Stuck In A “Toxic” Present–What Today’s Hollywood Can Learn From Mary Pickford

There’s a movie industry-related trend that’s been growing in recent years, and it’s become…alarmingly pervasive. While its causes aren’t hard to discern, all things considered it’s still somewhat baffling.

Let’s take a look at two recent examples. Ponder, if you will, the following headline:

“James Cameron Isn’t Worried About Avatar Trolls: ‘They See The Movie Again And Shut The F–– Up’ – Exclusive.” 

Ah yes, that headline just flows, doesn’t it? I guess it got your attention, at any rate. (Or did it? F bombs are getting so passe nowadays.) Here’s a relevant portion from the article, with the language cleaned up because standards are nice on a lil’ blog like mine:

Speaking to Empire in the upcoming world-exclusive Avatar: The Way Of Water issue, Cameron hit back at the criticisms people tend to lobby at the first film. “The trolls will have it that nobody gives a s— and they can’t remember the characters’ names or one d— thing that happened in the movie,” he says. “Then they see the movie again and go, ‘Oh, okay, excuse me, let me just shut the f— up right now.’ So I’m not worried about that.”

Pardon me, I just read that F bomb and had to stifle a yawn. Anyways, let’s read on. Note what both Cameron (a famously temperamental guy to begin with) and the article writer are doggedly focusing on:

The original Avatar clocked in at 160 minutes in its theatrical version, while The Way Of Water is currently coming in at around three hours. “I don’t want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch [television] for eight hours,” he says. “I can almost write this part of the review. ‘The agonizingly long three-hour movie…’ It’s like, give me a f—— break. I’ve watched my kids sit and do five one-hour episodes in a row. Here’s the big social paradigm shift that has to happen: it’s okay to get up and go pee.” Who’s going to argue against a filmmaker with this much form in turning three-hour epics into record-breaking box office behemoths?

Well, I will–but I’m not going argue against three-hour epics (although there’s a big difference between sitting in a theater and being able to pause a TV show at home and go do the dishes or something. I mean, you leave the theater briefly, you’re still gonna miss a scene. Also, you can’t always get as comfy as you can on your couch. Anyways.). I am raising an eyebrow over the combative tone towards criticisms that haven’t even happened yet, especially since it’s aimed at people who, you know, are supposedly going to pay to see your upcoming movie. Which is the whole point of it existing, yes?

…It’s not like there’s a lot riding on this film, or anything.

Here’s the other example, pertaining to a show that I don’t particularly like (it could’ve been way more fun), but that’s not my point. Ponder again the dominant concerns of these particular show writers:

She-Hulk Writers Predicted MCU Show’s Toxic Fan Reactions 3 Years Ago.”

Did they now!

Screen Rant had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with [show writer Jessica] Gao to discuss She-Hulk: Attorney at Law season 1. She revealed that she was proud of the show’s meta jokes about toxic fandom being the overall villain of the series, because she and the writing staff were able to “troll the trolls.” She revealed that they were able to be so accurate with their criticism of trolls, even though they were writing the series three years ago, because they are “just that predictable and boring.”

Oh lawdy–there’s no better way to let someone know they’re bugging you than to declare you find them “just so predictable” (so you’ve been thinking about them!) while also admitting you started fretting over their reactions years–years–in advance.

YEARS.

“We started writing the show three years ago; that’s how long ago this all was. The fact that we were able to very accurately, every single time, predict exactly what the toxic reaction was going to be is sad but also goes to show how tired and unoriginal these guys are. Three years ago, I could tell you what you were going to say because you’re just that predictable and boring. But the little troll that lives inside of me was utterly delighted that we were able to troll the trolls.”

One wonders why they wouldn’t just focus on writing a decent, fun show rather than bending into pretzels to try and outsmart “the trolls,” as they’re described. (As far as the supposed cleverness of this troll-outsmarting, you could always check out the series yourself, but I’m guessing you won’t exactly be blown away.)

Firstly, there are the effects…

Now, it’s true that both of these articles are specifically choosing to focus on a certain antagonistic relationship between these folks and the fans they’re supposed to be serving. But they’re just two examples of a dishearteningly pervasive trend to not just “clap back” at the “toxic fandom”–to whom you owe your career–but to even brag about doing so.

There’s plenty of troublemakers online, of course, but many of these fans aren’t even “trolls,” the most over-used word on today’s Internet. Back in the day, “trolls” were widely known as Internet pranksters and proudly antagonistic types who liked to jump into conversations with mean/inappropriate comments and ruin everyone’s good time. Now people seem to associate “troll” with “literally anyone who disagrees with me.” Even when the disagreement is actually perfectly legitimate criticism, which is how much of it looks to me. (Three hours is really long, and this enjoyer of Marvel thinks She-Hulk isn’t their most glowing work.)

If I were a pessimistic type, I might even start to suspect that trying to “own” the “toxic fandom” is becoming a dark new way to drum up publicity, considering how many new releases have been jumping on that bandwagon. Why, it’s also a way to deflect from weak writing! 

“Win!!”

Now, I am but a curious observer of the modern-day movie industry, who can only compare and contrast its decisions with overall observations of human nature. But as a movie fan and especially as a lover of film history, three thoughts spring to mind:

  1. There’s such a thing as being Perpetually Online–to the point of tunnel vision. To the point where you’re not only limiting your own creativity, but making your work perpetually linked to the online squabbles of the 2020s. In other words, your work is going to be remembered for being dated, and not in the charming “oh look, that silent comedian actually stepped on a banana peel!” sort of way. 
  2. Some folks in the industry seem to be forgetting that no one’s obliged to like or even to watch every film and series that gets released. If audiences do enjoy their work, that’s an opportunity for gratitude, especially if they’ve been entrusted with a franchise with a built-in fanbase. They don’t like it? Address criticisms sincerely, or take some notes and try again. Humility and professionalism are important.
  3. Look to the past for examples of that kind of humility and professionalism–the people who paved the way for today’s movie careers. The great directors and stars of the silent era had to deal with a lot of public scrutiny too (on an easier-to-digest scale, admittedly), but if they could see the type of snarkiness and disdain for fans leaking from some corners of Hollywood today I bet they’d be shocked.

If you want a perfect example of humility and professionalism, look no further than Mary Pickford, a name that never comes up often enough. She was the first global female superstar, a consummate actress and director, and an immensely powerful person in the silent film industry–who never forgot that the public came first and foremost. She would even refer to the public as “my friends.”

Here’s a Pickford quote from 1917, merely describing how she made her screen characters come to life. You can feel the respect in her words:

Study human beings constantly you must, in order to do good film work. I find myself studying the policeman on the corner, even the street cleaners. You cannot work effectively into a picture where you are surrounded by all sorts of people unless you comprehend them. It is, after all is said and done, a case of living for your work, and making that work as human as possible.

It’s almost hard to describe how beloved Pickford was back in the day, and what an “everywoman” she was to countless people. Much of her success can be certainly attributed to her deep respect and affection for her audience, which influenced every aspect of making her films. Here’s a quote from her in 1928:

People have asked why audiences have loved me, and I can only say that it must be because I love them. I always have…I went on stage before I was five, but long before that I can remember praying to God to make people love me…Love seeks response to love. Nothing is more pathetic than half a love affair.

Now, even America’s Sweetheart wasn’t immune to negative fan reactions, especially when she tried to grow beyond the “little girl” characters she was often associated with. When she finally bobbed her famous golden curls in 1928, there was a very public outcry–even though she was now in her thirties and couldn’t reasonably be expected to play young girls forever. Following this, and especially once talkies took over with their different style of filmmaking, her career began to peter out. 

Now, was Pickford publicly bitter about this? Did she try to “clap back” at those unreasonable fans? Quite the contrary. In later interviews, after decades of observing Hollywood’s evolution and seeing her beloved silent era become a relic of the past, Pickford displayed the same love for the public she always had. In a prescient quote from an interview with Kevin Brownlow for his book The Parade’s Gone By, she recalled:

What do people go to the theater for? An emotional exercise. And no preachment. I don’t believe in taking advantage of someone who comes to the theater by teaching him a lesson. He can go to church, he can read the newspapers. But when people go to a motion picture they want to be entertained. It is not my prerogative as an actress to teach them anything. They will teach me. And that’s how it should be, because I am a servant of the public. I have never forgotten that.

Now, being subjected to barrages of online criticism is a downer, and I would never pretend that it wouldn’t take a toll on someone–especially if they already have the stressful task of working on the latest film in a very, very popular franchise. But there’s a difference between receiving criticism and openly inviting criticism in hopes of getting to “clap back.” And there’s something mindboggling about deliberately causing rifts among fans when you have such a rare opportunity to work on a beloved franchise. The scale of that kind of behavior is truly unprecedented.

The excitement of the past doesn’t have to be past.

Not everyone in Hollywood today is like that, and hopefully this is a trend that will soon start a merciful downturn. But to that end, more folks in “the industry” might find more peace and satisfaction to simply put down their phones, focus on writing good stories (The Mandalorian was sure incredible, just saying) and ask themselves occasionally, “What Would Mary Pickford Do?”

Sources for the Pickford quotes:

Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: Harry N. Adams, Incorporated, 1999.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.

22 thoughts on “Stuck In A “Toxic” Present–What Today’s Hollywood Can Learn From Mary Pickford

  1. The amount of antagonism towards fans from Hollywood is part of why I checked out of so many franchises I used to enjoy– well, that, burnout, and crummy writing. I get some people take their hate way too far, attacking creators and whatnot (never acceptable), but most people don’t and I find the defensive, mean-spirited “take that” attitude towards people who dare dislike anything corporate Hollywood churns out so exhausting and annoying. I’m reminded of the part of the James Curtis biography of Buster Keaton where it’s said that Buster never fretted too much about critics who didn’t get him or his style, he just did his own thing. I wish more creators would do the same.

    I have to imagine Pickford had her moments of wishing the public would appreciate her efforts to branch out more, but it’s good that she never called anyone “haters” or any of the far, far worse nouns the media likes to throw out these days. I feel like public figures were generally more careful about how they presented themselves back then. Now people want to be what they term “authentic” in their presentation to the public– a term I find people often use to justify being rude or vulgar when it’s uncalled for (see James Cameron).

    • Reminds me of those bratty kids their parents describe as “spirited”!

      We seem to have reached a very weak era of popular cinema. The 2000s and much of the 2010s were a kind of franchise golden age. Lord of the Rings, Pirates, The Dark Knight, Pixar, the super ambitious Marvel universe, etc.– great stuff, sometimes even excellent stuff. LOTR was a work of art if you ask me. Now there seems to be less creativity, way fewer new ideas, and a weird see-saw of playing it safe half the time and aggressively pushing The Message the other half. Companies like Disney are now massive, and massively corporatized.

      I feel like social media is a huge part of the problem, as well as the corporate mindset in these huge companies. There’s also far too many writers who are clearly not well read. That’s a huge difference between general society today and general society in the early 20th century, I’d argue: back in the day people were much more cultured. Even vaudeville acts might do a scene from Shakespeare, or recite some poetry.

      I agree Mary probably wished her fans were more understanding at times, but she was still careful to speak highly of them and keep her image in mind. That shows both discipline and her respect for the audience–traits modern Hollywood could stand to imitate.

      • Social media causes so many problems (I much prefer blogs to those social media platforms tbh)– and having creators in tune with every exact fan response isn’t a good thing, I’m convinced of it at this point. As I said before, artists need to do their own thing and not try to “predict” fan reactions or negative comments. Then again, movies and shows these days also feel the need to “outwit” people who guess at plot twists– the old “subvert expectations even if it makes no sense plot-wise” technique. Don’t even get me started with Cinema Sins and how that negatively effected so much modern writing.

        “There’s also far too many writers who are clearly not well read. ”

        Not only not well-read– the ones in the film business don’t even care about film history. They aren’t film-literate. I’ve heard from people who have been in film school that anything older than the 80s is pretty much a no-go for these aspiring filmmakers and even within that decade, all they care about are Back to the Future and Aliens. Nothing wrong with those movies, but man does not live on blockbusters alone– or at least shouldn’t, especially if you’re studying moviemaking.

        The great filmmakers of the 20th century like Kurosawa and Kubrick were both voracious readers of fiction and nonfiction, and this undoubtedly enriched their understanding of society and the human condition. Even George Lucas, essentially the father of the modern blockbuster, is a well-read guy and very film-literate, with a particular love for silent movies, Kurosawa, and an interest in the European art house cinema of the 60s. He was inspired by B-movie serials and comic books but he combined those tropes with other things from his wide consumption of literature, film, and other arts.

        Oh God, this is turning into a “get off my lawn you dirty kids” thing… but it’s nice to talk with someone else who gets this general frustration with modern Hollywood and not receive the usual dismissive “well Plato said the kids weren’t all right either” deal.

        • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Having just taken a look at the 2022 Sight and Sound “greatest films” list, it looks like a lot of film critics today aren’t particularly film literate either. 😥

  2. What a breathtaking contrast between the crudeness and incivility we so often encounter today and the gentle respect and goodwill of a Mary Pickford….

    Marvelous article, Lea!

  3. Hey, what’s up.

    First of all, I want to apologize if there are spelling errors in this comment. I’m a girl from a South American country who still can’t speak or write English, and I use Google translate to read your blog and now leave this comment.

    A few days ago I saw a video from Every Frame a Painting talking about Buster Keaton that I thought was great, I watched several of his short films, and among the many searches I did about him I ended up coming across your page. It is very nice to see someone talk and share information about what they are passionate about, and to read very interesting things from perhaps one of the film eras that perhaps many people only see as very “primary and old-fashioned” (those kinds of ideas seem very wrong to me) compared to today’s “”sophisticated standards””. I love going to read you from time to time to learn a lot of interesting things, without demonizing the bad of the past and our present, and especially reading very well informed articles.

    And, well, I don’t know what else to say without it sounding repetitive because I’m not very good at reading and writing (because no one around me introduced that habit to me and I’m still struggling to develop it on my own). I just wanted to say that I like your blog and will continue to read it.

    Thanks. Take care.

    • Hi Rakel, thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment! You’re welcome to stop by Silent-ology anytime. It’s always been a labor of love, so it’s wonderful to get feedback from people who are enjoying it.

      I know the YouTube video you’re talking about, that channel sure did Buster a great service by making it! Its view count warms my heart.

      P.s. I would never have guessed that English isn’t your first language! 🙂

  4. Mary Pickford. The GREATEST of all silent film stars. She began in 1909 with Griffith at Biograph, so she was one of the earliest of the film “pioneers,” and her career lasted until 1933, the longest of her peers, excepting Chaplin. She was LOVED by movie goers in the silent era. Edward Wagenknecht, in his book ‘Movies In The Age Of Innocence,’ says that in her autobiography Mary wrote that she considered her stardom “a temporary and freakish phenomenon and that every year might be my last in pictures.” Besides being extraordinarily beautiful, unlike so many of her fellow movie peers, she was a realist. When her autobiography was published in 1955, EW wrote in his book review, “We who loved you were, in general, much simpler people than the sophisticates who go to the movies nowadays” and “It must be very difficult for any such person to realize what she meant to America when she really was ‘America’s Sweetheart.’” Another book reviewer wrote, “There is a radiance about her and audiences never doubted that even without the make-believe she was kind, noble, and true.”

    Is there any other actor in the history of movies about whom such can be said? Who else has or has had this appeal? Has any actor been LOVED by their audiences as Mary was loved? Was Chaplin? No, he wasn’t. The Little Tramp was loved, but not the man playing the Little Tramp. But then, curiously, while Mary has been forgotten by all of today’s movie goers, Chaplin is still remembered and revered.

    • I often wonder why Pickford is so forgotten despite being the biggest movie star of her time. Her image was very Edwardian of course, but being “of their time” hasn’t affected Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, or Elvis’ continued fascination with the public. Pickford also let her films stay out of circulation for a long time, if I remember correctly, because she was scared of being laughed at as a relic, so later generations probably didn’t get an ample chance to rediscover her. They only saw her in stills and probably wrote her off as a proto-Shirley Temple type.

      Chaplin on the other hand kept making movies into the 60s, even if his golden age was long over by the time he made his final films, and his work was kept in circulation (even if Chaplin felt the need to go all “George Lucas” on his early films, re-editing them well into the 1970s). I suppose one could argue his image and screen persona are more “timeless,” even though his style is firmly rooted in the Victorian musical hall tradition. A lot of his mature work is also quite political in nature, so that keeps him in the academic eye, surely.

      Also, most people, when they give silent film a chance at all, only bother with silent comedy, and that’s been the case since the 1930s. Just the other day, I listened to part of an interview with (a very drunk and annoying) Quentin Tarantino dismissing most silent films except for the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, as though those are the only ones of interest or the only ones able to connect with modern people.

      Their loss.

      • About Pickford, I wrote a post once speculating that her “proper” sounding name might have something to do with it, especially when it’s coupled with her image and nothing else. People seem to assume she had a prim, sugary sort of image.

      • Stars write autobiographies and Chaplin wrote his, published in 1964, 9 years after Mary’s. It’s been criticized by know-it-alls for getting its facts wrong. But I say, SO WHAT if he does. Chaplin’s book is not what a biographer, poring thru documents, would produce. This is what Chaplin, in his 70s, his career behind him, remembered and wanted to tell his readers. Fortunately, he’s a superb writer with a great story to tell.

        Chaplin writes that he made only ONE friend in all the years he lived and worked in Hollywood, and that friend was Douglas Fairbanks. Through Fairbanks, Chaplin and Pickford saw a lot of each other socially from 1917 onward, when doing WW I bond tours, and then after Pickford and Fairbanks were married in 1920. Fairbanks died in 1939, but Chaplin’s United Artists business relationship with Mary, a company founded in 1919, continued until Chaplin sold his UA interest in 1955. Theirs may be one of the longest running social/business relationships among the Titans in Hollywood history.

  5. Ah, this is a fabulous, well-reasoned essay. I was thinking about these things the other day when I heard a Hollywood actress say there were no female action stars before she came along, which is laughable. These modern filmmakers stand on the Shoulders of Giants, as they say, but they dismiss all the innovation and beauty that came before them.

    I recently saw Ticket to Paradise, which is not a great film, but you have to applaud the homage to the 1930s screwball comedies – as well as the nod to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with George Clooney floating à la William Holden, facedown, in a swimming pool.

    I loved this essay, and all the comments it’s generated. Thanks for this, and for reminding us of the grace that was Mary Pickford.

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