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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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