Somewhere Cinematic: Hollywood Movies On Hollywood

Slide 1: Introduction

Somewhere is a Hollywood movie in multiple senses. Not only is it set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollywood (its main location, the Chateau Marmont hotel, is one of the great landmarks of the area), but it’s about that other, better-known Hollywood: the American film industry. Writer-director Sofia Coppola’s glimpse into the life of jaded movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is part of a long tradition of films that have looked behind the bright lights to give a sense of what truly goes on in the day-to-day existences of the people who work in the motion picture business. Indeed, instead of reinforcing the public perception that matinee idols and movie directors live glitzy, happy, fulfilling lives, Hollywood has historically attempted to show the grind and graft behind the glamour, from multiple versions of A Star is Born (the first made in 1937) through to Focus Features’ own 2006 movie Hollywoodland, the cautionary tale of the first actor to play Superman, George Reeves. In the following slideshow, Nick Dawson examines 10 movies that reveal what Hollywood thinks of itself.

Slide 2: A Star is Born (1937)

When Hollywood first decided to turn a camera on itself, its gaze was decidedly critical. In the 1930s, the Golden Age of Hollywood was well under way, yet nevertheless an effort was made by filmmakers not to glamorize what went on in show business. The first classic film about Hollywood was A Star is Born, the tale of the tragic romance between fading alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine (Fredric March) and aspiring actress Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor). And it’s a movie that has continued to ring true in Hollywood, inspiring remakes in 1954 (with James Mason and Judy Garland) and 1976 (featuring Kris Kristofferson). A cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fickle fame and stardom, A Star is Born was allegedly based on the marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and the now-forgotten actor Frank Fay, though Norman Maine’s watery suicide recalls the death of actor John Bowers, who drowned while the film was being made. Janet Gaynor certainly would not have argued that the film was realistic: in a famous scene, Esther’s Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars is disturbed by a drunken Norman – just as Gaynor’s own acceptance speech was marred by her sister’s drunkenness when she won Best Actress for 7th Heaven at the inaugural 1927 Academy Awards. Reviewing A Star is Born at the time of its release, the New York Times’ Frank S. Nugent wrote that the film was “a Hollywood story of, by, and for its people. It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted, but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that is Hollywood. That, in itself, guarantees its dramatic interest, for there is no place on this twentieth-century earth more fascinating.”

Slide 3: Sullivan's Travels (1942)

While A Star is Born crafted a melodrama out of Hollywood lives, Sullivan’s Travels made serious points about the movie industry with a vivacious sense of humor. The follow-up to writer-director Preston Sturges’ debut The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels is about John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a director of very successful comedies who decides he wants to make a profound, socially-conscious drama, an adaptation of the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In preparation for his magnum opus, he becomes a hobo in order to discover how the poor in America truly live. (This plot point was inspired by actor John Garfield who, in the 1930s – during the height of his fame – hitchhiked and rode the rails incognito.) Sturges made the film to burst the bubble of “preaching” directors (such as Frank Capra?) who were making movies “which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message,” with the movie ultimately making the case that comedy, rather than drama, can bring the most good to the lives of the poor and despondent. (Sullivan’s Travels has the following dedication: “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.”) In his essay on the movie for its Criterion Collection release, Todd McCarthy calls Sullivan’s Travels the “sweetest, most generous-hearted satire of the Hollywood film industry the town has ever produced … Conceived as a self-justification for the creative path he [Sturges] had chosen, this film evolved into one from the heart, the single picture that moves through all the pratfalls and pranks and witticisms and barbs and in-jokes to achieve a synthesis that is both terribly funny and deeply moving.”

Slide 4: Sunset Blvd (1950)

In many ways, Sunset Blvd is a perfect halfway point between A Star is Born and Sullivan’s Travels: it is as damning an indictment of fame and the Hollywood machine as the former, and has the sharp satirical observation of the latter. Billy Wilder’s 1950 Faustian fable of Tinseltown recounts the dealings between struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and faded former screen goddess Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who turns him into a kept man. While Swanson came out of retirement to play Norma Desmond, the forgotten star desperate to return to the spotlight, the role was too scathing – and too close to the bone – for actresses Mary Pickford, Mae West, and Pola Negri, who all turned it down before Swanson got an offer. Swanson not only turned in a career-defining performance as the grotesque, aging waxwork but allowed Wilder to use all of her personal photographs in the movie, blurring the lines between her past and her character’s. (“There was a lot of Norma in her, you know,” Wilder once said.) Erich von Stroheim, a once-great director now slumming it as supporting actor, played a once-great director slumming it as Norma’s butler, while Wilder added further touches of poignant authenticity by getting then-forgotten silent film stars Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson to play themselves. Sunset Blvd was too much for some industry insiders: Mary Pickford was apparently overcome with emotion after seeing it, while MGM boss Louis B. Mayer said to Wilder, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Whether one is close to the subject or not, it’s undeniable that Sunset Blvd is brilliant but brutal. Richard Corliss deemed it “the definitive Hollywood horror movie,” while the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson wrote that it is “an Industry vision of the Industry's fake-life boneyard, wherein the meta-world of movies—already so notorious for corrupting the hopes and sensibilities of moviegoers—also condemns its godlings to an empty afterlife. Wilder's Norma Desmond is the paradigmatic matinee-idol has-been witch-beast, alone with her glory days for so long in a curtained mansion that eventually Gothic clichés are reborn as Beverly Hills pathology.”

Slide 5: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Made just two years after Sunset Blvd, Singin’ in the Rain puts a rather more nostalgic and joyful spin on the stars of the silent era. Set in 1927, co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s movie presents an affectionate portrait of Hollywood in the transition period between silent pictures and talkies, centering on the love affair that develops between dashing leading man Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a young chorus girl brought in to dub the voice of Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The movie lampoons Hollywood’s technical efforts at recording dialogue by hiding microphones in bushes and the like, yet the irony was that Singin’ in the Rain was still using very similar techniques! In order to hear Reynolds’ dialogue better, a microphone was hidden in her blouse, while Reynolds – whose character’s voice is use to dub over the screechy Lina – was herself dubbed over by Betty Noyes for the songs “Would You” and “You Are My Lucky Star.” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie that “Singin' in the Rain pulses with life; in a movie about making movies, you can sense the joy they had making this one,” however the making of the movie was actually terribly arduous. Cast and crew apparently worked up to 19 hours a day, and Reynolds (who had to be up daily at 4.a.m.) was nursing bleeding feet after performing the “Good Morning” song and dance routine with Kelly and Donald O’Connor. (Reynolds later said that childbirth and making Singin’ in the Rain were the toughest experiences she’d ever had.) However, ultimately, what’s most important about a movie is the audience’s reaction to it, and Singin’ in the Rain is considered the greatest movie musical of them all, and is also one of the most loved movies about the movies. “No funnier lampoon of film-making has yet swum within our ken than this brief but side-splitting revelation of the battle with the machine,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times when the film came out. “And some of the musical numbers that kid the old musical clichés, such as fashion parades and pin-wheel chorus groups, are as mischievous is they come.”

Slide 6: Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

After the success of their collaboration on 1963’s Love with a Proper Stranger, star Natalie Wood, producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan reteamed on Inside Daisy Clover, an idiosyncratic Hollywood movie based on the novel of the same name by Gavin Lambert. Wood starred as the title character, a wild child teenager with star potential plucked from obscurity by morally dubious studio boss Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer) and brought to Hollywood. Set in the 1930s, Inside Daisy Clover – like A Star is Born before it – took as its subject the seeming impossibility of finding both success and happiness as a movie star. Wood’s Daisy marries dashing fellow star Wade Lewis (Robert Redford) – who soon abandons her because he’s gay – and then has an affair with Swan, but remains perpetually troubled and alone. A child star who had continued to be a screen success as she’d moved into adulthood, Wood felt a true kinship with her character. In her article on the film on the TCM website, Margarita Landazuri writes that “[Gavin] Lambert became a close friend of the actress during filming and recalled her saying, "at every key moment of Daisy's life, she's alone!" That insight, along with Wood's own experiences as a child star, added layers to her performance.” A film which created an uneven tone to match the unevenness of its central figure, Inside Daisy Clover got a rough ride from the critics on its release, but has since gained a small cult following. “The film, fashioned as a "movie" film, isn't the least bit sentimental, least of all about Hollywood, although it brims with compassion,” writes film critic Joe Baltake at his blog, The Passionate Filmgoer. “It's not always likable, but for me, thanks to the extraordinary Wood, Inside Daisy Clover works as an out-of-control life force, unstoppable.”

Slide 7: Nickelodeon (1976)

A film critic and movie programmer before he became a director, Peter Bogdanovich is a filmmaker who has a boundless love of cinema and is steeped in its history. Unique among his New Hollywood peers as a director with an old-fashioned sensibility, Bogdanovich in 1976 looked back to the early days of Hollywood with the nostalgic Nickelodeon. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote, “Bogdanovich has paid homage to that era of filmmaking in several of his films; The Last Picture Show had the lean and evocative look of a John Ford film, and What's Up, Doc? was a screwball comedy in the Hawks style. But before Hawks, before Ford, there was an earlier generation, the first Hollywood generation. And Nickelodeon is about that generation, about the pioneers who took a toy and made it into an industry.” The film’s plot – about Ryan O’Neal’s Leo Harrigan, a lawyer who gets involved in the film industry, first as a writer and then a director – was inspired by conversations Bogdanovich had conducted years earlier with veteran directors like Alan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, prolific Hollywood helmers who had come up through the system in the silent days. Bogdanovich was keen to take up his friend and mentor Orson Welles’ suggestion to shoot the movie in black-and-white (as he had done with his breakthrough hit, The Last Picture Show), however commercial considerations prevented him from being able to do so. He did, however, get his way with another retro stunt: on the movie’s opening day, patrons paid only five cents for admission, bringing back the prices of the original nickelodeons.

Slide 8: My Favorite Year (1982)

Hollywood endured a difficult period in the 1950s when its previously captive audience began to dwindle due to the growing popularity of television. The crowd-pleasing My Favorite Year captures this period very nicely in the tale of a young comedy writer, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), who is charged with looking after swashbuckling screen icon Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), in the week leading up to his appearance on the TV show Stone works for. The challenge for Stone is that Swann is a raging alcoholic, a larger-than-life figure who is almost impossible to control, especially for his young, unworldly handler. For fans of classic Hollywood, it wasn’t difficult to spot that O’Toole’s Swann was a figure inspired by such greats as John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, dashing heroes on the big screen and booze-soaked hellraisers away from it. Indeed, the characters of Swann and Stone in My Favorite Year are loosely based on Mel Brooks (a producer on the film), who worked on Sid Caesar’s TV variety program Your Show of Shows, and Errol Flynn, who once had a guest spot on that program. (Brooks, however, was not a handler for Flynn – who was well-behaved in this instance – and the plot is otherwise purely fictional.) The casting of O’Toole was also daringly spot-on: as a known heavy drinker himself, he brought a real authenticity (and poignancy) to the role, and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. My Favorite Year is ultimately a very fond picture of a Hollywood hero: “I'm afraid. I'm afraid,” Swann tells Stone just before the curtain goes up on the live show. “Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I'm flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I'm not that silly God-damned hero! I never was!” Stone replies, “To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked!”

Slide 9: The Player (1992)

After a period in the wilderness during the 1980s, director Robert Altman returned to the top with The Player, his scathing satire of the movie industry. Adapted by Michael Tolkin from his own novel, The Player centered on movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) whose job is under threat and is receiving threatening postcards from one of the numerous screenwriters whose pitches he has scornfully rejected. Mill tracks down the person he thinks is sending the postcards, David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), but after Kahane provokes him, Mill kills Kahane in an uncontrollable rage. Altman’s film is a treat for cinephiles: it is packed with movie references and in-jokes, and has cameos by everybody who’s anybody in Hollywood, from marquee names such as Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts to writer-directors like Alan Rudolph and Buck Henry. The film begins with an incredible eight-minute continues take that is Altman-esque to the extreme, effortlessly gliding around the studio lot from character to character and conversation to conversation, and at the same time namechecking A Touch of Evil and Rope, two movies which also have masterful long opening shots. In his assessment of the film Vanity Fair’s Stephen Schiff wrote that “The Player is about how the industry crushes the originality out of anyone who participates in it — any Player, be he writer, director, or production chief” – however a film this endlessly creative is proof that a true talent such as Altman’s simply cannot be suppressed.

Slide 10: Living in Oblivion (1995)

The mid-1990s was a time when indie filmmaking was booming, and so it was not surprising that around that time there was a movie that captured the experience of working in Indiewood. As with so many of the movies discussed here, Tom DiCillo’s extremely funny Living in Oblivion is inspired by real life, in this case the writer-director’s experiences working on his 1991 debut Johnny Suede. The movie tells the story of a day on the set of writer-director Nick Reve’s (Steve Buscemi) new film, which stars self-doubting actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) and the narcissistic pretty boy lead actor Chad Palomino (James LeGros). (Despite widespread belief to the contrary, DiCillo says that Palomino is, in fact, not based on Brad Pitt, the star of Johnny Suede.) Living in Oblivion does a great job of showing the insecurity of the film’s principals: the first two segments of the film are nightmares about the day ahead that Nicole and Nick have. In her New York Times rave, Janet Maslin called Living in Oblivion “Tom DiCillo's wonderfully funny behind-the-scenes look at the perils of film making, no-budget style.” Maslin continued, “While he nominally presents the directing process as a series of hellish travails, Mr. DiCillo captures such delicious mischief that his indictment becomes a valentine.” Indeed, although indie filmmaking is presented as a literal nightmare in Living in Oblivion, the movie itself had a charmed, dream-like life. It began as a short film starring Keener, which then expanded when DiCillo wrote two further segments; and when DiCillo couldn’t get funding for the film, cast and crew members raised the requisite money themselves in a utopian example of communal creative endeavor. "I know making this movie saved me from myself," DiCillo once said. "I was in the most negative, the most utterly disparaged state of mind that I've ever been in in my life. The strangest irony for me is that Living in Oblivion came directly out of my own disappointment and somehow saved me from it."

Slide 11: Hollywoodland (2006)

In 1965, Time’s Richard Schickel wrote, “When Hollywood turns the camera on itself it nearly always makes the astonishing discovery that the place is gaudy, vulgar, success-crazed, money-mad and generally suffering from bad values.” It’s certainly true that movies about Hollywood – or at least the good and interesting ones – tend to be cautionary tales that show the darker side of the film industry. Thus, it’s not a huge surprise that Hollywoodland, the final film on this list, is also about the difficulties and dangers of stardom. (The title is a reference to the famous Hollywood sign, which originally read “Hollywoodland,” the name of a 1920s real estate project.) Ben Affleck won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his lead performance as real-life figure George Reeves, a once-iconic actor who played Superman during the 1950s, but then wanted to distance himself from the Man of Steel. Director Allen Coulter’s film captures the tragic end of Reeves’ life, giving three differing versions of the incidents that lead to him being found dead in his bedroom on June 16, 1959 after a fatal shot to the head from a Luger 9mm pistol. (For more on the circumstances of Reeves’ death, read this Flashback entry on Reeves’ death.) “There are many mundane reasons to recommend Hollywoodland — it's sharply written, suspenseful and tremendously well-acted (especially by Affleck and Lane) — but its real kick comes from Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum's masterful ability to articulate the broken promises of stardom that pave Hollywood's streets,” wrote critic Bilge Ebiri at the Nerve Film Lounge. “Hollywoodland, along with being an enthralling mystery, also touches some very real-life nerves about glamour, celebrity, and disillusionment.”

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