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AFI's Top 100 List: The Ultimate Pitch

Commentary: The inevitably flawed compendium seems more focused on marketing the concept.

June 17, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

After months of carefully calibrated hoopla, the AFI 100 were liberated before a nationwide TV audience Tuesday night, bringing to mind Oscar Wilde's famous regret at having put his genius into his life, not his work.

As the real Hollywood art form is famously the deal rather than the movie, so the genius of the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time compendium is almost exclusively in the packaging and marketing, not the contents. And that turns out to be both wasteful and a shame.

Of course, Wilde did put some genius into his work, and the AFI list (see F7) is not without strengths, including a Top 10 that is by and large solid and respectable: "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca," "The Godfather," "Gone With the Wind" [see interview with star Olivia De Havilland below], "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Graduate," "On the Waterfront," "Schindler's List," "Singin' in the Rain."

It's fitting that 1939, often thought of as the pinnacle of American filmmaking, has five films in the top 100, adding "Stagecoach," "Wuthering Heights" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" to "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." Katharine Hepburn is the most represented actress, with four films, while the durable Ward Bond, of all people, tops everyone with seven appearances.

And given that today's youthful audience regards films made before 1980 as coming from the dawn of recorded time, the AFI list will without doubt be valuable in bringing appreciative new audiences to pictures 30, 40, 50 years old and more that still reward viewing today.

Which is why the omissions on the AFI list, and they are numerous, are frankly a scandal. This is not the to-be-expected critical quibbling about this or that obscure favorite not getting its place in the sun, the kind of thing AFI Chairman Tom Pollock was thinking of when he grandly acknowledged early in the process that people "will invariably disagree with some choices." This, to put it in another context, is like making a list of 100 best American novels and forgetting about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Completely absent from the list are any works by three of the greatest of Hollywood's comedy directors, men whose films were and continue to be enormously popular and influential around the world. Where is the brilliant silent clown Buster Keaton, easily the equal of Charlie Chaplin? Where is Ernst Lubitsch, whose films ("Ninotchka," "Trouble in Paradise," "Little Shop Around the Corner" and "To Be or Not to Be" among them) remain models of romantic sophistication? And where is Preston Sturges, whose rapid-fire comedies like "The Lady Eve" and "Sullivan's Travels" set the standard for verbal humor? Not on the AFI list, that's where.

Wait, there's more. Not to be found on the AFI list are any of the transporting dance films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, not to mention the dazzling choreography of Busby Berkeley. Not to be found are any of the films of Greta Garbo, arguably the greatest film actress of all time, not even her heartbreaking "Camille." Not to be found is "Gunga Din," without whose example everything from "Star Wars" to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" might not have happened. No wonder Jean Firstenberg, the AFI's director, seemed to be backing away from the list in a recent interview, calling it only "a suggested exercise."

The paradox of the AFI 100 is that these omissions are so critical because the institute, understandably desperate for money after funding cutbacks in Washington, did such a phenomenal job of selling the concept. Each of the sponsors for Tuesday night's three-hour star-filled CBS special, which included Cadillac, the U.S. Postal Service, Target Stores and Blockbuster Video, paid a reported $2.3 million for their share, and Newsweek, also a sponsor, comes out today with a special issue of the magazine tied to the list.

More than that, the TNT network will be presenting a 10-part series of one-hour specials focusing on the AFI 100 starting June 23. And, in what is being described as an unprecedented display of cooperation, 13 studios and film companies have collaborated on a joint video release of the 100 films, an event Video Store magazine called "the closest thing to a generic ad campaign the rental industry has ever seen."

The results of this are not hard to see: Any film or filmmaker that didn't squeeze into the top 100 will be, in effect, consigned to the equivalent of the ninth circle of hell. While Keaton may not be measurably harmed by his exclusion from the canon, the same can't be said for giants like Lubitsch and Sturges, and that is close to criminal. If the AFI truly took seriously its mission to "focus attention on the need to preserve America's film heritage," it would have taken steps to ensure that that didn't happen.

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