Ten Films That Showed Hollywood How To Live

Movies teach us things.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we learned how to interact with the world around us partially by watching and imitating movies.  But what about the people who make movies?  According to author David Thomson, the Hollywood power set has learned life lessons from the movies as well.  In the July 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, he offers ten examples.

The movies entertain us, but they shape us, too. So many of us “know” how to kiss, wear clothes or die because of all the pictures we’ve seen. It’s too late now to wonder whether that process is educational or demented– we’re all walking along, half in life and half in the scenarios in our heads.

More than we would ever admit to, we are, after 100 years of movies, acting in their style and calling it behavior. But we are amateurs at this game. Just think about the way movies affect professionals, those for whom pretending is a career. Here’s a suggestion as to how 10 famous pictures have expressed and influenced the ideas and behavior of Hollywood people.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The enterprise of Citizen Kane was for decades what Hollywood moguls held up to infant tycoons as the epitome of how the game should not be played: never give a director anything like carte blanche; never give him power over script or casting; never give him final cut; and, above all, don’t permit him that extraordinary freedom to just show off.

But Orson Welles had a lifelong pose of being at war with the system, of being a loner and an “artist,” even though he lived on magic and melodrama, was a favored guest at parties given by people like Zanuck and Selznick, built his artistry on the fluent mix of sincerity, showmanship, genius, chutzpah and bullshit that Hollywood called its own.

Orson Welles died in L.A. a magnificent, lonely failure–which is just what Hollywood wants artists to be.  Beneath that, however, Citizen Kane spread the seductive subtext of how the rich should behave.

Kane is a spendthrift. He buys art and people with indiscriminate glee and then seldom has the patience to examine either. He boasts of the money he flushes away and of how, at the rate he’s going, he’ll be broke … in 60 years! His house is a palace of shopping and narcissism (the true home for someone indifferent to family, friends, conscience or pension plans), a setting in which the endless process of telling one’s own story will be aided by the echoes of huge rooms and the whispering gallery of empty corridors. Every Hollywood giant has the secret sense that he is alone–that he has to be alone to concentrate, to be himself, to exult in self (that is megalomania).

Kane’s Xanadu (prison, madhouse, folly–if you will) is the supreme version of the monstrous aloneness called power. Like Norma Desmond’s place on Sunset Boulevard, it honors a superb Hollywood destiny–the enormous mansion, bursting with the chaotic design dreams and the broken heart of its occupant.

No, Orson and Kane were very Hollywood. They pioneered laughter in the face of disaster, cigars as big as bombs, and eating anyone you wanted.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s mystery novel had a profound, liberating/devastating effect on Hollywood’s everyday sense of story, truth, order and consequence. Put it another way: it is the film that most fully introduces the notion that we are not simply alive, or living life, but are in a movie, where we have lines, actions and fates to fulfill. And so it is our duty to have fun and put on a great show.

As a book, The Big Sleep was an elaborate, complex story about who killed whom, how and why. In the process of making the film, the actors and crew had a tough time following the script–why was that fellow killed, and who did it? The several scriptwriters were interrogated. They had no satisfactory answer. A wire was sent to Chandler himself, and even he had to admit he was puzzled. Well, there was a long scene in the script–a conversation between Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) and the cops–that was intended to explain everything. But it went on and on, and the audience had to remember all the names, think back, and make diagrams in their heads. When the picture previewed, that scene was a killer–people went to the bathroom and never came back. And it took so much away from all the great scenes where Bogart and Bacall just chat and flirt and have fun. So director Hawks and Warner Bros, cut the boring clearing-up sequence, and filmed some more Bogart/Bacall stuff to replace it. Result: what is maybe the most entertaining Hollywood film ever made (top 10, anyway) is also beyond comprehension. But no one cares.

The lesson for life, especially show-business life? Whenever anyone asks you something like: “I want the $500,000 now,” or “What were you doing with the hat-check girl at Ciro’s?” or “Why all the blood in the Bronco?” or “Have you no shame?” you just ignore the question and have fun.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

There surely has to be one movie in this group that directly tackles the task of instructing Hollywood people on how they should conduct themselves. Sunset Boulevard (1950) went dangerously close to bad taste in this endeavor: it was a tale told by a corpse; it intimated that women over the age of 50 might want sex; and it left an odd after-flavor with its suggestion that maybe being in pictures could make you mad. Two years later, The Bad and the Beautiful got the recipe right.

Sure, it was a satire (if you must use that fatal word), and, OK, it did spell out that what animated Hollywood was the kind of wide-eyed, unprincipled ambition and self-adoration personified by the producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). But then you had to notice that the alleged expose of Shields, built around the reminiscences of three people who had been used, abused, exploited and betrayed by the mogul, actually ended with all of them gathered round one telephone (a key weapon in the Shields arsenal) to hear what they wanted to do next. The frogs always reenlist to be stung by scorpions (another principle devised by Orson Welles).

What that resolution implies is that there is no actual abuse or betrayal in Hollywood, because the betrayers are our friends, or our kind of guy, and because we want to be used, deceived and shat upon–that is our role on the team and in the show. No matter how shabbily a Shields behaves–or you, or I–that mayhem is to be regarded as a part of the overall performance. It is what’s to be expected; it was in the script. The world is there for the pirates, the outlaws and the strong to seize and ravish. Yes, they are bad, but they are beautiful too, like killer tigers, because they do badness with such flourish and panache. There is nothing in town as polished as a sharp, stylish heel–that is why all the most hilarious jokes are told about the killers.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

In those mid-1950s, all America was waking up to a new deal: we would agree that teenagers were the center of the world if they would agree to just keep spending. The movies were only one of many businesses in the next few decades that would focus on teens and shape illusions for them. Rebel Without a Cause remains the most flagrant, beautiful and idiotic tribute to this notion of the eternal, virtuous selfishness of the teenager. But in Hollywood, a place always constitutionally opposed to the theory and practice of growing older, the teenager in this film became a surly model for adults suffering from new-deal guilt.

When he played the high-school senior Jim Stark, James Dean was actually 24 (Natalie Wood, by the way, playing 16, was 16–youth in the female is always more authentic and desirable). And so Dean showed Hollywood the possibility that someone already too old could still wear a T-shirt and jeans and impose his emotional tyranny on his elders.

It was a part of the rebel’s credo that parents were, by definition, ludicrous, craven, stupid and chronically selfish figures who sometimes begged for attention or a life of their own.

A vital lesson began here: as the Hollywood power broker grew older (an inescapable reality, but never to be mentioned), he owed it to himself to hold onto the mindset of adolescence in which he was the big Me, the center of the household and the solar system, the one to be honored, attended to and spoiled. Only in that way could the power broker usurp the youthfulness and rights of his own children (as, inevitably, they came along), his most intimate rivals.

After all, the teenager had and knew feelings that were new and illuminating to the world; he was, just by being 17 or 18, brilliant, wise and right; he was an actor off on his own improv riff as other players stood by patiently, ready to turn their scripts into toilet tissue. With all those advantages, the career teenager, the devout adolescent, had no need of a cause. Or a “because.” He was Me.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

What does that title mean? It’s become a phrase that’s often tossed around in a very cool way–as if hot (as in sexy, wild, crazed, abandoned, etc.) had also become “hot” (as in “Does he/she think he/she’s hot, or what?”). In short, “hot” and its wildness became a terrific act, a campfire.

Some Like It Hot has a world only film can make, one in which we zip along on a night train with an all-girl band–and we’re talking honeys–from frigid Chicago to sun-drenched Florida. Every detail of this world is cheerfully cliched. Pursued by gangsters intent on tidying up after a massacre, what can our boys do (just a tenor sax man and a bull fiddle player) but go all the way? They’re in show business, aren’t they? And sooner or later, that boils down to acting. So they put on heels and dresses, no matter the initial outrage to their own self-image. But they aren’t just doing themselves up in drag–there’s something sweet in the feeling of silk next to the skin.

No one would accuse Billy Wilder or Some Like It Hot of being gay, or even bisexual.

This is, after all, a movie in which we can indulge the fantasy of being perpetually kissed by, and nearly smothered under the pendant breasts of, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn and Tony are together at the end for nothing less than the big bang and the black hole that men offer women. But somehow, along with offering up so much comedy that no one can complain (or escape), Some Like It Hot also proposes the giddy potential of acting gay. Jack may just settle for being Joe E. Brown’s girl with the diamonds and a pampered life–you always want to follow the money. For the community of Hollywood, Some Like It Hot was the moment when the sexual safety net was cut down, and a guy was free to think about clothes and how he looked, and even to indulge in swift, cutting banter. “Going gay” became a routine.

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Posted on July 18, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I never learned to die from the movies, but I’ve definitely tried out things, said lines, to see if they would work in real life. Good article, and I always get a good laugh that Raymond Chandler himself lost track of what happened to the murder victim in his own story. A term like “Rebel Without a Cause” has been a part of American language for a long time.


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