Movie Talk With Peter Bart is not the next At The Movies. It isn’t exactly trying to be, as it doesn’t review new movies, but it does aim to fill the televised-film-talk role that At The Movies, in its better years, performed. Instead, Movie Talk is a simple chat show between host Bart and a star. The coming weeks will see George Clooney, Gary Oldman, and Stephen Daldry on the light-gold living-room set. Bart, a Variety scribe who knows both show-business and trade-rag slang, is a warm interviewer; there’s not a trace of the red carpet’s depressing sycophancy in his patter. Bart’s interview is comfortable, and star of the week Charlize Theron came prepared.
That’s what most distinguishes Movie Talk from a celebrity-interview podcast: star-wattage. Bart has access to filmmakers and actors who are somewhat outside the podcast guest stable. And Theron makes for a great first subject, not least because Bart becomes the latest interviewer to pronounce her last name both ways (like “the” and like “there”). Bart’s questions aren’t the most penetrating, but Theron has thought seriously about them anyway, and her answers are often more provocative than the questions.
Unfortunately, the format is airtight. As much as the style apes that of a network talk show, the conversation is somewhat deeper than set anecdotes and awards talk. But the questions are (or seem) pre-scripted, with no room for digressions. So whenever Theron angles a question about her work toward meaty topics like the response to female antiheroes, the show transitions to a clip and moves on to the next question. It’s not a conversation when one side was written before it even began.
For instance, Theron’s dramatic work reveals a whole knotty tangle of tough gendered topics that only she is willing to explore on Movie Talk, including her reputation for awards uglification and the uneven responses to male and female antiheroes. “I’ve spent a lot of time in studio meetings where someone will say the character is not likeable, especially when it’s a woman,” she says, but that’s as deep as it goes. “We applaud men for diving into those conflicted gray areas. Even in society, I do believe we’re stuck somewhat in a little bit of a Madonna-whore complex.” That’s your show. The softballs about how an awards show veteran “girds herself” for Oscar season are for E! The most exciting thing about Movie Talk’s first episode is having a celebrity interviewee who has some meaningful things to say about Hollywood that aren’t being said out loud so publicly. If only they didn’t just sit there on the coffee table while the conversation shifts to charity work.
Bart later asks about Theron’s work on television via her production company Denver—though there’s no mention of Arrested Development. (The interview also ignores her Funny Or Die work and her upcoming film Snow White And The Huntsman; meanwhile Aeon Flux and The Devil’s Advocate make the clip roll.) Again, Theron answers by pivoting to a rich cultural topic: “I’ve really, really enjoyed developing in an area where you have 12 episodes to kind of create an arc that you could never do in an hour, two hours. And I think television is in a way pushing the envelope in film.” How many pointless thinkpieces have been written over the media war between television and film? How many thoughtful critics have pointed out the give-and-take between the two? But here it’s just a question and answer, like an especially uninformative political debate. If the greatest advantage of Movie Talk is access—to stars, to showbiz knowledge—the greatest failure is its refusal to make the most of that access.
At the end, there’s a shorter segment with another Variety keyboardist, Steve Gaydos, about the Golden Globes. The Globes have an unfairly slight reputation given their track record, despite honoring, as Bart and Gaydos observe, The Social Network and Brokeback Mountain over The King’s Speech and Crash, respectively. So it’s promising to see Movie Talk address topics like this. The value of the Golden Globes is a light subject with room for a different perspective, just the sort of thing Movie Talk should excel at.
Ultimately, Movie Talk seems set to soar with a strong subject and flounder with a superficial one. With pre-scripted questions (or the appearance thereof), there’s no room to digress into more fruitful territory, no spontaneity in this candid conversation. Add a clip for every question and the tension is palpable between the middlebrow discussion of serious Hollywood issues and the weightless staccato performance between two ferns.