The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

The Horrors of Self-Contradiction in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

The 1932 exploitation horror Freaks has always had a reputation for controversy, even losing a third of its original runtime to drastic edits meant to soften its abrasive effect. After the wild success of the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula for Universal, director Tod Browning was given total freedom to jumpstart MGM’s own horror brand in a project of his choice. Urged by little person performer (and future member of The Lollipop Guild) Harry Earles to adapt the Tod Robbins short story “Spurs” for the screen, Browning chose to draw on his own past as a circus performer for a film that ultimately ruined his career. As a historic, pre-Code horror relic, Freaks has a fascinating cultural cache that only improves every passing year. It’s a film that’s just divisive now as it was over eight decades ago, however, largely because it’s divided in its own dual nature. Freaks is both a deeply empathetic call to arms against the social stigmas that surround its disabled “circus freak” performers and a horrifically exploitative “Get a load of these monsters!” sideshow that defeats its own point. Which side of these warring, self-contradicting intents ultimately overpowers the other is a question largely of genre, for which horror might not have been Browning’s wisest option.

As David Lynch later proved with The Elephant Man, it’s entirely possible to tell a heartfelt, empathetic story about real life sideshow performers through a Universal Monsters aesthetic. In the younger, less nimble days of horror cinema, Browning was a lot less confident about the technique. The majority of Freaks is not a horror film at all, but rather a comedic melodrama that happens to be set in the insular community of a traveling circus. With the campy, braying line deliveries of a John Waters production, the little people, conjoined twins, amputees, and microcephalics of Browning’s cast pal around in what’s essentially a hangout comedy. In a typical joke, two men remark on the intersex performer Josephine Joseph, “Don’t get her sore or he’ll punch you in the face,” and then maniacally laugh as if it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. An opening scroll & a carnival barker preface this comedy with a plea for the audience to empathize with its “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs, stressing that they are only human beings whose “lot is truly a heartbreaking one.” As we watch the titular “freaks” live, laugh, and love in the film’s first act, the only detectable trace of horror is in the way they’re treated by able-bodied outsiders. Harry Earles falls for an erotic dancer who plans to marry & poison him in a plot to rob him of his inheritance. She & her strongman secret lover are grotesquely cruel to their “circus freak” co-workers, whom they openly mock for their disabilities. The comedic melodrama of the film’s opening concludes with the two wicked souls making out in front of Earles & laughing in his face on their wedding night. When hiws fello circus performers famously chant, “One of us! One of us! We accept her!” to welcome the new bride into the fold, she shrieks “Freaks!” in their faces and violently rejects the offer, campily revealing who the True Monsters are.

The self-contradiction at the core of Freaks kicks in immediately after that wedding celebration. The film shifts focus from the horrors of social cruelty to the supposed horrors of its disabled cast as they exact revenge on the erotic dancer who is gradually poisoning their “circus freak” brethren. Although Browning’s script makes a point to stress the humanity of his characters in the film’s opening half, he leans in heavily on the exploitation of their physical appearances as “living monstrosities” in the film’s final act. What was once an unconventional hangout comedy with a tragic mean streak reverts to the Universal Monsters model of Browning’s roots, reducing the “freaks” to silent, wordless monsters who stalk their erotic dancer prey from the shadows until it’s time to maim. In a mood-setting rainstorm, the circus performers crawl towards her with knives wedged in their teeth, all of their pre-established humanity now replaced with the supposedly grotesque image they strike as onscreen monsters. It’s arguable that without this conclusion Freaks would not technically qualify as a horror film, but by backsliding into the exploitative nature of horror as a genre, the movie effectively undoes a lot of its argument for empathy. Essentially, if the story Browning truly wanted to tell was that the performers were ordinary people who happened to have abnormal bodies, he should not have told that story through a genre that requires them to be visually shocking monsters.

As a visual achievement, a cultural time capsule, and a one of a kind novelty, Freaks has more than earned its place in the Important Cinema canon, if not only for inspiring the masterful The Elephant Man to accentuate its virtues & undo its faults. As a horror genre entertainment, however, it’s too self-defeating to qualify as a creative success. Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating his disabled circus performers like inhuman monstrosities and then marches them through genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. You could generously argue that societal cruelty & bigotry is what leads the film’s disabled characters to inhuman violence at the climax, but the film concluding on that violence for exploitative effect is too much of a self-contradiction to brush off entirely. Freaks‘s most effective mode of horror is in presenting a moral discomfort in the disconnect between its words & its actions, especially as its story gradually shifts genres while it reaches for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

-Brandon Ledet