How Tom Hooper became the most disliked filmmaker on the internet
Cinema’s David Cameron or an undeserved punching bag for Film Twitter? The story of how the ‘Cats’ director went from rising star to massive punchline.
There are three films from the start of this decade that I have seen at least twenty times apiece: Inception, The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Two of those are generation-defining masterpieces crafted by beloved auteurs operating at the peak of their storytelling abilities. The third won Best Picture that year, while the other two were unsuccessful runners-up. Every millennial and Gen Z cinephile was disgusted. And so began the story of how a young English director made the subject of a million memes and the unofficial nemesis of hip-and-tasteful so-called ‘Film Twitter’.
There’s a very specific reason why I’ve watched The King’s Speech — a profoundly unexceptional and pro-royalist period drama that represents perhaps the exact opposite of what I seek in a film — such a ridiculous number of times. It was on the curriculum when I did my leaving certificate English exam, and I was forced to study it in-depth for an exam question comparing its thematic form to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Wild, right? Upon becoming so deeply invested in the makeup of Un Film d’Hooper, I began to develop some surprising affection for the film and the man who directed it. Stockholm syndrome.
Yet despite its message of pitying the privileged and almost total lack of class sensitivity, The King’s Speech is wholesomely functional as a character piece with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two impossibly likeable fellows, at its centre. In hindsight it makes sense that Inception and Network split the smart vote that year and allowed the Charming Brit Overcomes Adversity entry to triumph.
The Oscars don’t matter anyway. But to the fanboys who had to watch their idols Christopher Nolan and David Fincher sit disappointed as a twee Englishman with intense if improvable Tory energy accept the Best Director award with the gravitas of James Blunt, this meant war. It wasn’t always supposed to be this way. Hooper was coming off the rapturous success of HBO’s John Adams miniseries — a 2008 Paul Giamatti/Laura Linney effort from the era when any cable miniseries with even vaguely competent direction was hailed as an artwork worthy of the Hermitage Museum (I’m looking at you, The Pacific) — and god knows I remember the fuss around the John Adams miniseries.
Almost exclusively referred to as “The John Adams Miniseries”, it was advertised across New York billboards and taxi cabs the first time I ever travelled to the US and hence the key art has stuck with me as an essential part of my physical memory of the city. It proved phenomenally popular with the young white liberals who were just recovering from West Wing withdrawals, and I spent a great deal of time fast-forwarding with my iPod click wheel through tedious discussion of it by men and women who are definitely supporting Beto O’Rourke for President now. Hooper then directed The Damned Utd, the soccer movie my father-of-three co-worker once informed me is his favourite movie. So it was all going fine until that godforsaken king started orating. But the aggressive male, Fincher and Nolan-adoring side of the film community never forgets.
2012. Les Miserables opens opposite Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, two fairly average efforts by their respective directors Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino but exactly the sort of films the Fincher and Nolan squad were destined to go crazy for. Les Mis is the ultimate marmite musical: it’s loud and intense and melodramatic and transcendentally theatrical, and Hooper’s expensive adaptation emphasised all the most excessive elements, not least by casting Russell Crowe as singing cop Javert. Russell Crowe, will the greatest of respect, has a truly horrible singing voice, and while I would argue a sequence like The Confrontation is too good for even he to ruin, Hooper was simply asking for trouble. Things weren’t much better for Anne Hathaway, who won the Supporting Actress trophy that year for a memorable but sledgehammer-subtle performance as a pregnant prostitute condemned to a cruel death. Hathaway’s overeager awards show persona did her nor the film any favours, and it’s taken years for her to recover from the (definitely partially inspired by misogyny) fatigue audiences felt after that campaign cycle had finished.
Hooper could so easily have worked to quench the cultural irritation surrounding him with a nice, safe, inoffensive next project. But, no, he decided to direct a film about a trans woman starring a cisgender male actor (Eddie Redmayne, irritating at the best of times): The Danish Girl. The Danish Girl is, at least from my relatively uninformed perspective, not one of the worst depictions of the trans experience Hollywood has churned out, but it’s certainly not particularly sensitive given the near total lack of trans input on or off screen. Given that it won an acting Oscar (for Alicia Vikander as Redmayne’s wife) four years ago, it’s astonishing how quickly The Danish Girl has faded from memory. Witness the power of the LGBTQ community not embracing a film that tries to pander to them.
And so Film Twitter vs Hooper has reached its apex: in December he’ll release — as counter-programming to the new Star Wars — a big budget adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical Cats, starring a truly bizarre ensemble of familiar faces as CGI/live-action hybrid feline monstrosities. Jason Derulo, James Corden, Judi Dench and Taylor Swift are among the talents who have been Cat-ized by Hooper for the film that has become the longest, biggest running joke of the cultural year, so much so that a screenshot from the trailer was the featured image on the front page of The Guardian’s print edition, two days after it was released.
Nobody in the world is going to take Cats seriously — bar a few die-hard West End heads — but anybody with any investment in meme society is going to see Cats as early as possible and be a part of the joke. There’s a chance, of course, that Cats’ amusement value peaked with that first trailer, but nevertheless it’s clear that the finished film will be a massively ironic success, with Hooper as the unlikely beneficiary cum punching bag of the entire carnival.
What’s funny, however, is that Hooper has another project debuting this winter, one that’s received significantly less mockery: the BBC/HBO co-production of His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights, previously adapted as the awful Chris Weitz epic The Golden Compass. This small-screen effort has gotten nothing but genuinely positive interest and curiosity on the same social channels where the Cats joke has been flogged to death for months.
Nobody seems to, uh, realise that Tom Hooper is involved at all. Maybe once they do, we’ll be getting as many gags about the talking polar bears and Lin Manuel Miranda playing a hot air balloonist (two objectively ridiculous notions) as we have about the “realistic cat penises” of Universal’s furry-bait Christmas tentpole.
You see, we like to perceive Tom Hooper — Oxford educated, suspiciously well-spoken, a capital B British filmmaker with none of the shyness of a Danny Boyle or Gareth Edwards — as the film world’s answer to former Prime Minister David Cameron (there is a slight physical resemblance). But, perhaps, at the end of the day, he isn’t quite the evil mastermind we like to caricature him as.
Maybe, with his jarring fish eye lenses and turned-up-to-11 star performances, he’s the film world’s answer to Succession’s Cousin Greg. Wearing an unironed tuxedo and stumbling into higher and higher-stake scenarios until he, by total accident, becomes the most powerful filmmaker on the planet. I wouldn’t bet against him.