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Jewish World Review Aug. 20, 1999 /8 Elul, 5759

Julia Gorin

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Believing the hype --
IT LOOKS LIKE it’s up to the America beyond New York to keep the big screen’s wickedly funny new satire "Drop Dead Gorgeous" afloat. After just a week’s run, the movie all but disappeared from The City. It’s currently struggling in a single, East Village movie house known for showing smaller, non-mainstream films.

Given the propensity of bagel-noshing, decaf-cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-worshiping, art-savvy, New Yorker-reading New Yorkers to not see a movie until they’ve consulted their film guru Janet Maslin, of--that’s right--The New York Times, it’s no wonder.

But outside of New York, "Drop Dead" still has life. That’s because, unlike New Yorkers, the rest of America can think for itself.

Calling the picture a "would-be comedy" and its pageant plot nothing new, Maslin writes that it "[loads] up on stereotypes…[and] makes its audience wince through what may be a record number of miserably unfunny jokes." She offers the movie’s only non-hilarious line as an example, then ends the review after just three paragraphs. (One can almost see her rolling her eyes upon being assigned the review).

With little publicity and zero buzz, the short review sealed the film’s ill fate. Because New Yorkers, being the sheep that they are, conformed, and stayed out of theaters.

Also working against the film was the cookie-cutter high school flick "American Pie," which had none of "Drop Dead's" brilliance but all the attention. New Yorkers rushed to see it.

For all their self-fancied sophistication, urbanites are no less the victims of hype than the rest of the country, whose pop culturalism they so relish sneering at.

Take, for example, the surprise hit of the summer, "The Blair Witch Project." Here is hype in its purest form. Not just hype, but teenage-spawned hype that spread to adult audiences and consumed the all-powerful Maslin in its wake.

This mock documentary is one of those rare projects whose marketing and publicity trail the hype. Full-page ads, interviews, and TV and radio commercials have begun popping up only in recent weeks. And now, even the names of the unknown actors are highlighted by Mr. Moviephone when he reads off his roster of new film releases. After hearing it from Mr. Moviephone, I had to go see for myself what it was the kids were calling "the scariest movie ever."

KIrsten Dunst, as "Amber"
in Drop Dead Gorgeous
Without going into a review, I'll just say that I was mostly bored, but also embarrassed. What was embarrassing was the "dialogue," which consisted of the unsparing use of two four-letter words, alternating functions between noun and verb. (The young filmmakers certainly earn their generation's title here.) Seated to my right were a couple in their 70s. When I wasn't shielding myself from the aural assault, I wondered what they thought.

Recently, the film's directors made it to the cover of "Time". If taken as a tribute to the laudable achievement of turning a $35,000 investment into a profit presently exceeding $100,000,000, it's justifiable. If taken as a measure of what is considered quality work, then Heaven help us. For, more perceptive than discerning great art where it doesn't exist would be acknowledging the low which we as a society had to reach to be able to elevate the uninspired "Blair Witch" to such heights.

Succumbing to Witch Fever, Maslin gave a glowing—and thorough—review. New Yorkers followed suit, and now "Blair Witch" has multiplied exponentially throughout the rest of the country.

Taken together with the impeccable and much thought-out reviews The Times gave to the recent, highly buzzed but very disappointing movies "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Summer of Sam," it almost seems that Maslin saves her best reviews for the most hyped projects.

Possibly accounting for this seeming congruence is the fact that more than a few critics are themselves aspiring screenwriters and novelists, with a dozen unfinished manuscripts in their desk drawers. It’s entirely possible, then, that Maslin already envisions whom she might like to have direct, produce and market her works-in-progress, and is intent on not ruffling the wrong feathers. (You certainly wouldn’t want to make an enemy of Spike Lee, or mar the legacy of undisputed "genius" Stanley Kubrick)

But there weren't any exceptionally high-profile feathers listed among the credits of "Drop Dead Gorgeous." The movie, written by former Minnesota Junior Miss Lona Williams, is a parody about the lengths to which contestants, and sometimes their moms, go to clinch the title in even the most provincial of pageants. Along the way, the film takes jabs at every taboo-protected group, including anorexics, mentally disabled, gays and Asian-Americans. More than the irreverence, though, it's the brilliant—yes, brilliant—writing that makes the movie work. This script is special. Here is real, unobscured achievement.

Coming from a female screenwriter, it 's also a rare achievement. Because, for all their in-the-know attitude, what the enlightened sheep don't know is that Hollywood has a status quo of not promoting female writers. Often, if a woman doesn’t satisfy the bottomline on the first try, her project is written off as a flop and she as a non-talent. Resurrection can take a decade.

Not so with male-created flops, according to one Hollywood insider. These tend to yield endless streams of second chances. According to the insider, script promotion is a virtual boys’ club, with women’s scripts rarely taken seriously and top literary managers excluding women from their client rosters altogether. Word has it that even Barbra Streisand is having difficulty getting backed on her next project, and deals keep falling through for the makers of the 1997 smash "First Wives Club."

Now, Williams, with her risk-taking, ground-breaking should-be hit, could be similarly pigeon-holed, thanks to supposedly underdog-sensitive New Yorkers. If my guess about the screenwriter-wannabe status of many critics rings true for Maslin, then for her own sake she should consider following hype less, and quality more.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a stand-up comic and journalist residing in Manhattan. Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Julia Gorin