Lessons We’ve Learned from Movies About Movies: Looking at Hail, Caesar! and Other Films About Hollywood

By February 6, 2016

In my experience, film lovers can be divided into two categories. Both groups adore the movie going experience itself, not to mention the always fun, and sometimes heated, discussion that often comes afterwards. The second group, however, takes things one step further. To put it simply, as a card-carrying member of this particular tribe, one of the first questions I ask after watching a film is usually “how did they do that?” Rewind to eight year old me after having watched Star Wars for the first time, and you can see how that question eventually led me to attend film school and then pursue a career in film and television in Los Angeles.

Bottom line: whatever else movies are (and they can be many things), they are magic. But who can resist the urge to peak behind the curtain to see how it’s really done? Is “lights, camera, action” something a director actually says? What are our favorite leading men and women like in real life? How many people does it really take to make a movie? And who steers the studio ship when scandal rears its ugly (and inevitable) head?

Ethan and Joel Coen certainly aren’t the first filmmakers to answer some of those questions by shining a light on their own industry (heck, they’ve already done it once in their 1991 film, Barton Fink), but you have to give them credit for crafting Hail, Caesar! – one of the wackiest versions of Golden Age Hollywood in recent memory. It’s actually one of the brightest and most optimistic films the brothers have ever made, closer to an O, Brother Where Art Thou than to No Country for Old Men, but it doesn’t shy away from commenting on the absurdity that is cinema either.

But whoever said absurd was bad? Or silly? Or funny? Again, movies are many things, but one thing is certain: there is absolutely no denying the film industry is unlike any other business in the world. It’s extreme, bizarre, entertaining, underhanded, glamorous, and elaborate. It’s both backward and forward thinking, and ultimately far more complicated than many people realize. So it should come as no surprise that audiences around the world want a glimpse of what exists beyond the frame.

So what have we learned from movies about movies?

TrumboLesson #1: Writing is Hard

Poor Barton Fink (Barton Fink). And Dalton Trumbo (Trumbo). And Charlie Kaufman (as portrayed by Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, of course). Screenwriters can be the unsung heroes of filmmaking (directors get all the credit, don’t they?) because they often slave away in hotel rooms (or bath tubs), are better with the written word than with speaking it out loud, and are in a constant battle with that dreaded disease: writer’s block.  But writers are also the originators. It is from their minds that films are born (yes, even adaptations) and you can’t say they aren’t some of the more interesting characters to watch on screen. On the flip side, writers seem the most likely to disappear into the darkness of their own minds when plagued with the sometimes harsh reality of the business….or so The Coen Brothers would have you believe, thanks to the aforementioned Barton Fink. Food for thought if you are pursuing a career in screenwriting.

30-gloria-swanson-norma-desmond-sunset-boulevard-1990-630-75Lesson #2: Actors playing actors have fun, but actresses playing actresses tend to upstage everyone.

George Clooney looks like he’s having a goofy good time playing kidnapped leading man, Baird Whitlock, in Hail, Caesar!, but when I think of actors playing actors, I can’t help but think of the ladies: Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Eve Harrington in All About Eve, Vicki Lester in A Star is Born, Elisabet Vogler in Persona and Betty Elms in Mulholland Drive (just to name a few). Acting is a fascinating profession since it requires people to constantly pretend they’re someone else. That alone is grounds for interesting psychological exploration, but that coupled with the intense scrutiny placed on actresses in particular (by both the public and the studios themselves), makes their stories utterly compelling. It’s worth mentioning actresses who have played real life actresses as well, like Cate Blanchett’s turn as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, and, though it was for a TV movie, Judy Davis as Judy Garland in Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow.

Not that the guys miss out on all the meaty roles, last year’s Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson in Birdman is one of the most fascinating modern portrayals of a movie star.

tropic-thunder-les-grossmanLesson #3: There are Suits behind those cameras

Executive producer Griffin Mill in The Player, studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, and studio manager Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar! want you to know that movies wouldn’t get made without the suits in charge. Who else would do all the corralling, cajoling, yelling, bribing, and murdering necessary to get the job done on time?

KellyTatumLesson #4: The Golden Age of Cinema was golden for a reason

Why else would so many movies about movies be set in that era? Besides Hail, Caesar!, last years Trumbo, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and parts of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator all took place between the 1930s and 50s. Even the classic Singin’ In the Rain is set at the beginning of the era, just as talking pictures took over from silent film. Cinema history is a fascinating subject, in and of itself, but modern audiences get the added bonus of absorbing the film styles of the time in these movies. I just love the elaborate studio sets, glamorous costumes, witty banter, and vibrant colors of those classic films, don’t you? It’s the reason I ended up enjoying Hail, Caesar! despite a somewhat weak central plotline. The set pieces showcasing various genres of movies being filmed during that time made me smile ear to ear. Channing Tatum singing and dancing as an homage to Gene Kelly? Yes please.

DirectorsLesson #5: Of course everyone wants to be the director!

For better or worse, it’s usually one man or one woman who stands behind the camera and conducts the entire affair of making a movie.  Directors can be quirky, messy and egotistical, yet also creative, intelligent and full of ambition and vision. Though it’s hard to see Steven Spielberg as, say, a Bobby Bowfinger or Christopher Nolan as a Laurence Laurentz, there is no denying that fictional directors in movies about Hollywood are based on at least some truths. Directors are auteurs and auteurs are nothing if not at least partially eccentric. Even movies that tell stories about actual directors, like Ed Wood (starring Johnny Depp), Gods and Monsters (about director James Whale, starring Ian McKellan), My Week With Marilyn (with a supporting turn by Kenneth Branagh as actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier) and Hitchcock (starring Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense), prove that eccentricity is a necessary component in directing a film. Watching these visionaries conduct their symphonies of cameras, lights, props and actors is just one of the many reasons why movies about movies are as cinematic as they are entertaining.

So maybe movie magic is still be a bit of a mystery (unless you devour all of the behind-the-scenes featurettes on The Lord of the Rings blu-rays…you know I did), but Hollywood loves to turn the cameras on itself in ways that can range from moving to hysterical, skewering to thoughtful. Hail, Caesar! is just the latest in a long line of movies that remind us that, while moving pictures can certainly be silly and frivolous, they are also worth celebrating.

Rachel Cushing
Rachel is a television editor by day and either a Jedi knight, vampire slayer, or elvish warrior by night. In between she makes time for movies, movies, and more movies (plus a few books, television shows, and then…more movies). When she’s supposed to be sleeping, she writes about movies as well, both here on Geeknation.com and on her own blog. Tweet her @RachelJCushing