From Sunset Boulevard to Swimming with Sharks, Hollywood has long cast a cold eye on itself…
Hollywood movies — that is, movies about Hollywood — are almost always paradoxical. Think about it: invariably, when Hollywood holds a mirror up to itself, the denizens of the film community are portrayed as smug, narcissistic, greedy, thoughtless, and/or downright sadistic. But logic dictates that the unsavory tribe depicted in these films reflects the very people who write, direct, produce, star in, and green-light the projects that portray them so unsympathetically.
Could it be that the film industry doesn’t actually hold itself in such high regard; that Hollywood actually hates itself? Or is it possible that the people who’ve made these movies see their friends and neighbors for what they are, while remaining willfully blind to their own faults? Either way, when Hollywood mines its own neighborhood in search of stories, it strikes one of its richest and most bitter veins.
The Hollywood Satire Top Ten
Here, then, without further ado, are Hollywood’s ten most successful self-indictments.
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Billy Wilder may have been an immigrant to Hollywood, but his Sunset Boulevard hero, screenwriter Joe Gillis, understands the place like a native. Think back to the knowing irony Joe slings at the fool in the pool (floating, face down) as the movie opens: “Poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool — only the price turned out to be a little high.” As the self-loathing screenwriter suckered into the life of a gigolo script doctor by delusional ex-silent film star Norma Desmond and her ex-husband/ex-director/butler Max von Meyerling (played by silent star Gloria Swanson and silent director Erich von Stroheim, respectively), William Holden has never been better, and the dialogue (by Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.) crackles with Wilder’s trademark cynicism. Not merely the greatest film ever made about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is one of the dozen or so greatest films ever made in Hollywood — or anywhere else.
Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)
Arguably Hollywood’s greatest satirist, Preston Sturges set his sights on the film industry with this look at a successful but lightweight director, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who decides he wants to make a “serious” film and sets out dressed like a hobo “to find out how it feels to be in trouble, without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone.” While Sullivan’s journey can be seen as Sturges’s attempt at self-justification (he ultimately learns that “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh”), it can also be taken as an indictment of a studio system that laughs at the filmmaker’s lofty goals, and as a bit of gentle self-mockery on the part of Sturges: ” I wanted to make something outstanding. Something you could be proud of. Something that would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is — with a little sex in it.”
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
Released the same year as Sunset Boulevard, this biting film noir from director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) features one of Humphrey Bogart’s least typical and best performances. Bogie plays Dixon Steele, a hot-tempered, hard-drinking, hard-to-get-along-with screenwriter whose agent lands him an assignment adapting a fluffy potboiler. Unwilling to read the trashy novel, Dix convinces a hat-check girl who knows the story to tell it to him — at his bungalow apartment. When she turns up murdered the next day, he is the prime suspect. Luckily, a beautiful neighbor (Gloria Grahame) tells the police that she saw the girl leave alone, and she and Dix soon fall in love. This being noir, their affair is doomed — but Ray and screenwriter Andrew Solt give Lonely Place a more bittersweet (as opposed to bitter) ending than most films in the genre. Nevertheless, the picture of Hollywood as a place that crushes the weak (the hat-check girl) and saps the soul from the strong (Dix) could not be clearer.
S.O.B. (Blake Edwards, 1981)
In 1970, Blake Edwards made Darling Lili, an ill-fated big-budget WWII musical melodrama starring his soon-to-be wife, Julie Andrews, as a Mata Hari-like German spy. The only good thing to come out of the experience was S.O.B., a hilariously incisive look at a Hollywood director undergoing an emotional meltdown following the bellyflop of his new musical. The director (brilliantly portrayed by Richard Mulligan) decides to revive the project by spicing it up with some porn. In addition to offering Andrews the opportunity to bare her breasts, Edwards created the edgiest satire of his career, with standout roles for William Holden (in his final film) and Robert Preston.
The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)
The early ’50s were a golden era for Hollywood self-examination. Released two years after Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place and two years before George Cukor’s remake of A Star Is Born, this classic stars Kirk Douglas as a ruthless producer/studio head who calls on a writer (Dick Powell), a director (Barry Sullivan), and an actress (Lana Turner) whose careers he launched to help him save his studio. In flashback, we learn how Douglas’ character seduced them all with his charm only to betray them. All the actors are great, but Douglas gives a career performance, defining the Hollywood mogul with his projection of reckless ambition and magnetism.
Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991)
This nightmare vision of Hollywood from the Brothers Coen stars John Turturro as the title character, a Clifford Odets-like Socialist playwright who comes to Hollywood and ends up assigned to a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. The supporting performances are particularly vivid: John Goodman as a traveling salesman who befriends Barton; John Mahoney as a Faulkner-based Southern genius; Judy Davis as his secretary, who becomes Barton’s lover; and Michael Lerner as the vulgar studio mogul who wants his movies to have that “Barton Fink feeling.” But the real star here is the Hotel Earle, the eerie dump with pealing wallpaper where Barton contracts a potentially lethal case of writer’s block.
A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
The second version (not counting Cukor’s own, very similar 1932 film, What Price Hollywood?) of this classic tells the tale of a young singer/actress (Judy Garland) whose career rises as that of her husband/mentor (James Mason) falls. Despite the story’s familiarity, this is an enormously affecting film, thanks in large part to Garland’s finest dramatic work and Mason’s haunting performance as the doomed Norman Maine.
Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995)
Elmore Leonard’s comic novel about Mob loan shark Chili Palmer’s adventures in Hollywood gets first class treatment, with a skillful adaptation by screenwriter Scott Frank and entertaining turns by John Travolta as Chili, Gene Hackman as a hapless producer, and Danny DeVito (who also produced) as a movie star whose ego is greater than his physical stature.
The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)
Based on Michael Tolkin’s novel, Altman’s best film since his ’70s heyday gave all of Hollywood a knowing chuckle at its own expense. Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a middling studio executive who murders a threatening screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofrio). The cameos — by everyone from Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts to Burt Reynolds and Leeza Gibbons — are especially fun, but the movie’s slick facade barely masks Altman’s antipathy for his adopted home.
Swimming with Sharks (George Huang, 1994)
Not a great movie, but a great vehicle for Kevin Spacey, who plays Buddy Ackerman, an abusive, truly loathesome studio executive. When Ackerman takes sole credit for a project championed by his much-mistreated assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley), Guy breaks into his home and takes him hostage. For writer-director Huang, this was the ultimate revenge fantasy: before making this film, he toiled as assistant to mega-producer Joel Silver, one of Hollywood’s legendary egomaniacs.