Lost in the Looking Glass
In the June 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, F.X. Feeney examined the ways in which Hollywood portrays the dangers of show business in movies about Hollywood.
It is an innocent young man’s first day on the job. He has just been informed by his new boss that what he thinks doesn’t matter and what he feels doesn’t matter. Actually, he should forget he even exists, except to fulfill one purpose: to serve the boss’s needs, however contradictory, however demanding, however absurd.
“But that’s crazy!” the young man protests. “That’s no way to run a business.”
“Uh-uh!” shushes the more seasoned assistant he’s replacing. “This is not a business. There are no rules here. Save that candy stripe crap for Wall Street wimps. This is Show Business. Punching below the belt is not only all right, it is rewarded.”
The film is George Huang’s intense, hilarious 1994 black comedy Swimming With Sharks, and if you think movies about Hollywood couldn’t get funnier or darker, guess again.
Sunset Blvd., that gothic 1950 classic directed by the late, great Billy Wilder, remains the quintessential Hollywood movie about Hollywood, as fresh as ever after half a century, and of topical interest not just because Wilder died this past spring. “Hollywood” is more than ever a compelling subject in films. Uncurl the kinks in Mulholland Drive, which earned director David Lynch an Oscar nomination, and you find a thematic remake of Sunset Blvd. The same sense of waste is there, the same lethal darkness. And where Wilder’s film is narrated, rather drolly, by the dead body afloat in a swimming pool, the Lynch film is, once you decode it, the last flashing nightmare of a once-promising actress who is now in the act of killing herself. The dreamy, half-joking proximity of the two films is deliberate on Lynch’s part. If you know your L.A. geography, Mulholland Drive runs exactly parallel to Sunset Boulevard–except that it’s much more twisted and operates at a dizzier altitude.
For over 50 years Wilder’s film has set the standard for how moviemakers judge the traps of their own profession. A melancholy comedy, Sunset Blvd. culminates in the image of a faded star (played by actual silent star Gloria Swanson, gloriously spoofing herself), driven mad with the memory of her lost beauty and fame, advancing on the camera like a killer insect, demanding another close-up. This brilliant bit of poetry rings truer now than ever, and makes the blood run cold: Is this the stuff that dreams are made of?
See enough movies about Hollywood, and you can only be struck by the incredible darkness of the tradition. There may be rare exceptions. Singin’ in the Rain takes the movie biz for a setting and celebrates its magic wonderfully. Ed Wood is the story of a pie-eyed dreamer who doesn’t have a clue how freakish he looks to the rest of the world–Bela Lugosi loves him, and that’s all he needs. The performances of Johnny Depp as Ed and Martin Landau as Bela transform what might have been an alienated farce into a sweet, spiritual variation on the father-son love story. Otherwise, movies-about-movies presume a license to be unsympathetic that audiences usually only grant to crime films.
When he made the jump from vaudeville to movies back in the 1920s, comedian and pundit Will Rogers marveled that movies sure were a strange invention: “You not only get to be in a show, you get to sit in the front row and clap at yourself.” Such a crazy hall of mirrors was a new phenomenon in human history. Reality has never been so compellingly depicted as in film, and therefore, the invention of movies is arguably a far more potent invention than the atom bomb, because its fatal radiations are less easy to see, and they travel farther.
Narcissism, the disease of getting lost in our own reflections, has reached epidemic proportions–with Hollywood leading the way. Just look at the growing number of male leads who can’t seem to escape their own reflections, and thereby escalate into self-pleased icons who cease to be capable of disappearing into a role, no matter how talented they once were.
Hollywood and its capacity to damage personalities the world over is a central preoccupation in Woody Allen’s work, starting with Annie Hall, in which we briefly tour a New York comedian’s idea of hell: Hollywood in the late 1970s. “I forgot my mantra,” Jeff Goldblum groans into the telephone at a crowded party. The local restaurants serve food so healthy it’s literally unheard of: “I’ll have a plate of mashed yeast,” Woody tells a waiter. Allen and his cinematographer Gordon Willis deliberately open the lens by an extra f-stop for every scene set in California, so that wherever you look, everything you see feels overexposed. Such comedy turns pitch black in Allen’s lesser-known Stardust Memories: Here the subject is the mad circus of overloaded impressions that can crowd your head if you have the mixed luck to become successful in the film business. Everybody who approaches the beleaguered hero wants something from him. Even the extraterrestrials who land at the climax are tired of Woody’s “serious” explorations of the human psyche, and demand that he make funnier movies.
One of the most persistent themes of movies-about-moviemaking, from The Bad and the Beautiful to The Player, from A Star Is Born to hurlyburly, is that it’s always your so-called best friend who is your worst enemy. Why this should be so is a mystery so rich that countless treacheries in endlessly varied films about Hollywood can’t exhaust it. In Hollywood, of course, your best friend is on your payroll and so never says “no” to you–until there’s blood in the water.
“Friends, my eye!” bellows the bitter publicist who has rescued the washed up, alcoholic star Norman Maine time and again in A Star Is Born–a romantic portrait of downfall Hollywood has remade three times: “I don’t like you! I never liked you! Nothing made me happier than to see all those cute little pranks of yours catch up with you, and land you on your celebrated face!” As novelist Caroline Gordon once put it, “A sycophant is always an assassin at heart.”
Jonathan Shields, the unscrupulous producer played by Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), double-deals his closest friends so totally that, at the beginning of the film, no one will speak to him–except that, as the movie unfolds, we’re shown that being stabbed in the back by Shields has actually been the best thing that could’ve happened to his victims, because it energized them to get busy and be more proactive in the pursuit of their own careers.
Treachery as an expression of the life force! Now there’s an idea that could only originate in Hollywood. Or at least, it stands to reason only movies would so cheerfully and shamelessly promote such a concept. Folks in Washington D.C. surely grasped the medicinal properties of a good backstab long before motion pictures came along.
There are very few real love stories that are possible in Hollywood. It’s the world capital of love stories for export, but the sad and often tragic truth is the majority of actual relationships in show business are founded on mutual ambition. The desperate desire to get ahead in Hollywood is what keeps Albert Brooks from not kicking pain-in-the-ass Sharon Stone out of his guest house in The Muse.
In Bowfinger, Steve Martin is a would-be producer whose principal gift is con-artistry, and who fast-talks a shy cretin played by Eddie Murphy into masquerading as his twin brother, a superstar also played by Eddie Murphy. Martin, who also wrote the script, so levels the playing field in terms of treachery that we’re gleefully given the worst of both worlds. At the bottom-feeder level, we get Heather Graham, the archetypal innocent, warm, sweet and literally fresh off the bus, who lightly but ruthlessly sleeps with whomever she must to advance herself. At the top, those who’ve succeeded by con-artistry fall prey to subtle forms of it. Eddie Murphy’s superstar can’t even move without consulting a hugely expensive self-help guru at the church-like institute called “Mind-Head.”
Built as it is from top to bottom out of daydreams, and what people are willing to believe, Hollywood fosters and falls victim to plastic philosophy. Mindless belief-for-belief’s sake is at the heart of Get Shorty, and in a way, this is a central premise of all Hollywood films about Hollywood. The minute the low-rent thug played by John Travolta rolls into town, he radiates a laid-back confidence that has everybody from a seedy producer (Gene Hackman) to the producer’s mistress (Rene Russo) to the mistress’s sawed-off, superstar ex-husband (Danny DeVito) eating out of his hand. Scott Frank’s script, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel, dramatizes the William Goldman adage that nobody in Hollywood really knows what they’re doing, but adds this satiric twist: The people who succeed best know they know nothing and ride with the strongest voice in the room.
Chili Palmer the thug may know nothing about movies, but he knows how to get his way–a life of crime being an excellent form of preparation for being good in a room with Hollywood types. The Godfather, a classic crime film, takes its own detour through Hollywood, emphasizing how the worldly power of movies is linked to the lure of crime. No one, not even the most hardened crook, is immune to the power of movies, and sadly, or hilariously, depending on the film, no industry brings out the criminal in otherwise decent people more swiftly than film.
Self-betrayal drives Barton Fink, the disturbing Coen Brothers film that’s filled with sideshows far creepier and more disgusting than even that fabled wood-chipper which ate the bad guy in Fargo. Barton lives so much inside his own head that he’s deaf to the nuances that might save him from ruin. A suave variation of this overtakes the hero of The Player, which Robert Altman directed from the novel and screenplay by Michael Tolkin. There, the ambitious young studio exec played by Tim Robbins accidentally kills a man (a screenwriter, not so accidentally), then becomes ruthless in his efforts to cover the fatal mishap. As the criminal in Robbins evolves, he not only saves his job and advances his career to greater glory, he ends up romancing the dead man’s girlfriend. The subtle progression that Altman achieves, especially in the film’s last sequence, is that this hero, who had been so personable and involving during the first half of the movie, seems to have disappeared behind a cloud in his own face.
It is not so surprising that the creative citizens of Hollywood should seek to give expression to the dark business they deal in. Filmmakers can’t help making such films–the best stories are always drawn from something you’ve experienced firsthand, after all. And, of course, by dramatizing it, they are implicitly absolving themselves, to a degree, of their guilt in the evil deeds. What’s mysterious is that audiences seem to respond. Not always right away; in fact, seldom, if ever, right away. The weird fact is, movies about movies tend to become classics more often than they ever become hits. Perhaps at an instinctive level, we’re all sensing the wages of daydreams. As much as we might adore fantasy, deep down we want to know the truth. Something in us senses that when moviemakers represent Hollywood, they’re after their own truth, and that their bitter tales provide a moral compass a non-Hollywood civilian might be able to use. Then again, now that every other high school kid dreams of a career in the dream factory, maybe all these Hollywood stories serve either as cautionary tales or, God forbid, how-to manuals.
F.X. Feeney is an L.A.-based writer.