A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2016)

With Hail, Caesar! Joel and Ethan Coen return to Old Hollywood, the scene of one of their earliest films, the dark horror-comedy Barton Fink (1991), this time to give us what appears to be a cotton-candy fantasia on movie genres. But Hail, Caesar! seems to me the more successful film. In its sly way it reveals the grip that Hollywood myth and history have on our imaginations, using parodies of Hollywood genre films not just to send up their absurdities but also to show how deeply they color our dreams. At the same time, it explores Hollywood history -- the hold the old studios had on actors' lives, the role of publicity and gossip in creating and destroying stars, the interaction with politics during the Red Scare of the late '40s and '50s -- and combines it with the parody sequences to create a movie that turns out to be a parody of movies about The Movies, a genre that includes everything from the many versions of A Star Is Born to Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) to, well, Barton Fink. The individual parodies -- the biblical epic, the drawing room drama based on a Broadway hit, the singing-cowboy Western, the Esther Williams extravaganza, the sailors-on-a-spree musical -- are all spot on. But it takes a special audacity -- something the Coens have never lacked -- to send up the anti-communist hysteria that led to the HUAC investigation and the blacklist. The Coens do it by treating the paranoid suspicion that left-wingers were undermining the American Way of Life by injecting Marxism into the movies as if it were real. So we have a communist cell made up of writers who kidnap a movie star for ransom, and another star who defects to the Soviets when the writers row him out to a submarine at night. It's a reductio ad absurdum of Cold War hysteria, as brilliantly handled by the Coens as it was by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove (1964). The Coens also tease us by dropping the names of real people into the script. Josh Brolin plays a studio production chief and fixer named Eddie Mannix, which is the name of a real-life Hollywood fixer who kept wayward stars out of the headlines, and he reports to a studio executive in New York named Nick Schenck, the name of the president of Loew's, Inc., which owned MGM. One of the members of the communist cell in the film, a professor "down from Stanford," is called Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), the name of a Marxist philosopher popular with the New Left of the 1960s. It's a film of wonderful cameos, including George Clooney as the kidnapped star, Scarlett Johansson as the Esther Williams equivalent, Ralph Fiennes as the director Laurence Laurentz, and Channing Tatum emulating Gene Kelly as the singing and dancing sailor. Tilda Swinton plays the film's competing gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, based on the notoriously powerful Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. By making them twins, the Coens seem to have conflated them with the competing advice columnists Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, née Pauline and Esther Friedman.