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Over Thanksgiving weekend, Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke exclusively hosted Speechless, a series of short videos starring A-list talent that was produced and conceived by B-list talent and designed to promote United Hollywood‘s position by dramatizing the impact of the writers’ strike on the art form.
“For the first time in the TV and movie industry, high-profile SAG actors are together taking their talents directly and exclusively to the Internet,” the press release boasted (somewhat erroneously — Speechless player Eva Longoria is one of many high-profile SAG actors who has previously taken her talents directly to FunnyorDie, just to name a single example).
Finke, who is usually brazenly critical of the Hollywood establishment and whose strike reporting has thus far been unabashedly WGA-friendly, claims her hosting of the project is not equivalent to picking a side. “In the interest of fairness and objectivity, I would be pleased to also debut a similar campaign conceived by members of AMPTP,” reads Finke’s disclaimer following every clip. “But, as a journalist with a journalism outlet, I couldn’t pass up any opportunity to have an exclusive.”
Speechless is obviously intended as pro-WGA propaganda, but when viewed through that lense, it doesn’t have much bite. The first video, starring Holly Hunter, runs with the joke (itself a riff on studio propaganda planted in Variety) that the studios might try to outsource writers from non-WGA territories. It’s the only real narrative of the bunch, and it has perhaps the best chance of getting the intended message across — uncomfortable improv has a way of making the absent screenwriter look really, really good.
Most of the other shorts are much more fun to watch, but they still don’t feel like political interventions. They’re too cute, too classy; the stars look too good. The clips work too well as a hybrid of glamour photography and silent dramedy. I can’t conceive of the line of dialogue that could improve on the final image of Episode 6, with David Schwimmer turning away from a forlorn Kate Beckinsale to smirk at the camera, or the little nuzzle that Felicity Huffman gives real-life husband William H. Macy at the end of Episode 8.
Moments such as these may have the unintended consequence of introducing a generation almost totally unfamiliar with silent film to the joys of the wordless image. Modern haircuts aside, the Sean Penn clip and the first half of the Eva Longoria/Nicollette Sheridan short have a classic silent film performance quality (and certainly, there are those who will cheer the silencing of Penn and the Desperate Housewives); Episode 5‘s invitation to spend 30 seconds just contemplating the faces of the cast of Ugly Betty is pure Warhol. I like this aspect of the shorts a lot, but there’s an obvious irony to it. It’s a bit odd to think that the battle to monetize the future of media could so vividly call back to the viewing experiences of the past.
Ultimately, Speechless is maybe most successful as a manifestation of screenwriter Billy Wilder’s famous wink at the question of his own relevance, via the line spoken by former silent movie queen Norma Desmond in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” I can’t quite parse whether that bolsters the mission, or undermines it.