Tales from Hollywood: the films that caught the gloom behind the glamour
David Cronenberg is best known for quirky psychological horror films like Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash, but in his latest movie he turns his lens back on itself to take a caustic look at Hollywood. In Maps to the Stars, which was released here yesterday, Julianne Moore gives an astonishingly brave performance as Havana Segrand, a fading, paranoid movie actress whose fragile grip on reality slips entirely after she hires a strange young girl as her personal assistant.
Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) has returned to Los Angeles after a long absence, and is thrilled when Havana hires her. But Agatha has a secret agenda: she's the abandoned, spectacularly unstable and possibly psychotic child of a Hollywood couple who nurse a dark secret, and has returned to reconnect with them and her brother, Benjie, who's become an obnoxious child actor.
Cronenberg's film misses no opportunity to pour scorn on Hollywood's essential vacuousness, from its obsession with youth and love of new age nonsense to its moronic, formulaic approach to film-making and the monstrous egos it creates and destroys. It's pretty good, too, but although the Canadian director's style is as distinctive as ever, there's nothing particularly original about what the film has to say.
Because since its earliest days, Hollywood has enjoyed lancing the boil every now and then and showing us all how awful and shallow a place it is. Films like The Stunt Man, Sullivan's Travels, The Player and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? have mercilessly lampooned the cruelty and ruthlessness of the movie industry, and the self-absorbed monsters who run it. None of them have made a blind bit of difference of course, in terms of improving anyone's behaviour, but the best of them have provided a startling insight into how tinseltown chews people up.
A Star is Born was so effective a Hollywood satire that they remade it not once but twice. In the original, 1937 film, directed and co-written by William A. Wellman, Janet Gaynor played a wide-eyed starlet who's going nowhere until she catches the eye of Norman Maine (Frederic March), a major film star whose drinking is ruining his career.
They marry, and Norman gets her a role in his next film, but as her star rises his begins to fall, and he can't cope with the prospect of obscurity. It was a terrific film, but most people remember the 1954 musical remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason. A 1976 version, however, involving Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, is probably best forgotten.
The talents of Preston Sturges are all often overlooked, and in his 1941 comedy Sullivan's Travels, the writer/director perfectly caught the surreal bubble in which Hollywood's grandees reside. Joel McCrea played John L. Sullivan, a director who's famous for his mindless comedies. But Sullivan dreams of being taken seriously, and decides to take to the road disguised as a tramp to research a new film he wants to make about homelessness.
He eventually discovers that his daft comedies do ordinary people more good than a hundred po-faced dramas, and in Sullivan's Travels Preston Sturges wittily demonstrated Hollywood's utter disconnection from everyday reality.
The theme of corruption is a constant feature in films about Hollywood. In Nicholas Ray's sombre drama In a Lonely Place (1950), Humphrey Bogart starred as a screenwriter who hasn't had a hit for years when he meets a beautiful young actress (Gloria Grahame) and begins to dream of success again. But years of failure have made him bitter and angry, and his murderous rages lead to tragedy.
Kirk Douglas' character in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) was even worse, and would stab his granny to get ahead. After deliberately losing money to a top film executive at cards, Jonathan Shields offers to work off his debt by working for him as a producer. This is his way in, and among his many victims on the road to glory will be a boozy starlet (Lana Turner) who gets in his way.
A more humorous take on the matter appeared the same year, and Singin' in the Rain (1952) is one of the very best films ever made about Hollywood. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the musical dramatised the painful transition from silent films to sound, and starred Kelly as Don Lockwood, a silent star who's appeared in a hit series of melodramas with glamourpuss 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. It's a delightful film, and provided some of the inspiration for Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 silent hit The Artist.
Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is arguably the greatest film about Hollywood of them all (see panel), but is not the only movie to have explored the theme of forgotten stars. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Bette Davis was unforgettably creepy as Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star who adapts so poorly to obscurity that she cripples her more successful sister (Joan Crawford) by running her over, and later persecutes her by feeding her a dead rat!
The corrosion of failure is a recurring theme in movies about Hollywood, and never more so than in Robert Altman's scathing 1992 satire The Player. Despite his early success with films like MASH, Altman fell foul of the Hollywood money men in the 1970s, and ended up struggling to get his films independently produced. The Player marked something of a comeback, but was also a robust attack on the system that had rejected him.
Tim Robbins played Griffin McGill, a smug studio executive who green-lights scripts for development. He's a philistine, but ruthless in the extreme, and when his job is threatened by a rival executive and a mysterious blackmailer, McGill is not above resorting to murder.
If The Player was withering in its contempt for Hollywood's skewed value system, Spike Jonze's 2002 film Adaptation was even bleaker. Written by Charlie Kaufman and based on his own troubles in Hollywood, Adaptation starred Nicholas Cage in the dual roles of Charlie and Donald, twin brothers who fall out over conflicting screenplays. Charlie's been labouring over a worthy literary script for years, and is horrified when his brother scores a big deal with a stupid and clichéd thriller.
Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) took an altogether gentler approach to satirising Hollywood, and told the true story of a man who refused to accept that he was a failure. Johnny Depp starred as Ed Wood, the dreamy writer and director of such execrable 1950s B-movies as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda.
The wonderful thing about Wood is that he doesn't know he's talentless, and his misty-eyed optimism turns him into a kind of patron saint for all the would-be stars that Hollywood has spat out. And in the film's most moving scene, Ed bumps into his hero Orson Welles in a restaurant, and swaps notes about how hard it is to get films financed.
Even the people who make it in Hollywood often end up bitter and lonely. Gods and Monsters (1998) starred Ian McKellen as James Whale, the English-born film-maker who became one of Hollywood's most sought-after directors in the 1930s on the back of films like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. Whale was a visionary and an artist, but was sidelined in the early 1940s after a string of failures.
He was also gay, and in Gods and Monsters McKellen plays him as a wounded and disillusioned man who finds himself unable to carry on. Hollywood is no place for losers, and the winners seem to find it hard-going at times too. Two recent films about Alfred Hitchcock have painted variously unflattering portraits of the great man.
The Girl, a well-made 2012 HBO film, tells the story of Tippi Hedren's travails at Hitch's on the set of The Birds. Sienna Miller plays the unfortunate actress, who finds herself the unwilling object of Hitchcock's obsession, and his cruelty during a cruel and tortuous shoot.
If the Alfred Hitchcock in that film comes across as a vindictive and obsessive monster, a rather more sympathetic assessment emerges in Hitchcock, which was also released in 2012. Sacha Garvasi's film tells the story of the making of Psycho, which Hitch ended up financing himself after falling out with his studio, but also dramatises his sparky but essentially loving relationship with his wife and business partner, Alma Reville.
Helen Mirren plays the redoubtable Alma, Anthony Hopkins the mercurial Hitch, who in this film seems less a monster, more a spoilt and wilful child. Which is probably just about right.
But the message from all of these fine films seems to be clear: working in Hollywood is not for the faint of heart.
Diary of a dead man
From the opening scenes in which a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool begins to narrate the story of his life, Billy Wilder's gothic masterpiece is an unforgettably original and inventive film, and surely the greatest movie ever made about Hollywood. William Holden plays Jake Gillis, a struggling screenwriter in 1950s Los Angeles who's about to jack it all in and return to his smalltown newspaper when he escapes a creditor by pulling into the driveway of a Sunset Boulevard mansion that has clearly seen better days.
Inside he finds Norma Desmond, a long forgotten 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 finds himself morally compromised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the crumbling mansion. Gloria Swanson is outstanding as the nightmarish and deluded Desmond, and Max Von Sydow is very effective as her sinister factotum, Max. This is Hollywood's underbelly at its darkest.