La La Land, a favourite to win at the Oscars, has been celebrated as not only a tribute to the great films of classic Hollywood, but as a movie that might inspire audiences to rediscover them. If it does so, great. But anyone who thinks La La Land embodies the spirit of old movies hasn't seen very many of them. It has style, but little substance. Like Woody Allen's CafÃ© Society, similarly hailed as a love letter to classic film, these movies may look like old Hollywood, but they lack a spine, a nerve centre. They have no backbone.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, American popular culture was pretty much a wasteland of positive female images. There was no one I aspired to resemble, until I discovered classic Hollywood movies, with women such as Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. These women radiated authority, to which I instinctively responded without knowing why. I found myself embarking on a cinematic journey through an entire era when - temporarily - Hollywood stopped worrying and learned to love the bombshell.
This moment didn't last forever, of course - halcyon fantasies never do. And it was a fantasy: these movies were no more realistic in their depictions of how most women lived in 1937 or 1947 than Fatal Attraction was in 1987. But for about 20 years between 1930 and 1950, Hollywood cinema had a brief love affair with beautiful, powerful, stylish women who were grownups. Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert - all were huge stars in their day. Colbert, for example, was for many years the highest paid star in Hollywood. But today they are remembered by an ever diminishing pool of diehard fans.