Feature Stories

Movies and morality: Conversation with…Scott Feinberg

The legendary actor Mickey Rooney (right) is among the hundreds of film stars interviewed over the years by "Oscarologist" Scott Feinberg.

WOODBRIDGE – Later this month, the Center for Jewish Life and Learning of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven will offer a unique film series, “Movies and Morality.” The post-screening discussions will feature guest speakers from the community and someone involved in the making of each movie, facilitated by film historian Scott Feinberg. The 25-year-old lifelong Woodbridge resident (except for his four years at Brandeis University), who is sought out every Oscar season for his predictions, has been described by the New Haven Register as “a one-man encyclopedia of top-shelf cinema” and as “an awards oracle” by Vanity Fair. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and maintains the blog, www.scottfeinberg.com.
Feinberg spoke with the Ledger about the role of film in addressing difficult moral questions.

Q: How did you get into film?

A: I grew up in Woodbridge and my family belonged to Congregation B’nai Jacob, where I went to Hebrew school and had my bar mitzvah. I was also a student at MAKOM Hebrew High School. Along the way, I’ve had many relationships that contributed to my interest in the subject of morality in film – my parents, rabbis, teachers, and professors. It’s a topic at the center of many, if not most, movies in one form or another, and is something I’ve always thought about and grappled with.
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” had a question on the greatest film of all time, as ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI), and I hadn’t seen any of the four choices. I was into trivia and thought that I should see them. Sure enough, anybody who watches “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” and “Gone with the Wind” in one long weekend will get hooked, and that is what happened with me. I then worked through the AFI’s  list of the 100 greatest films, which took me a year, and moved on to the AFI’s 400 top films.
When I started on the project, my dad’s mother was still alive. She was born in 1915, the year the first successful feature film, “Birth of a Nation,” came out, which is the oldest of the AFI’s 100 greatest films. My grandmother inspired me to reach out to these surviving movie stars to interview them for what turned out to be a book I’ve been working on, in order to excite other young people about film history, old and new.
When I was 15, the New Haven Register ran an article about this kid who was borrowing all the old movies from the Woodbridge Town Library. WTNH in New Haven asked me to come on during Oscar season and offer my predictions, because I’d been studying Oscar-winners to learn about old movies. I did pretty well, and have been going back every year ever since.
When I arrived at Brandeis, there was a student film festival that was dying. I spoke with the organizers and asked them to allocate part of their budget to bring in some of the people I’d been interviewing, and moderate a discussion, and allow them to teach. During my four years there, I was able to bring in Oscar nominees and winners like Celeste Holm, Patricia Neal, Roy Scheider, and Margaret O’Brien for Q&A discussions. After I graduated and was writing for the Los Angeles Times, I continued doing the same kind of program at Brandeis for a year, in collaboration with the Times.

Q: How has American film addressed or reflected morality over time?

A: Hollywood has been instrumental in bringing about many of the cultural and social advances over the last century since the industry began. “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” from 1932, called attention to the fact that, in America, prisoners were being treated awfully. Prison reforms resulted. In the 1960s especially, people like director-producer Stanley Kramer made socially conscious movies including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night,” which forced Americans to face racial issues. Civil-rights reform had already begun but, if you ask most people, those were key moments in their own lives that allowed them to confront issues of race and equality. “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” addressed questions about homophobia. Very soon after Hollywood casts light on a subject, you tend to see that change happens. Within five years of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk,” “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed, and society is much more tolerant of gays and lesbians.
There was a moral vacuum in Hollywood from 1934 to 1939, when the word “Jew” wasn’t even mentioned in film, even at a time when five of the six great studios were run by Jews. 20th Century Fox, run by a non-Jew, was the first to take on a Jewish subject in “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in 1947, which was the first post-World War II movie to do so.  After World War II, Hollywood started to get it. People who had been at war and come back couldn’t go to a carefree MGM musical; those at home couldn’t look at things the same way.
Before becoming president, General Dwight Eisenhower was at the liberation of some of the concentration camps, and he realized that this is the moral outrage of our time. He requested that newsreel cameras be brought in to document the camps before things were cleaned up, so that people couldn’t say it never happened. In these films, Dwight Eisenhower is walking around saying to the Germans, “You make me ashamed that my name is Eisenhower.” He asked Roosevelt and the people back home to make sure that the footage was shown in theaters. One year before, the Oscar winner for best picture was “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby.
In 1945 and 1946, 90 million Americans a week were going to the movies. In May 1945, they were shown eight minutes of footage on the impact of the Holocaust, where a narrator is telling them, “Don’t look away, you must see this; this is what man can do to fellow man and must never be allowed to do it again.” You could never be the same after seeing that. It provoked a lot of moral questions that reverberated for years in the movies, compared to the lighter films of the pre-war period. “The Lost Weekend,” about an alcoholic writer, won the 1944 Best Picture Oscar. “The Best Years of Our Lives,” about three servicemen after the war, won for 1946 Best Picture. “Gentlemen’s Agreement” won in 1947, and “All the King’s Men,” about a corrupt politician, won in 1949.
While people may say they don’t have time or interest to read a newspaper, they are willing to digest the message in movies. In just two hours, you can learn a lot and become aware of problems you should have been aware of and maybe do something about them.

Q: What are some good examples of socially conscious films for adults, teens, and children?

A: For adults, I choose “Casablanca.” Would you have had the courage to do what Rick does, to give up your own second chance at love for a cause greater than yourself – resistance to Nazis in World War II? When it came out in 1942, the fate of the war was far from decided, so when Rick was making that sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things it was small, but it was being watched back home by millions who had sacrificed their own spouses to the war. Families were broken apart and it was very unclear whether the Nazis would be beaten, so it’s an emotional movie even if you don’t think about that aspect. The moral question is, how much are you willing to give up to do the right thing?
For teens, “The Social Network,” because the guys who created Facebook were in their late teens, early 20s. On the one hand, you have to really admire the way a couple of guys changed the way we all live. The question is, what are you willing to do to achieve what you set out to do? What are you willing to give up in the process? It’s alleged that Mark Zuckerberg really screwed over a lot of people along the way. It seemed that he gave up his best friend, potentially took advantage or stole the idea from others. There should have been some moral considerations, and that’s what makes it so interesting: we see the process from everyone’s perspective, and there’s no clear answer as to whether Zuckerberg was wrong.
For kids moving into young adolescence, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There’s no greater movie hero – and the American Film Institute certified this – than Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), who does the right thing, even if it’s very hard to do. Would you do the right thing and help someone else, even if it means potentially hurting yourself? Here’s a white lawyer with his own kids to worry about and who doesn’t need to help anyone. But the right thing is to defend this black man in the deep South, at a time when it wasn’t a popular thing to do. There’s one moment I always remember, which shows you the power of movies to unite people in rooting for somebody to do the right thing against the odds. The courtroom balcony is filled with members of the Black community, and Finch’s children are sitting with a reverend and his family. The reverend says to Finch’s daughter, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing,” and the entire balcony stands up quietly and takes off their hats. One moment of a movie shows you so much.

Q: Why is it important to get younger people interested in older films?

A: In my own experience of stumbling upon the old movies and falling in deeply, I have found that it has enriched my life in so many ways. On a surface level, it’s a great way to learn about history and the world in a way that doesn’t feel like dry academic learning. Historic events come to life and seem as dramatic and relevant as I imagine they did when they happened.  It’s a time capsule of what the world was like when it was made. There’s no better way to see how people talked and acted and dressed and saw the world than that.
It gives you a lot of perspective: time is not what it always seems to be. One of the most powerful lessons is an appreciation of how short life and time are. In my interviews, I’m talking to people who can remember and were a special part of movies almost a century ago. You realize that what seems on the surface to be so old is really not. The movies are quite new, even though they’re the prevalent art form of our time. I’ve been doing interviews since 2003 and many of my subjects have died since then. On the one hand, I’m very grateful I got to them, but I also realize that a piece of history is both gone and preserved, because these movies and the stories behind them will live on long after we’re gone.
If you see enough movies, they emphasize the best and worst in humanity and make you aspire to be a better person. It has definitely given me a totally different perspective on the world around me and life in general and I believe it has made me a better person, as it would for anyone who is willing to take a chance and experience these films.

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