Film - Inside story: Hollywood analyses itself
The Coens' new film Hail Caesar!, which was released here yesterday, finds the brothers in jovial mood. It's a broad comedy along the lines of Burn Without Reading, but as usual there's plenty going on beneath the surface. The drama is set in 1951, a period of tumultuous change for Hollywood and stars Josh Brolin as a studio producer and fixer who must think fast when his biggest star is kidnapped by a mysterious cabal.
George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes co-star in a film that celebrates the lunacy and giddy exuberance of golden age Hollywood.
The Coens' preoccupation is nothing new: Hollywood has always been fascinated with itself, and at regular intervals has produced biting satires that have poked fun at the film community's absurd excesses without ever succeeding in changing them.
As early as 1924, Buster Keaton was exploring the film industry's deluding effect on the viewer in Sherlock, Jr., but my favourite Hollywood-themed movie was made by Preston Sturges in 1942. A writer and director of rare energy and subversive wit, Sturges made a string of brilliant screwball satires in the 1940s before succumbing to financial troubles and alcoholism.
Sullivan's Travels poked fun at Hollywood's delusional solipsism, and starred Joel McCrea as John L Sullivan, a successful director who's ashamed of the low comedies he produces, and wants his next project to be a serious work about the plight of America's downtrodden. So he disguises himself as a tramp to find out what being poor is really like.
He finds out more than that in a moving and hilarious film that includes a gorgeous moment where a group of jailbirds are transported from their misery by a slapstick movie. Sturges seemed to be suggesting that entertainment, not enlightenment, was Hollywood's forte.
Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard pinpointed Hollywood's heartlessness and explored the lonely fates of faded stars who get forgotten. William Holden played Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck hack screenwriter who's on the run from repo men when he pulls into the driveway of a run-down Sunset Boulevard mansion.
Inside he finds Norma Desmond, a former silent movie actress who was once among the biggest stars in the world. Norma takes a shine to the writer and engages him to work on a script that she fondly imagines will drive her comeback, but Gillis soon finds himself morally compromised. Wilder's film was all about lost innocence, corruption and the contradiction between Hollywood's glittering products and the seediness and venality they concealed.
But one suspected that Hollywood film-makers almost began to enjoy giving out about their town and portraying is a dangerous and invigoratingly ruthless place. The idea of the wolfish and amoral producer would later become a hoary old cliché, but still seemed pretty fresh in Vincente Minnelli's 1952 melodrama The Bad And The Beautiful.
Kirk Douglas, in one of his finest performances, was Jonathan Shields, the ruthlessly ambitious son of a disgraced former studio boss. Shields' father was so unpopular that when he dies his son has to hire extras to flesh out the funeral crowd. This experience embitters him and he resolves to succeed in Tinseltown at any cost.
The rapacious producer will poison the lives of all he comes in contact with and among his many victims will be a boozy starlet (Lana Turner) and a college professor (Dick Powell), whose bestseller Shields wants to adapt. The film's release caused a scandal in Hollywood, as insiders tried to figure out who the vile Jonathan Shields was based on. He seems to have been an amalgam of David O Selznick and Orson Welles: The Bad And The Beautiful's producer, John Houseman, had once been close to Mr Welles.
Nicholas Ray's underrated 1950 drama In A Lonely Place also focused on Hollywood's obsession with celebrity and success, and starred Humphrey Bogart as a screenwriter whose murderous temper threatens his chance at success. In A Star Is Born (the second, 1954 version) Judy Garland witnessed the movie industry's fickleness first-hand as her career soared while her drunken husband's failed.
But there were lighter ways of poking fun at Hollywood. Perhaps the greatest musical ever made, Singin' In The Rain, was also a biting satire on the madness of the studio system. Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star who's appeared in a series of lush melodramas with glamour-puss Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Behind the scenes she's a shrill megalomaniac, but the studio insists on promoting the idea that she and Don are romantically linked. Then, The Jazz Singer happens and when the studio rush to turn the latest Lockwood/Lamont film into a talkie, they hit a problem - Lena's dreadful voice.
Singin' In The Rain is mainly remembered for its delightful and witty dance routines, but it also made clear that Hollywood can be a pretty dreadful place to work. The villains of the piece were usually moguls, producers and directors, and in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather they were even compared to gangsters.
That film's most famous scene was supposedly inspired by Frank Sinatra's campaign to get cast in From Here To Eternity: in it, a film producer called Jack Woltz woke up to find the severed head of his favourite race horse in his bed. But Woltz had it coming - he was a crude and narrow-minded racist bigot who bullied everyone around him and preyed on all the starlets. Were Hollywood bosses really that bad?
They were indeed, if The Stunt Man was anything to go by. Richard Rush's black comedy told the story of a young stunt man who begins to suspect that his autocratic director (Peter O'Toole) is out to kill him. O'Toole's director is power-mad, dangerously divorced from reality and will do absolutely anything to get a shot.
An equally dedicated, but slightly less successful film-maker, Ed Wood, trawled the margins of Hollywood's B-movie circuit in the 1950s, creating films that would later be described as among the worst ever made. But in Tim Burton's sympathetic and hilarious 1994 biopic, Wood emerges as an artist of sorts who entirely lacks the cynicism that afflicts the industry generally and has no idea how bad his movies really are.
In fact, it's rather touching to watch him put them together and in one lovely scene he bumps into Orson Welles and shares a moan about the hardships of a film-maker's lot.
Those include dealing with egotistical actors, a problem memorably explored in Tom DiCillo's sparkling 1995 comedy Living In Oblivion, which starred Steve Buscemi as a low-budget director who's driven to distraction by the behaviour of his conceited leading man. Actors don't come much more difficult than the hysterical harpy Julianne Moore played in David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars (2014).
Havana Segrand is a self-absorbed and shrewish actress whose career is on the slide. Her latest personal assistant has just quit and Havana takes an instant shine to her new aide, a shy out-of-towner called Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). But Agatha has returned to Los Angeles with a secret agenda: she's the abandoned, pyromaniac and possibly psychotic daughter of a prominent Hollywood family with whom she's determined to reconnect.
Cronenberg's film had strong echoes of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich's thriller starring Bette Davis as a former child star whose resentment of her more successful sister (Joan Crawford) gets way out of hand.
But actors aren't the only ones who get driven mad by Hollywood. Writers seem equally prone to unhinged behaviour, as Nicholas Cage proved in Charlie Kaufman's semi-autobiographical 2002 drama Adaptation, playing twin brothers whose creative collaboration ends in chaos.
Then there's the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, a Kafkaesque fantasy loosely based on the experiences of Clifford Odets, an acclaimed playwright who came to Hollywood in the 1940s and got stuck there, endlessly writing scripts.
Barton Fink (John Turturro) travels west after being hired by Capitol Pictures to work on a wrestling picture, but his writer's block drives him mad and he soon begins to suspect that his contract is a trap.
There are, it seems, no two ways about it: Hollywood can chew you up.
Altman vs Hollywood
Robert Altman, above, had more reason than most to question the morality of Hollywood. After falling foul of several studios in the late 1970s, he spent over a decade in the wilderness, working in theatre and TV before returning in triumph with The Player (1992). That film brilliantly satirised the trashy unoriginality of Hollywood studio producers, and starred Tim Robbins as a power-mad executive.
The Player was wise and witty, playfully wicked, but was gentle stuff compared to Altman's next film, Short Cuts (1993), which used Raymond Carver's short stories to confront the shortcomings of the Los Angeles lifestyle. But Altman's most damning attack on Hollywood's inherent vacuousness came in his 1973 noir satire, The Long Goodbye.
Elliott Gould starred as private detective Philip Marlowe, who speaks in an outmoded 1950s vernacular and seems all at sea in 1970s California. His pathetic expectations of honesty and fair play are constantly disappointed by the Hollywood lizards he meets, whose elaborate manners are just a front for their viciousness. Rubbished by most contemporary critics, it was championed by The New Yorker's Pauline Kael: as usual, she was right.