loves is the Washington Heights neighborhood where he has lived all his life, not too far from the United Palace. In collaboration with the efforts of executive producer Mike Fitelson, the fund paid for extensive renovations to the theater, including installing state-of-the-art screening equipment. And once a month, they show movies — really big ones.
All About Eve isn’t so much about visuals as it is about language — movie language — at its shiniest, most unrealistic, but oh-so-fabulous peak. Even so, seeing it the way it would have been seen in 1950, the year of its release, allowed me to closely observe the rhythms — the long shots held on the women’s faces (but not the men’s), the open necklines that create softness on the female figure even as their language is brittle, the richness of the blacks and whites. I found myself gazing closely at the scalloped neckline of Anne Baxter’s dress in one scene, more touched by the whirl of Bette Davis’s hair as she flung herself on a bed in another. I didn’t know what I was missing in the millions of times I’ve seen that movie on television. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to see the full picture.
The last movie I saw before the pandemic shutdown was The Photograph, a pleasant romance starring LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae. I still have the electronic ticket in my Apple Wallet, dated March 7, 2020. During the shutdown, I kept announcing to people, in a continual state of slight alarm and astonishment, that I’d never gone this long, this long, this long in my adult life without going to the movies. But I watched the 2021 Oscars anyway. It was a bleak affair, everyone seated and masked and muted. Chloé Zhao’s historic win for Best Director was as quiet as the sneakers she wore to walk up and receive it. I liked Nomadland okay, but I know that the film was ill-served by the way viewers, including me, saw it — at home. A filmmaker who, when stuck, asks herself, “What would Werner Herzog do?” is not making a movie that you can deeply comprehend if you stop to text your sister in the middle of it. The pandemic forced Zhao’s vision into a space much smaller than it deserved.
Even as the Oscar ceremony has slipped and slipped and slipped in ratings, in relevance, in how interesting it is to watch, in everything, I never miss it. This year, before the ceremony began, my friend Emily Nussbaum tweeted, “I get that everyone is media trained and grateful and appreciative of their opportunities and their fellow cast members but I crave CHAOS.” About three hours later I texted her, “I think you got your chaos. OMG.”
In my movie-addled mind and heart, that chaotic moment was oddly emblematic of the death of the Hollywood I grew up on and the birth of a Hollywood that is cracking open into something yet unknown. To see a movie star lose it and slap a fellow movie guy (Chris Rock isn’t exactly a star, but he’s certainly a big deal and a former Oscars host) at the public celebration of the movie industry thrown by the movie industry, felt like a slap in the face of … everything? I’m not talking about the dynamic between the two men, or the dynamic between Smith and his wife, or about the many, many conjectures about what it all meant as far as race, culture, gender, hair, the pandemic, etc. And I’m not saying that the industry doesn’t deserve a big slap, doesn’t need to change in a million ways. I’m saying that for me, as the ceremony staggered on after the slap and the very blond, blue-eyed, dear-to-me, now-dead William Hurt slid by “In Memoriam” with so many other (mostly white) faces, my heart broke a little. I’m saying that I felt my own aging and the loss of the young woman I was just a little more keenly.
Will Smith achieved his stardom in the waning days of the Hollywood in which William Hurt’s career was forged. Smith’s success also represented a significant change — for a while, the most financially successful movie star in the world was a Black man. Smith is 53. As he was coming up, movies that took place in the human realm were still widely enjoyed and were the most respected, but movies with nonhuman activities were beginning to make the most money. The kind of domestic drama Hurt often starred in was fading as a money-making proposition, but there was still room for stars if they knew what sold. Will Smith made it his business to know. In a post-slap New York Times article about his brand, I was amazed to read: “With a business partner, James Lassiter, Mr. Smith plotted out, with actuarial zeal, the commonalities among hit movies: special effects, aliens, a love story.” The ice-cold calculus worked. In the same article: “[F]rom 2002 to 2008, he [starred in] eight consecutive films [that each grossed] more than $100 million domestically.” He was big, bigger than William Hurt had ever been, in a world that embraced a different kind of film, a different kind of hero.
Smith’s most financially successful films happened in a somewhat deracinated space. They weren’t about race, they didn’t comment on race, but neither was his presence whitewashed or muted. He was definitely African American, maintaining a sprightly inner-city vibe grown on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and honed for many years after. A man who has been tightly wrapped his whole career, who has exposed his family’s private life as part of his brand, who has always been Black — but not scary Black — just snapped. The street came out, the nine-year-old who saw his father smack the shit out of his mother came out, the middle-aged man caught in a business that is changing under his feet came out. One little fight and we all got scared. My guess is, when he’s lying in bed at home in the sprawling aftermath, that he is too.
In his review of King Richard, A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that it’s a “fundamentally — and I would say marvelously — old-fashioned entertainment, a sports drama that is also an appealing, socially alert story of perseverance and the up-by-the-bootstraps pursuit of excellence.” Scott goes on to say, “In the best Hollywood tradition, ‘King Richard’ stirs up a lot of emotion while remaining buoyant and engaging.” And yet, moving forward, it’s likely they’ll be making fewer films “in the best Hollywood tradition” every year, because they (audiences, that is) don’t go to see ’em anymore. King Richard was a critical success but a box office failure, as were many of the 2021 Oscar nominees.
This process of erosion was already well underway before COVID-19 sped matters up to a previously unimaginable degree, compounded by the many months no one could go to the movies and the switch to debuting blockbusters and tentpole productions on streaming platforms. For many, the habit of moviegoing, already wavering due to inconvenience and expense, was finally broken. You’ve been at home all this time. It’s still a little scary out there. And you don’t have to wait months anymore to see it at home — it’ll be there in just a couple of weeks. Plenty to watch while you’re waiting, if you’re waiting, if you even care.
As we all know by now, nothing in this world is entirely predictable, and that includes where the movie business is headed. Maybe people will return en masse. But as I write this in May 2022 — the movies that are making big money are big brand extensions, big spectacle, and big superheroes. With the possibility that they’re not gonna keep making ’em like that anymore — big-budget films with original stories and no brand extension value — Will Smith, an actor who was the biggest Black superstar, who first stood alongside and then partially moved aside the William Hurts of the 1980’s, might not have a place anymore either.
William Hurt’s death and Will Smith’s slap keep ringing through me: a connection that’s clear to my soul, though hard to explain outside it. To me, both events mark the end of an era: an era when everyone went to the movies; an era when the movies mattered on a large scale; an era when we embraced the isolation tank, the surrender, the giving-up-control of what we’re watching for two sometimes-magical hours.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times had this to say in her post-Oscar roundup conversation: “The movie industry is changing and is no longer the citadel of white male power that it once was.” The movies I grew up on were products of that citadel, and that citadel must fall. The abuses it held are too many and too vicious. Too many were hurt. Too many voices were not heard, not permitted to even speak. But products of that version of the movie industry helped make me who I am. Occasionally, products of that institution speak to what it is to be human in a messy way that defies explanation, that transcends identity and glories in gray areas, that lives in the body where logic disappears. That disappearance happens in the dark of a theater and then in the dark of a heart.
The late Laurie Colwin wrote a short story, “Saint Anthony of the Desert,” that I have always loved. In it, a young woman begins to emerge from a painful love affair. After weeks of crying in her apartment and rarely seeing daylight, she finally goes outside, and a local cat — one that belongs to her whole neighborhood — stops and licks her cheek. She bursts into tears. Colwin writes, “My tears over that cat were simply tears of envy over what would never be mine to give again: that witless, spontaneous affection; that hungry, purposeless, availability; that innocence.” Part of growing old is having to give up and give over, to concede to time’s endless march, even as (ideally) wisdom is gained. Change is inevitable and sometimes for the better. But oh, the availability of that girl who sat through movies five, eight, 10 times in a row. I miss the exhilaration of moviegoing being a large, shared cultural enterprise, the thing you talked about at dinner parties, the isolation tank everybody floated around in. I miss the movie-mad young woman who was witlessly gonna love W. H. Forever. And I miss the dream that that love represented. I miss who I was — who we all might be — at The Movies.
In the 1990s, Martha Southgate wrote extensively about the film industry for the New York Daily News and Premiere magazine. She is the author of four novels, most recently The Taste of Salt.
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