What Have You Done For Us Lately?

Years ago, as a substitute teacher, I strode into an English class one weekday morning to find that the VHS-as-opiate du jour was The Great Gatsby. An avid Bruce Dern supporter, I eagerly popped it in. As the students watched, I reviewed names and birth dates on the attendance sheet. All late ’80s. I looked around. Hmm. Sixteen and 17, mostly. Well, surely, then, they hadn’t any idea who Mia Farrow is. Dern or Karen Black, either. Maybe they’d glimpsed Sam Waterston on Law and Order. But Redford? Might they not … ? Cold began to pool in my stomach. No, no, I calmed myself quickly. Their parents (or their mothers, at least) would have given them the basics, right along with the Beatles and JFK and Joe Montana. There’s a tacit law, or something. But still, I couldn’t be sure. So, at the next comprehension pit-stop (wherein the instructor pauses the tape and repeats “OK, so what’s going on?” until a smart kid answers), I halted the frame, pointed at Sundance’s blond head, and said, “Hey — do you guys know who that is?”


“This guy right here. Gatsby.”


“That’s Robert Redford. Do you guys know who Robert Redford is?”

A vague moan, possibly of semi-recognition. Or maybe someone was going into labor.

“Do you guys recognize that name? Robert Redford? Maybe your parents … ?”

No moan this time. Bleak.

Then, faintly:

“Isn’t he a director?”

“YES!” I screamed at the poor child. “Yes, he’s a director. Yes. He’s also a very famous actor. Have you guys ever heard of a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?”

Quiet again. I tried a different tack.

“How about Paul Newman? Have you ever heard of a guy named Paul Newman?”

There was significant chatter; the name seemed to register. (That, or they just wanted their asshole sub to quit being a smug prick and turn the movie back on so they could finish their homework, already.) Snobbish joy welled up in my chest and behind my eyes. Suddenly, elation twisted into dread.

“Wait,” I said. “Where do you know him from?” And, sure enough:

“Doesn’t he race cars or something?”

It isn’t the kids’ fault, you see. The problem is one of education. Sure, it starts at home, but frankly, some folks’ parents have bad taste. It begins, instead, with a simple, unlikely notion.

Take, for instance, the DVD case for The Color of Money. Now, imagine you’re 17, only mildly interested in movies. So, there’s the cover, with Tom Cruise (you know him) brandishing a pool cue beneath some old dude’s enormous, mustachioed head. Dude looks vaguely familiar, so you flip it over to investigate. “Legendary actor Paul Newman … ” it boasts, and you think, “I’ve heard that name. What was he in?” Your eyes come to rest on “(Message in a Bottle).” You recoil. All Newman-centric good feelings have drained from your being — you don’t know who he is, but you remember that your mom and sister went wild for that chick-flick, and you conclude that this Newman dude must be a raging pussy if that’s what he’s known for. Hmm. Maybe the director’s good. You check. “Brilliantly directed by Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead) … ” Re-recoil. Again, no idea who the fella is, but if he did Dead — which suffered so much derision that you’re terrified of it — then Scorsese + Pa Newman (who, you’ve just remembered, makes cookies and salad dressing and shit with his wife — that’s where you’ve seen that face) = movie you don’t want to see.

Consider: If a body needs a parenthetical reference to know who film giants are, oughtn’t we provide a more representative résumé item, not just the most recent?

Witness: The Last Castle – “Academy-Award® winner Robert Redford (Spy Game);” Finding Neverland  – “Julie Christie (Troy, Hamlet);” The 6th Day – “Robert Duvall (Gone in 60 Seconds, Deep Impact);” The  Other Sister – “Diane Keaton (Hanging Up, The First Wives’ Club); Thirteen Conversations About One Thing – “Alan Arkin (America’s Sweethearts);” The Graduate – “Mike Nichols (The Birdcage);” View from the Top – “Candice Bergen (Sweet Home Alabama, Miss Congeniality);” Playing By Heart – “(Gena Rowlands – The Mighty),” “(Sean Connery – The Rock);” and Don Juan DeMarco – “Faye Dunaway (The Thomas Crown Affair)” — even if they do mean the original. (Also maddening: Don Juan DeMarco lists The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Godfather for Marlon Brando — in that order.)

Thing is, if you’re crediting Geoffrey Rush on the back of an actioner, there’s an understandable temptation to list Pirates of the Caribbean instead of Shine or Quills. There’s also a fear of listing something the casual browser can’t identify, and for this reason, Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, et al, may have the fight of their lives for the next half-decade; just as Michael Caine might be in danger of being swallowed for a time by Batman flicks, Jane Fonda by Monster-in-Law, and Meryl Streep by The Devil Wears Prada.

It’s hard to nail an actor down to one or two “signature” roles, especially if he or she’s a shapeshifter or goes through a Murray-Sandler-esque transformation. But it’s worth the effort. Raise the bar. Make ’em think. More knowledgeable and attentive moviegoers lead to better films. Free their minds. Free their hearts.

And someone, please, free Jeff Daniels from Dumb and Dumber

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