Sunday was the first time in eight years that I didn’t have to cover the Golden Globes live, either backstage or from my desk. It was a relief to be able to watch the show leisurely, without having to tally in my mind how many people thanked God and HBO, or how many reporters were asking insensitive and irrelevant questions about the death of John Travolta’s son (thankfully, none of them). Plus, even though it’s still a mystery why anyone takes seriously an award given out by a handful of ragtag reporters of dubious credentials, I generally agreed with the selections this year. (Quibbles: Would have been nice to see some love for Milk, and while any victory for True Blood is a headscratcher, Anna Paquin really is the best thing on that show.) Still, what really piqued my interest was the presentation of the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement to Steven Spielberg, since the recipient of the award has outstripped its namesake by every conceivable measure.
Spielberg’s anecdote about being inspired to become a filmmaker by the train crash in DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth was a generous nod to history, but let’s face it, most well-informed film critics will tell you that Greatest Show is the weakest movie ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. It’s a silly circus soap opera, with Betty Hutton trying to outmug everyone and Jimmy Stewart giving what is thankfully the most unrecognizable performance of his career (he’s never shown without his whiteface makeup on) as a Clown With a Dark Secret. The train wreck is certainly the best thing in the movie, although, spectacular as it is, it looks rinky-dink today, thanks to Spielberg and his colleagues having raised the bar on special effects.
DeMille deserves credit as a Hollywood pioneer, for creating some of the visual language of movies with his early epics, and for remaining a top Hollywood player for 40 years. But he was also a red-baiting tyrant, quick to denounce other filmmakers during the blacklist era (particularly foreign-born ones). And how many of his movies are still remembered today? Pretty much just Greatest Show and a few biblical epics, which maintain a reputation for piety and accuracy that they do not deserve. I’m not sure how any adult can watch Samson and Delilah or the 1956 Ten Commandments with a straight face. Both are campy pageants of kink — rape fantasies, heaving bosoms, lascivious dancing, bondage fetishism — parades of vice pretending to be virtue. At least in The Ten Commandments, the actors playing the villains (Anne Baxter, Yul Brynner, Vincent Price, and Edward G. Robinson) seem to be in on the joke (I’m pretty sure Baxter’s line, “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” isn’t in the Bible, but then, neither is her character), while the heroes (stentorian Charlton Heston, somber John Carradine, swashbuckling John Derek) do not. For a thorough takedown of DeMille’s politics and art, I’d recommend reading screenwriter Philip Dunne‘s memoir Take Two, but suffice it to say that, decades from now, it’s a safe bet that Spielberg will have made more memorable movies than DeMille, influenced more young filmmakers, wielded greater power, and wielded it more benignly than DeMille.