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On “That Movie Could Never Be Made Today” | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

On “That Movie Could Never Be Made Today”

From Secretary to Blazing Saddles, the phrase doesn’t usually mean what its users think it means

Let’s talk about the phrase “that movie could never be made today.” And what it really means. It’s said a lot by movie commentators, armchair tweeters, and others, about the daring, shocking, and “non-politically correct” works of the past, and their obvious superiority to the works of the present. But the mindset, I believe, is worth exploring further. 

There are a lot of different factors that go into which movies get made and which ones don’t, everything from risk-taking incentives from studios to which actors and directors have interest in which projects. More important than literally every other factor, such decisions are usually about what can and can’t get funding. 

It’s said a lot by movie commentators, armchair tweeters, and others, about the daring, shocking, and “non-politically correct” works of the past…

But beyond that, a lot of the time when people say “that movie could never be made today,” they’re wrong, and that movie could, under the right circumstances, be made today. And if they’re not wrong, sometimes it’s a good thing that the movie could never be released today. Song of the South, for instance, could never be released today, and neither could Birth of a Nation. 

But more often than not, when someone says “that movie could never be made today,” what they really mean is, “that movie could be made today, but if it was, people I don’t like would probably criticize it, and I would disagree with the criticism.” 

The Secretary Question

Journalist Claire Lehmann posted to Twitter last month that she had just watched the 2002 movie Secretary, which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as a secretary in a dominant/submissive relationship with her boss (James Spader).

“Was only made in 2002,” Lehmann said of Secretary. “But such a film could never be released today. We are regressing.” 

Now, I personally am a huge fan of that particular film. But I’m at a loss for what aspect of it would preclude Secretary from being released today. The sex? The nudity? The affair between a boss and employee? The relatively nonjudgmental depiction of an adult BDSM relationship? Because there were three movies that had all of those elements – they were called the Fifty Shades trilogy – and they were released in 2015, 2017, and 2018. 


…I’m at a loss for what aspect of it would preclude Secretary from being released today. The sex? The nudity? The affair between a boss and employee?


Despite decades of messaging to that effect, Hollywood has never been quite as woke as its enemies say it is. There have been movies about war and patriotism and police heroism since the dawn of the Hollywood studio system. And as we enter the Oscar season and the annual series of arguments about which movies are and aren’t “problematic,” keep in mind – those movies, woke and unwoke alike, were all made, and put up for honors in the first place. 

So that’s how we get controversies like the widespread conservative belief, in the 2014/’15 Oscar season, that “Hollywood” was seeking to undermine American Sniper. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, called it “everything Hollywood hates.” Except that… American Sniper was produced entirely within the Hollywood studio system and directed by five-decade Hollywood star Clint Eastwood. It was probably the most Hollywood film, in fact, of that entire Oscar season.

Times Change 

But even so, times and cultural mores and standards are ever-changing as years go by. And that, much more often than not, is a good thing. And we can see the influence on films.

Movies like Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, released barely a decade ago, had dialogue filled with casual sexism and homophobia, the kind of stuff you’re much less likely to see in a Hollywood comedy today. And it’s hard to argue that that’s a bad thing. 

Should the changes in attitudes about trans people be held against Boys Don’t Cry and its legacy? I don’t believe it should; that movie was produced with good intentions, at a time when that norm didn’t yet exist. 

Take Boys Don’t Cry, the 1999 movie about the real-life murder of transgender teen Brandon Teena. The film, at the time, was seen as widely daring, in dealing with a subject barely touched by Hollywood up to that point, and cisgender actress Hilary Swank won an Oscar for playing Teena. 

Twenty years and a revolution in transgender civil rights later, it’s become a norm that transgender roles should be played by performers who are themselves transgender. This led to protests against the film’s director, Kimberly Peirce, at a screening of the film at Reed College back in 2016.

Should the changes in attitudes about trans people be held against Boys Don’t Cry and its legacy? I don’t believe it should; that movie was produced with good intentions, at a time when that norm didn’t yet exist. But if the movie were made today, it would almost certainly cast a trans man as Teena. 

Movies that “Could Never Be Made Today” Still Get Made, Today

I also highly disagree with the notion that risky, gross, incendiary, and controversial films are a thing of the past.

The Seth Rogen-written Sausage Party, an R-rated cartoon that ends with an orgy among numerous talking food items, came out less than three years ago. Quentin Tarantino’s last two movies, Django Unchained and Hateful Eight, were both full of both shocking violence and numerous racial slurs; they were released in 2012 and 2014, respectively. 

Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built is a serial killer movie, complete with graphic murders of women and children, and even a scene in which a woman’s breasts are cut off. All of this, somehow, is played for laughs. 


I also highly disagree with the notion that risky, gross, incendiary, and controversial films are a thing of the past.


It’s the kind of movie that, if it had come out 30 years ago, people would likely say it “could never be released today.” Except it was released today, or rather a little over a month ago. 

But it goes the other way, too. Get Out, for a variety of reasons, probably couldn’t have been made 15 years ago. Neither could Sorry to Bother You, or a long list of films that previously were constrained by technical as well as cultural limitations.

“Excuse Me While I Whip this Out”

But there’s one film that probably gets the “it could never be made today” more than any other, and that’s Blazing Saddles. And that’s because its own director, Mel Brooks, said so, in an interview with The Daily Beast in 2016. 

If Blazing Saddles could never be made today, it’s because there isn’t a talent on Mel Brooks’ level currently working in comedy. 

But otherwise, why couldn’t it? The raunch? The N-words? The farts? Movies with all of the above are still made. 

In reality, Blazing Saddles is a deeply liberal, anti-racist movie, and a satire of sexualized white racial panic that’s actually perfect for the Trump area. And that “authentic frontier gibberish” scene, in which a rich plutocrat piggybacks off the “authenticity” of an inarticulate hillbilly in order to implement racist policy, essentially predicted the next four decades of Republican policy. 


If Blazing Saddles could never be made today, it’s because there isn’t a talent on Mel Brooks’ level currently working in comedy. 


As for Brooks’ other work, The Producers – a movie with swastikas aplenty and a musical number featuring Hitler – COULD be made today. It was remade less than 15 years ago, and was on Broadway until 2007. I saw a stage version of it last spring. 

It’s Not About PC

A lot of people like to think that everything in culture is about PC or not PC. But that’s kind of a ridiculous oversimplification. There are a ton of factors that go into what movies do and don’t get made and released. A lot of movies that would be made in the past couldn’t be, and that was good, and a lot being made today couldn’t have been in the past, and that’s good, too.

We are, as simply as we can put it, a creative entity that strives to curate, cultivate, and create content covering culture and the people that shape it.

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