Hollywood And The Middle Class:
Selling Dreams Of 'Somewhere That's Green'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been talking about the new middle - what it means to be middle-class in America right now. That got NPR movie critic Bob Mondello thinking about the old middle, what filmmakers have been telling us about middle-class life through the years.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Not for nothing do they call Hollywood a dream factory. Got a vision of the sort of place you'd like to live? Tinseltown can bring it to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS")

ELLEN GREENE: (Singing) A matchbox of our own, a fence of real chain link.

MONDELLO: This is from "Little Shop Of "Horrors," a musical that gently satirized the notions of middle class bliss that filmmakers have long trafficked in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS")

GREENE: (Singing) A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine, in a tract house that we share somewhere that's green.

MONDELLO: This vision of suburban bliss was set in the 1960s, but it had been a Hollywood staple since the days of silent films. Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," for instance, where the Little Tramp and a down-and-out Paulette Goddard looked at a suburban house and imagined themselves inside - Goddard in an apron with her hair done, chintz curtains, flowered carpet, nice furniture, Charlie reaching out of the window to pluck an orange from a tree, grapes from a vine.

And then - such is the magic of this land of plenty - he grabs an empty pitcher, places it under a cow in the backyard, pats her flank, and she fills the pitcher with milk as he and Goddard sit down to a big steak dinner. It is as they're cutting into the steaks that there's a dissolve. Their stomachs growling woke them from the dream. We'll get a home, says a determined Little Tramp on the title card, even if I have to work for it.

And that's the rub - working for it. It's also why we don't often see middle-class people at home in movies. They're off working in places that filmmakers have lots of fun making far more glamorous than home.

Think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who in most of their movies played kids who danced for a living - hardly a recipe for wealth. In "Swing Time," Fred was flat broke. Ginger was a dance instructor who didn't know she was about to be laid off. But Fred did, so he figured out how to make her boss take a fresh look at her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) I want to show Mr. Gordon how much you've just taught me.

GINGER ROGERS: (As Penny Carroll) No, never mind.

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Oh, thank you very much. Now, how did you say that last step went? Oh, yes. Shall we try it right through? Are you watching this now Mr. Gordon?

MONDELLO: You'll be pleased to know she keeps the job. As in almost all their movies together, we barely see these two at home. We see them living a white-telephone existence in hotels, in nightclubs, at the estates of rich patrons. They're working stiffs like us. They just get to live large.

Later and especially after World War II, middle-class movies were about work and struggle, upward mobility. Where Chaplin was striving to get into the middle class and Fred and Ginger wanted to stay in it, Gregory Peck was urged by his wife to rise out of it in "The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit." The year was 1956. She wanted a bigger house, and he just saw bigger bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT")

GREGORY PECK: (As Tom Rath) Do you know what it would cost to keep up a place like that - something like 6,000 a year on a $7,000 salary.

JENNIFER JONES: (As Betsy Rath) But you're not going to always be making 7,000.

PECK: (As Tom Rath) That's what I mean. I could be making less.

JONES: (As Betsy Rath) But you can't look at things like that, Tommy. You've got to believe that things are going to get better.

MONDELLO: That belief in upward mobility for the middle class was hardly unanimous in the post-war years. Prejudice meant that many people had their dreams deferred - Sidney Poitier and his family, say - in "A Raisin In The Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) Looking in the mirror this morning and I'm thinking I'm 35 years old. I'm married 11 years, and I've got a boy who's got to sleep in the living room because I got nothing, eh, nothing to give him but stories.

MONDELLO: Stories, let's note, is what Hollywood has to give, and they tend to be peopled by folks who are not troubled by such everyday concerns as mortgages or credit card debts. Partly that's to simplify storytelling. You don't want the audience worrying about how the characters will pay their bills if a film is dealing with some other major theme - love, death, whatever. So in comedies and romances, characters are generally well off, and in dramas, if they're not well off, then that's the point. Again, "A Raisin In The Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

CLAUDIA MCNEIL: (As Lena Younger) Son, how come you talk, talk, talk so much about money?

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) Because it's life.

MCNEIL: (As Lena Younger) So now money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life. Well, now it's money.

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) Mama, it was always money. We just didn't know it.

MCNEIL: (As Lena Younger) Oh, no, no. Something's changed. In my time, we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity, too. Now here come you and Beneatha talking about things we ain't hardly ever thought about, me and your daddy. You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done.

I mean that you had a home and that we kept you out of trouble 'til you was grown and that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar. You're my children but how different we've become.

MONDELLO: That generational shift speaks to what is perhaps the biggest concern of middle-class parents. They have sacrificed so their children can have it better than they did, and wouldn't you know, the kids have different ideas about what's important in life. John Hughes wrote movies about teenagers - "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles" - that capture the way high schoolers think about wealth and class distinctions - Molly Ringwald worrying about dating a guy from the other side of the tracks in "Pretty In Pink," for instance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRETTY IN PINK")

MOLLY RINGWALD: (As Andie) You know, it's just weird, you know? His friends have a lot of money, and he has a lot of money. He drives a BMW. It just - I don't know. I'm not really sure if they're going to accept me.

HARRY DEAN STANTON: (As Jack) What his friends think shouldn't make any difference.

RINGWALD: (As Andie) Yeah, but it's not just his friends. It's my friends, too. It's everybody.

MONDELLO: Public schools can be great equalizers, bringing together students from various social backgrounds. And something similar could be said of the sort of neighborhood melting pot in movies where different ethnicities get thrown together. In Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," for instance, he's a grumpy war veteran who is less than thrilled that Asian emigres have moved into his neighborhood and annoyed to the point of being offensive when they try to thank him for scaring away gang members.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GRAN TORINO")

CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Why are you bringing me all this garbage anyway?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Because you saved Thao.

EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I didn't save anybody. I just - I kept a bunch of jabbering [expletive] off of my lawn. That's all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Well, you're a hero to the neighborhood.

EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I'm not a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Too bad they think you are. And that's why they keep bringing you their gifts.

MONDELLO: Part of what pulls these disparate neighbors together and does the same thing in films by John Sayles and others who make movies about communities is that these folks, although not impoverished, are stuck where they are without the wherewithal to move. Wealthier folks could change their circumstances, but wealth, for the most part, is not a good thing in movies. Think Bond villains with their palatial layers, predatory Wall Street bankers. To be rich is often to be reviled in films, in everything from action adventures to superhero flicks. Imagine the Man of Steel taking on a bricklayer. Far more likely his rival will be a crazed gazillionaire with a flair for the dramatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE")

JESSE EISENBERG: (As Lex Luthor) God versus man, day versus night, son of Krypton versus bat of Gotham.

MONDELLO: Superheroes, by contrast, tend to have a common touch. And yes, I know, Batman's a billionaire. Exceptions prove the rule, right? Superman grew up on a farm. The Flash was a police department drudge. Captain America was a struggling New York artist, which may be why in his latest movie he doesn't have much use for rich guy Tony Stark but does offer grudging admiration for that spunky teenager in the spider suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICAN: CIVIL WAR")

CHRIS EVANS: (As Captain America) You've got heart, kid. Where are you from?

TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Queens.

MONDELLO: One melting pot borough...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICAN: CIVIL WAR")

EVANS: (As Captain America) Brooklyn.

MONDELLO: ...To another. He can identify, and because most movie patrons grew up middle-class much like he did, we can identify, too. These are, after all, souped-up versions of our best selves courtesy of the Hollywood dream factory. I'm Bob Mondello.

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