FORUM: Comment

My Top 10 Films of 2017 including an Explanation of Why My Top Film is My Top Film.

10 – I, Tonya
9 – Mudbound
8 – The Shape of Water
7 – Menashe
6 – Maudie
5 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4 – Molly’s Game
3 – The Disaster Artist
2 – LadyBird
1 – FanLax’s Top Film of 2017 is: The Greatest Showman.

The Greatest Showman

As the Oscars approach, one of the most common questions on comment boards and otherwise is, Why didn’t The Greatest Showman get more Oscar nominations? Repeatedly and in numbers, people are expressing their appreciation for this film yet it only received one Oscar nomination. A nomination for Best Song for “This is Me”.

(For the record, “This is Me” is a great song, is the best of the five Oscar Best Song nominated, and, at best, is the fifth best song from the film. i.e. All five Oscar Best Song nominations should have gone to The Greatest Showman. Oscar night should go something like this: Ladies and gentlemen, and the five nominated songs are… The Greatest Show… Come Alive… The Other Side… Never Enough, and… From Now On. And… the winner is… From Now On! Or even better, Oscar Night should go something like this: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for… ohhhhh, ohhhhh, uuh-uh-Ohhhh… and then play the whole soundtrack. But this is an aside.)

Why didn’t The Greatest Showman get more Oscar recognition? Why does The Greatest Showman have a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Ironically, the people who find shows of this ilk unworthy of Oscar consideration is found not only in the Oscars and our lives, but in the film itself. The stodgy critics like James Gordon Bennett who look down on shows of this ilk, as well as Barnum and his performers who are this ilk, is one of the central themes of the film. The bad guys in the film commit tangible crimes like assault and arson but the prevalent crime throughout the film is snobbery, intolerance, and a lack of empathy. There are the Phillip Carlyles who move from living among the swells to picking up peanut shells. But the Phillip Carlyles, both in our lives as well as in the film, are few and far between. Like in the film, there’s a chasm between the elite and the common folk and… The Oscars are run by the elite. As a consequence, The Greatest Showman gets one Oscar nomination for the movie’s fifth or sixth best song. Or maybe Letti Lutz is belting out the best song in the film. The point is that this film is much bigger than one Best Song nomination.

I’ve seen the film twice. And I look forward to watching it many more times. Both times I saw the film, Hugh Jackman and, director, Michael Gracey, introduced the film. I’m assuming that they do this for every viewing. Obviously this was a conscious decision by them. Whether intended or not, one of the reasons to have this out-of-character introduction is to say to the audience, including the critics, I’m the director, I’m an actor, and this is a movie. Despite this clear message of, “You are about to watch a film. Entertainment. A musical. Etc.”, critics continue to criticize The Greatest Showman for not being historically accurate.

The Greatest Showman is most certainly not a documentary about P.T. Barnum. The Greatest Showman is an over-the-top film about an over-the-top circus. In the film, James Gordon Bennett criticizes PT Barnum because the tall man wears stilts, the fat man stuffs a pillow under his shirt, the people are not real. PT not only admits that the people within the circus exaggerate their unique qualities in order to entertain the viewers, he embraces this. That exaggeration, that lie, is precisely what PT is selling. This is what the audience wants. The Greatest Showman does much the same. Like Bennett to Barnum, the most common criticism of The Greatest Showman is that it is not historically accurate. In a film where people fly through the air with the greatest of ease, film critics are criticizing the film for not being historically accurate. I want to repeat this. Film critics, people who have chosen an occupation based on their love of motion pictures, are criticizing an over-the-top, visually charged musical because it is not historically accurate. For a seemingly infinite number of films, the critics gladly suspend their disbelief. But for The Greatest Showman, for some reason, the critics can not, will not. Explicitly, a central message from Barnum to the critic, Bennett, is that there’s good entertainment outside of the walls of the tastes of the elite and the wealthy. The difference is, at the end of the film, Bennett realizes his lack as a purveyor of the arts. The critics in our lives are sticking to their guns.

The circus is not an opera. The circus does not strive to be an opera. For this and numerous other reasons, to dismiss the joy of and talent within the circus because it isn’t an opera is foolhardy. Like the characters in The Greatest Showman embrace their uniqueness, as a film, The Greatest Showman embraces it’s uniqueness. The sadistic townspeople want the circus to leave their town because the hideousness of the freaks should not see the light of day. PT Barnum, his performers, and, not coincidentally, the children in the film feel differently. As much as Letti Lutz sings “This is Me”, so does The Greatest Showman.

The Greatest Showman is titled The Greatest Showman, not The Greatest Show. As much as the circus is central to the story line, ultimately, The Greatest Showman is about PT Barnum, is about people. A central theme and lesson in The Greatest Showman is to be you. There are characters in this film, as well as in life, who don’t necessarily need to strive to become who they are because they are already self-realized. In this film, PT’s wife, Charity Barnum, is that character. But most every, if not every, other character in this film has room to become better self-actualized. This self-actualization includes accepting and embracing the aspects of oneself that you hide due to feelings of shame. In the case of a bearded woman, Tom Thumb, or Siamese twins, this involves literally hiding one’s entire physical self. For obvious reasons, we can see that this is a poor solution for the bearded women of the world. We watch The Greatest Showman and realize this lesson all but immediately. But to see how this lesson relates to the non-bearded women of the world, relates to us, is less obvious. The Greatest Showman shows the paths of the numerous other characters as they discover this important lesson as it relates to themselves. Phillip Carlyle loves his job, loves a woman from a different social caste, Anne Wheeler, and he still struggles to embrace his dream life. Anne Wheeler feels the same about Phillip Carlyle. None the less, she sees her lot in life as her lot in life and you cannot Rewrite the Stars. As demonstrated in the song, Phillip Carlyle feels differently. Caroline Barnum, PT’s older daughter, loves ballet, is a talented ballet dancer, yet she chooses to quit dancing because the other dancers come from old money while she does not. Jenny Lind is unique in that she recognizes her conundrum. Jenny Lind knows she has feelings of inferiority based on her economically humble upbringing and that she chases her dream of being a world renowned singer to fill this hole in her soul. She also knows that no matter what she accomplishes, whether it involves money, fame, or PT Barnum, it will Never Be Enough. None the less, Jenny does not change her situation and continues to try and fill this unfillable hole. Ironically, despite sharing a similar background with Jenny Lind and Jenny Lind singing her feelings of lack all but directly at PT, PT Barnum still does not get her message. PT continues to live a life to prove that he is not a tailor’s son when… He’s a tailor’s son. To overcome his feelings of inferiority, PT must be more than he actually is. PT, at all times, needs to perform, needs to be a showman, needs to be The Greatest Showman. PT can be the conduit for others to, metaphorically and literally, out themselves, to Come Alive. But he cannot out himself. He, himself, cannot come alive. Like Jenny Lind, he strives to fill a hole that cannot be filled. By far, the most common death bed regret is living someone else’s life. This is one of many reasons why The Greatest Showman resonates for so many people. On some level, we’re all being showmen.

In the film, there’s a simplicity of characters. Rich people are bad and judgmental, poor people are good and accepting. There are exceptions in that the men who burn down PT’s building are poor. But, in general, this simplicity of characters holds true. Similarly, nothing goes wrong. And, when they do go wrong, like PT being fired from his job, things go right all but instantly. Some may criticize the writers for this Disney-esque screenplay. But this attack is unfounded. The writers of The Greatest Showman, Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, made a conscious choice to make the world of The Greatest Showman a simple, generally happy place. (Condon won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Gods and Monsters in 1999.) No one is going to confuse The Greatest Showman with Manchester by the Sea. And not all good films need to be Manchester by the Sea. (As an aside, as a film goer who watches less Disney and more Manchester by the Sea, it was refreshing to live in a simple, happy place for a couple hours. It actually took some getting used to and, once I did, it was a pleasure.) Numerous authors from Malamud to Mansfield have created worlds for their readers that are simple and safe. So why not The Greatest Showman.

As The Greatest Showman comes to it’s conclusion, as if there were any doubt, PT Barnum comes to understand that an audience and the spotlight is not the solution to what gnaws him within his soul. The solution for his feelings of emptiness is inside, not outside of himself. And, with little soul searching necessary, he knows his calling in life is not to be whatever is the opposite of being a tailor’s son. He knows his calling is to be a good husband and father to his wife and girls. A simple, obvious, happy ending. There are no plot twists to speak of. Simplicity reigned supreme. Much like the central message of The Greatest Showman, the film The Greatest Showman doesn’t need to be more than it is. The Greatest Showman can simply be The Greatest Showman. The problem is, as we come full circle within this piece, this doesn’t remove the snobs and elitists from the story. The elitists will still withhold their praise from those who are more simple, more internal. What the elitists don’t understand is that “the greatest showman” proves to be the villain in this film. The hero isn’t PT Barnum: the greatest showman. The hero is Phin, is daddy. The Greatest Showman was the greatest show about the greatest show. And some are unable to see this.

FORUM: Comment