In ordinary discourse a “dated” work of art is old-fashioned, no longer pertinent, a back number. But this is imprecise. The truly dated work can be traced to the moment it was made.
The 40s: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
The 40s are remembered, cinematically, as the era of gangsters and gun molls, of crooked cops and desperate double-crossing dames, all pursued by gumshoes who dangle a cigarette out of one side of their mouths and deliver snappy patter out of the other. This is known as “realism.”
Whatever it was, the audience had a taste for something else. The top ten grossing movies of the decade were Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Duel in the Sun, Sergeant York, Mom and Dad (not quite so wholesome as it sounds), Meet Me In St. Louis, and Easter Parade.
Somewhere between the 30s and 40s journalists in the movies went from raffish ambulance chasers to plumed crusaders for truth. Maybe Ernie Pyle is to blame, maybe more journalists starting getting screenwriting jobs, I don’t know, but when Gregory Peck is cast as a journalist you know the party’s over. In Gentleman’s Agreement he plays his customary straight arrow with that deer-in-the-headlights look that he didn’t manage to lose until The Boys from Brazil. Anti-semitism is exposed with all the investigative grit of Eddie Murphy’s seminal “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Does this movie date? Well, let’s just say that 1947 was about the last year that even senile lounge lizards thought they could keep the money in the country club and the Jews out.
The 50s: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Here we have a case of overdetermined dating. Psychology: until the 1950s it did not occur to psychologists, not always the sharpest tools in the shed, that juvenile delinquents weren’t always from the slums. Mise-en-scène: teen angst without music, garish Technicolor, homoerotic subtext (did I really just write “subtext”?), pegged jeans, chicken runs. Acting style: James Dean slouches and shambles, stumbles and mumbles, shrieks and stammers, and generally Methods up a storm. Bonus: the climax takes place in a planetarium.
The 60s: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967)
Poitier glowers! Hepburn quavers! Tracy blusters! Miscegenation shocks white liberals!
Of course the movie was released in 1967, but when? It’d have to be after the summer (of Love); I estimate September 23rd, 4:33 EST. Give or take ten minutes.
The 70s: Carnal Knowledge (1971)
It would be cheating to draw any inference from the fact that this movie stars Art Garfunkel, though inferences from Garfunkel’s hair, not to mention Carol Kane’s, are admissible. It’s when Jack Nicholson sits himself down in one of those praying-mantis lounge chairs and treats Kane and Garfunkel to a slide show of his erotic life that we know we’re in that early 70s netherworld between Godspell and disco. Plus Garfunkel describes Kane as his “love teacher.”
The 80s: Wall Street (1987)
Oliver Stone is no accountant. Anacott Steel, according to the wise old broker, has “no fundamentals,” while according to the corporate raiders it has a breakup value of 80 a share when it’s selling at 45. So maybe you figure there are a few fundamentals in there somewhere.
Oliver Stone, God help us, is a screenwriter. Daryl Hannah says to Charlie Sheen, “I want to do for furniture what Laura Ashley did for fabric.” “And I’ll take you public,” Sheen says. “You will?” she squeals. (Her next line, “Oh goody!”, apparently survives only in the director’s cut.)
Charlie Sheen says to Daryl Hannah, “So what do you want?” “I want…a Turner. A perfect Canary diamond. World peace. The best of everything.” Not necessarily, one surmises, in that order. 1987’s on the phone. He says it’s OK, you can keep his dialogue.
Honorable mention: Flashdance (1983). What a feeling.
The 90s: Jerry Maguire (1996)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe is really, truly sorry about the 80s, and he promises they won’t happen again. This abject apology for the previous decade is, to my knowledge, the first, and one hopes the last, movie to feature a sports agent, which dates it with precision. Before 1995 nobody knew what a sports agent was; after 1996 nobody cared. Jerry Maguire is of course best known for bequeathing to subnormals that most 80s of all slogans, “Show me the money!” This bitter irony for Crowe was assuaged, in part, by a tall, cool stack of cash. The movie grossed over $150 million in the US alone.
Ask me in ten years.