The great Italian director Lina Wertmuller, receiving an award at the recent Women in Film luncheon, said something so true and profound that it ought to be on every executive wall in Hollywood, right up there with "Think" and "Thank You for Not Smoking."
"The idea of making movies is to make money," she said (I am paraphrasing from memory), "but let us make money with beautiful films and not beautiful money with ugly films."
Well, hooray, huzzah and Amen. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and you can develop a nit-picking argument about almost any film ever made as to whether it qualifies as beautiful. This is especially true when a film looks at the dark side of life and character, as Wertmuller's own films often do.
But what she meant was unambiguously clear: beautiful meaning honest and aspiring to be art and truth; ugly meaning a defilement of the human spirit and an appeal to the grossest of audience appetites. The audience had no doubt what Wertmuller meant and cheered her thunderously.
There's never much question that ugliness in the form of exploitation films sells. What you look for, and are grateful to find, is evidence that good films, devoid of cheap tricks and exploitative doses of sex, violence and hard language, can prosper in an ever more competitive marketplace.
Last year's "Amadeus," which, refueled by all those Oscars, continues to find audiences, is a token of hope even larger than itself, and so were "Gandhi," "Tess" and "Chariots of Fire" before it. So were a small but significant number of other films that must have had the patronage of the young audience to do the business they did.
It's an iron law of the present marketplace, of course, that it's young, with something like four-fifths of the steady goers not yet 30. But what is in no way an ironclad certainty is what the taste of that audience is. The hope has to be, and the evidence is, that the audience does not feed entirely on frat-house orgies and kinetic demonology.
The film whose box-office fate I'll watch with special interest over the next several weeks is the Richard Zanuck/David Brown/Lili Fini-Zanuck production of "Cocoon." When all else has been said, it is a film about old age and death. But the all else is something else, and it is, as Sheila Benson made clear in her wonderfully enthusiastic review, the damnedest and most refreshingly original concoction of comedy, romance, sci-fi/fantasy and hard reality, hope, pathos, surprise and action to come along in years.
I will be astonished if it is not a major hit, even though its principal stars--Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, Jack Gilford, Wilford Brimley, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, and Herta Ware--are all eligible for early retirement. (Perish forbid that any of them should take it.)
Quite apart from its breathtaking juxtapositions of attractive space aliens (the most earthly in their sentimental motivations as you'll ever close encounter) with the crusty and cantankerous St. Petersburg elderly, the film is remarkable in the honesty with which it confronts the hard, sad truths of aging and death.
Tom Benedek's script uses the husband and wife characters played by Jack Gilford and Herta Ware as the touchstones of this reality, the way things really are. And the effect of their rather sobering presence is to deepen the poignancy of the fantasy. To an extraordinary degree, "Cocoon" presents both the sweet dream and the unevadable fact, yet in the abiding sweetness of those characters it offers the case for the philosophical acceptance of what is.
As the critics seem to be agreeing with a rare unanimity, Ron Howard, who proved early on that he can do action and comedy in "Splash," now demonstrates that he can combine action, comedy and fully realized characters over an age range from the enchanting teen-aged Tahnee Welch to the debonair Don Ameche, whom age has only made more attractive.
I can't imagine a sequel to "Cocoon," or even a reasonably accurate facsimile. But if the film succeeds as I suspect it will, you have to pray that the messages will be taken that it's OK to be unconventional and original, that the movies are not exclusively a kid's game, and that the most beautiful money comes from beautiful films.