How long are you going to give it?” was the question Alexander Payne’s father, a Greek-American restaurateur, repeatedly asked his writer/director son in the early years of his career. Like many immigrant parents, his expectations were high, and the question was often accompanied by the memorable jibe: “I didn’t send you to Stanford to be a waiter…” Ouch. As his favourite collaborator Paul Giamatti hollered when I interviewed the pair recently, “Well, you showed him!” It was only with Payne’s Oscar nomination for his second film, Election, in 1999 that the interrogation stopped.
“How long are you going to give it?” is a question many writers ask themselves frequently enough, without needing anyone else to join in. Released 20 years apart, Payne’s Sideways (credited with making us all want to drink Californian Pinot Noir), and The Holdovers, which came out in Britain last month, both feature frustrated writers played by Giamatti. In Sideways, the Santa Barbara wine tour of a womanising groom, Jack, and his put-upon friend Miles (Giamatti) is punctuated with tortuous calls by Miles to his agent, checking on the fate of his unpublished work. In The Holdovers, Professor Paul Hunham, the loathed misanthrope teacher left in charge of a boarding school’s waifs and strays over the Christmas holidays, can’t even muster the ambition to write a full book. “In college I started a monograph on Carthage. I’d like to finish it one day. A monograph is like a book, only shorter…” he explains patronisingly. As Mary, the school cook (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), hits back: “You can’t even have a whole dream, can you?”
Although Payne has a celebrated back catalogue that will long outlast award-season hype, he told me he “absolutely” empathises with his characters and still struggles with “the spectre of unfulfilled potential”. Giamatti, too, still fears that the phone will one day stop ringing, even though he hasn’t had to audition for a role since Sideways. Perhaps his first Best Actor Oscar nomination (one of The Holdovers’ deserved five, as well as seven Bafta nods) will finally dispel that.
The successful adaptation of Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest (see our review on page 49) found critical acclaim at Cannes – sadly, too late for Amis, who died in May 2023, to share in. His earlier short story “Career Move” gives an insight into Amis’s attitude to the film industry. The story depicts an alternative universe in which screenwriters are penniless and poets revered. A screenwriter submits his work to a minor magazine, hoping for helpful pointers from its alcoholic editor. Meanwhile, a poet criss-crosses the Atlantic for a regular dose of “all that LA crap” to discuss the development of a sonnet, fending off the opinions on blank verse of a succession of brainless executives named Joe, Jim and Jeff.. “First class was no big thing. In poetry, first class was something you didn’t need to think about. It wasn’t discussed… First class was just business as usual.”
What the Barbie outcry overlooks
While studios are said to “campaign” for awards, it was surreal to see Hollywood and politics converge when Hillary Clinton joined the outcry over Barbie’s perceived Oscars snub (the film’s director, Greta Gerwig, and lead, Margot Robbie, weren’t nominated in the directing and acting categories). I recently found a vintage Barbie fridge for my nieces’ Dreamhouse collection, and need to source some miniature champagne to go in it for Oscars night: in a race in which worthy films are often ignored altogether, eight nominations for Barbie is hardly a snub.
Chompin’ at the Savoy
Whatever your film favourites, one theme has united conversations this year: the delight of viewers getting off their sofas and back to the cinemas. The same applies to theatres. This week, I loved Plaza Suite, the Neil Simon Sixties comedy, which is a hot ticket in London thanks to the sparkling partnership of its stars, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick (who are married). The excitement in the art deco splendour of the Savoy Theatre was palpable, but the audience behaviour was shocking. Ushers were on constant alert to tell people to put their cameras away; at an earlier performance, Parker had to ask someone to stop filming.
Parker and Broderick are pros, not easily put off. Just as well, as between the latecomers, buzzing phones and munching of snacks (which, these days, you can have delivered to your seat in advance of your own arrival), many in the audience were acting as though they were at a circus. It’s great that we’re returning to the cinema and the theatre. Now, let’s relearn how to behave once we’re there, please.
[See also: British steel’s apocalyptic future]
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State