Hollywood, California. Tinseltown. The City of Dreams. Land of the Giant Sign. The Big H.
Where careers are made and dreams are shattered on a daily basis. Where a nobody from some nothing town in Iowa can make it big, a talented young man can sell his soul to earn millions as a hack, and a headliner can die forgotten and alone in some flop house. Behind the glitz and glamour of the red carpet and the gossip rags lies a darkness in the 91601.
This Sunday, the pro-Hollywood Entourage (read my lookback here) begins its final eight episodes, but this Listicle honors those that examine the seedy underbelly of the land from whence movies are born.
Action (Chris Thompson, 1999-2000)
FOX’s Action was a show ahead of its time. Lasting for half a season between 1999 and 2000, the curse-laden, single-camera series featured Jay Mohr in his all-time best performance as Peter Dragon, an energetic producer of sexually charged, gratuitous violence-laden films. When we first meet the head of Dragonfire Films/former gay porn screenwriter, he is recovering from his last movie, a monumental flop called Slow Torture. Despite most of his oeuvre having been genre-defining hits, he understands that he has one last shot to prove himself.
After a bender, Peter realizes that he accidentally purchased the script to Beverly Hills Gun Club after mistaking its loser screenwriter Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul, who later ended up writing the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man) for the real-life Alan Rifkin. With Beverly Hills Gun Clubthe best script in his collection (according to former child star/prostitute/second in command/Vice President of Production, Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas)), Dragon has no choice but to film it.
The first (and only) season of Action followed the filming of Beverly Hills Gun Club (though we never got to see it to completion), and it presented the multitude of problems inherent in making a film, although in probably exaggerated form. Examples included finding financiers (including Middle Eastern drug dealers), endless studio notes that completely change the meaning and tone of the film, avoiding paying the screenwriter by giving him a useless producer credit, diva/drug addict actors, deaths on the sets, suicides on the set, etc. The show, punctuated by legendary comedian Buddy Hackett as Peter’s uncle/head of security, was incredibly funny and brutally dark with a genuine cleverness in showing the horrors of the industry.
Barton Fink (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991)
A lot of movies can rightfully compete for the title of best Coen Brothers’ film, but, in my opinion, the indefinable Barton Fink is their greatest work.
Set in 1941, successful “high brow” Broadway playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) receives an invitation to come to Hollywood and write for the pictures. Although Barton prefers to write about “the life of the mind” (the internal struggles faced by the common man), Capitol Pictures (represented by the larger-than life Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, playing a classic model studio head) and his groveling lackey Lou Breeze (Jon Polito)) selected him for a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery. A typical B-picture, even though “[they] do not make B pictures here at Capitol. Let’s put a stop to that rumor right now!”
Despite his constant proclamations about his love of the common man, Fink knows nothing about wrestling or the type of the movie that appeals to the category of human he writes “for,” and thus suffers from writer’s block. Set up at the eerie Hotel Earle with wallpaper peeling and bellman Chet (Steve Buscemi) (Chet!) at his service, he meets his neighbor, the traveling sales “every man” Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who thinks a Berry wrestling picture “could be a pip.” But every time Charlie tries to tell Fink about his life, Fink does not listen.
While struggling with his screenplay, Fink meets fellow celebrated-author-turned-Hollywood-hack, W.P Mayhew (John Mahoney). Based on William Faulkner, the alcoholic and tragic Mayhew shows the newbie Fink what the industry does to genius, while executives such as Lipnick and producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub) prove to Fink just how low on the pecking order writers are in this world.
Eventually, Fink finishes his script by applying his own themes and motifs into, what Lipnick calls, “a fruity movie about suffering.” The disgusted studio head cancels Fink’s work on film but does not terminate his contract, letting him know that nothing he writes will ever be made and forever trapping him in Hollywood.
8 1/2 (dir. Federico Fellini, 1963)
Heralded by some of the greatest filmmakers of all time as one of the best films about filmmaking, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (title referring to it being Fellini’s 8th-and-a-half movie) is simultaneously about writer’s block and womanizing. However, unlike many writer’s block stories, Guido Anselmi (Fellini’s regular leading man, Marcello Mastroiani) is a director and thus has legions of people depending on him for his next movie and not for enjoyment, but for work.
The film (which might be something science fiction-y) is about to go into production. The sets are built, the cast is there, yet Guido hasn’t the faintest clue what the currently script-less film is about, nor does he seem to care all that much. Although he tries to sleep with his actresses, his wife, and various other women, you can sense boredom in that life of debauchery too. A portion of the film features flashbacks to Guido’s earlier experiences with women, but the film-within-a-film is always lurking in the shadows.
Like many of Fellini’s films, despite containing surrealistic elements, 8 1/2 has a definite sense of the personal. Fellini himself was a man obsessed with film and a man obsessed with women, just like Guido. Nevertheless, you always get the sense that despite Guido/Fellini’s apathy, there is a love towards both, no matter how badly things are collapsing around him.
Another of 8 1/2‘s most intriguing elements is that the film feels very much like a dream. Guido is taking the test he didn’t prepare for, he is naked in the board room during an important presentation. The ending further heightens this sense of unreality, while never taking away from Fellini’s creation.
Where Nine (the semi-remake of 8 1/2 that was originally a musical play and turned into a 2009 movie musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard, among others) failed is that we (well, I) never got the sense of passion in either film or women that oozed from 8 1/2. That essential element of self that Fellini instilled in 8 1/2 through his direction, screenplay, and actors was lacking from Rob Marshall’s work. Put another way, Nine was about the dance numbers, not what’s involved in creating the dance numbers.
Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)
Never a filmmaker one would consider “Hollywood,” David Lynch might have made his masterpiece with the Hollywood cautionary tale Mulholland Drive, named after the long and winding road in Los Angeles. Originally filmed as a television pilot, Mulholland Drive wasn’t picked up for series, so Lynch shot additional scenes and turned it into one of his finest films.
Starring Naomi Watts as a plucky young woman from the Midwest wanting to make a big time career as an actress after winning a Jitterbug competition, Mulholland Drive merges the naïve conception of 1950s Hollywood with the cynicism of today in new and exciting ways. Hollywood is presented as bizarre as ever, where lead actresses are chosen like mob hits (and there are also mob hits, including one by a truly incompetent assassin), people fly into sudden rages, and shadowy individuals behind glass walls make phone calls to get a deal done. The core of the film (featuring Watts and Laura Elena Harring) is surrounded by minor vignettes seemingly unrelated to one another. Many plot lines never really play out in any conventional way, there’s a prophecy element to some extent, and some might feel that it even reboots in the middle. But in Mulholland Drive, Lynch developed an amazingly complicated and alluring universe where every piece fits, even when it doesn’t.
Light fantasy clashing with dark fantasy, Mulholland Drive is a film that warrants multiple viewings. Not just to “understand” it better, but to notice all the details one easily misses during the first viewings. This film excels at featuring one of Lynch’s most remarkable and underappreciated talents- his sense of humor. Despite all the confusion and even uncomfortableness one might feel throughout the movie, Mulholland Drive is a remarkably funny film with some of Lynch’s best comedic moments.
Honorable mentions: Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman’s comedy featuring Nicholas Cage in two not crappy performances as Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald); Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (where the two characters running throughout Kevin Smith’s five-part Jersey trilogy take center stage to stop a movie being made about their exploits and kick the ass of anonymous Internet haters); and South Park’s AWESOM-O.
We can probably thank …
Singin’ In the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952)
Singin’ In The Rain is one of the most celebrated tales that Hollywood ever told about itself. And rightfully so. It is still one of the best. For anyone who wondered why a lot of early sounds films lack pizzazz compared to what came before and after, this film presents the answer in zany musical comedy form. There is plenty of singing, dancing, and slapstick for all by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor.
Hollywood giant Monumental Pictures (great studio name!) has decided to go with the big new trend and convert its newest major film to a musical “talkie.” The trouble is that the great silent actors do not all have great voices. The studio’s leading lady (Jean Hagen) elicits big laughs with her shrill, nasal diction instead of stunning audiences with her beauty as she once did. Not to mention all the technical difficulties of staging action around microphones, but far away from the camera and crew to prevent excessive background noise. The whole project soon becomes a complete disaster.
Meanwhile, the three protagonists banish their anxiety and woe through animated dance numbers and catchy songs. Gene Kelly is caught in the middle of the silent/talkie transition, and kicking against the pressure of his leading lady’s romantic attentions. Ingenue Debbie Reynolds (who famously stepped up her dancing game with some help from Fred Astaire) is struggling for a break and for the affection of the screen idol. Kelly’s best bud, played by Donald O’Connor, is a schemer and a dreamer holding their comical triad together.
I have never been the biggest fan of tap dancing or older movie musicals, but Singin’ In The Rain is on an entirely different level. Comprising multiple films within-a-film, and commenting on its subject in such funny and inventive ways (Debbie Reynolds rolls her eyes at her own lavishly staged chorus numbers, and later becomes a star through some pretty outrageous fakery), it mixes a fascinating dose of Hollywood history in with all the spectacle and laughs. Most of the music was adapted from movies and shows which not only existed in the world of the film, but in real -life Hollywood history as well.
Highlights include the jubilant trio “Good Morning” (which a beloved aunt also sang to me when I was a child) and O’Connor’s slapstick tour de force “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Almost every number in the lineup of Singin’ In The Rain is both a nostalgic tribute and a hitmaking performance in its own right. The title song existed as a Hollywood revue favorite, which Kelly’s character nostalgically invokes in the film’s most famous sequence, and which later becomes the centerpiece of a fictional film within the real film of the same name, which represents a new rise to stardom for all the right characters.
Sometimes a love letter and sometimes a roast of classic Hollywod, Singin’ In The Rain is still one of a kind.
A Face In The Crowd (dir. Elia Kazan, 1957)
For every tap of the toes and lilt of the voice that Singin’ In The Rain has to offer, Elia Kazan’s darkside saga A Face In The Crowd offers a drop of bile and a sizzle of acid. A blistering satire of the divide between personal demons and public persona, the film is not as well remembered as East Of Eden or On The Waterfront, but remains among the director’s most timelessly relevant work.
Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries, a radio host whose gimmick is seeking out the “next big thing” in popular music among ordinary country folks. On a hunch, she walks into a rural jail and asks to interview the inmates. She settles on the one with the beat-up guitar, a surly drunk played by Andy Griffith, and persuades him to give the public his best effort. As it turns out, he is a raw guitar-picking and song-howling prodigy, and Marcia arranges for him to sing in a proper radio studio upon his release. His country charm and wit make him an overnight hit, and before long he has become a television personality. Marcia has gone out and made her dream come true, but little does she foresee the monster she has created.
This film is chiefly notorious for featuring Andy Griffith in a role sharply at odds with his own warm and friendly “Sheriff of Mayberry” character. Griffith’s actual rise to popularity – with anecdotes, songs, and unique down-home charm – came about in a similar way but with much different results. His character also hearkens to classic radio and TV personalities like Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey. However, behind the scenes Rhodes gets a little too high on the power. Intoxicated both physically and spiritually by booze, drugs, and lust, he terrorizes those near and dear to him. Every time he pushes them too far, however, he draws them back as close as he can with his wonderfully manipulative charisma.
The public Lonesome Rhodes is a hero for the common man. He rose in the ranks of the establishment by affecting an attitude of defiance toward everything they expect him to be. The private Rhodes is dark, troubled, and abusive. His refusal to talk about his past, at which the film eerily hints now and then, becomes more and more significant as he burns one bridge after another.
Jarring and brash, hilarious and disturbing, A Face In The Crowd is an assault on romantic notions of celebrity. As Marcia yearns for the days before she lost her grip on Rhodes, with the sympathy of her slighted colleague Walter Matthau, it begins to dawn on her that perhaps she has the power to destroy what she unleashed upon the world. If you want to kill a legend, simply expose the side that the public never sees. The astounding power of celebrity can only be eclipsed by its brief lifespan, and A Face In The Crowd never flinches in driving those lessons home.
The Simpsons (first aired 1989)
In its prime and now well beyond, The Simpsons has taken nearly every imaginable subject to task. In a time when sitcoms were gleefully skewing – or perhaps skewering – the traditional suburban family unit, Matt Groening’s animated lunacy became an overnight sensation. A precedent had been set by shows like Married… With Children and Roseanne, and as time would prove, The Simpsons staff included some of the most gifted comedy writers of an entire generation. Utilizing the limitless possibilities of animation, the show moved outside the living room and applied its signature satire to school, church, politics, science, and of course Hollywood.
S7EP2: “Radioactive Man” (dir. Susie Dietter, 1995)
Best moviemaking joke in the history of cinema, television, or the printed word:
On the set of the Radioactive Man movie, Martin Prince and Ralph Wiggum watch a crew member paint a horse to look like a cow.
Martin: “Uh, Sir, why don’t you just use real cows?”
Painter: “Cows don’t look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.”
Ralph: “What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?”
Painter: “Eh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.”
That brilliant exchange sums up the absurd reality of “movie magic” in a tidy little non sequitur. In this episode, popular comic book character Radioactive Man gets his own big-budget feature film, and Springfield gets a starring role as the film’s location. A Hollywood crew moves in, and the savvy city officials drive cost of living prices through the roof to gouge the movie moguls out of a fortune. In a cruel twist of fate, Radioactive Man superfan Bart is given the chance to audition for the sidekick role of Fallout Boy… only to lose out to his reluctant pal Milhouse.
As the director wrestles with the ineptitude of his star, Teutonic beefcake Rainer Wolfcastle, Milhouse learns that being a child star is a grueling and unromantic fate. Worked to exhaustion, degraded, injured and otherwise exploited, he would like nothing more than to run away and leave the film to its own devices. Bart tries to be supportive, but cannot understand why his friend would be so unhappy as an action star.
When Milhouse does finally walk out, the editors go to ludicrous lengths to salvage the picture, with Ed Wood-style continuity and frantic emergency splicing. Even an unsettling cameo by Mickey Rooney – gamely spoofing himself as a child star who could never be taken all that seriously as an adult – cannot convince the wayward Fallout Boy to return to the set.
Needless to say, the finished film is a tremendous failure. In a wonderful bit of satire, the monumental Hollywood powers berate the small town working joes of Springfield for dashing their hopes and sapping the soul from big-budget filmmaking. “Radioactive Man” is a treasure, and still has plenty to say about the way movies get made… or don’t.
S11EP1: “Beyond Blunderdome” (dir. Steven Dean Moore, 1999)
Four years after “Radioactive Man,” The Simpsons took another swipe at the Hollywood machine with “Beyond Blunderdome.” Featuring Mel Gibson in a delightful self-parody, the episode takes on the clash between creative vision and box office appeal. Gibson has broken from his tradition of freewheeling ultraviolence to star in a prestige picture – a straight-faced remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The residents of Springfield attend a test screening, and everybody loves the film except Homer, who expected to see Gibson busting heads and splattering bad guys. Gibson, who secretly longs to keeping making the kind of movie Homer wants to see, takes his outspoken criticism to heart and invites him to Hollywood to help him recut the film.
Homer’s lowbrow, boneheaded suggestions transform the movie’s climactic “filibuster” scene into a shameless slaughterfest on the floor of Congress. The studio executives respond by attempting to destroy the new cut, prompting a chase sequence in which Homer and Mel evade the Hollywood suits Mad Max style, with a misguided twist of Braveheart thrown in there as well.
As usual, Homer’s best attempts backfire, as much through the sleazy politics of Hollywood and the fickle taste of movie fans as through his own reckless blundering. Nobody comes out looking all that great. And the Hollywood juggernaut thunders on.
Even though a suprisingly small number of people acknowledge it, “Beyond Blunderdome” is also noteworthy as the subject of one of the most blatant story ripoffs Family Guy ever perpetrated. In the 2005 episode “North By North Quahog,” Peter gets involved in a high-speed action chase involving a controversial Mel Gibson film print (in this case, a sequel to The Passion Of The Christ), stemming through convoluted means from Peter’s jealousy over his wife’s attraction to the notoriously handsome director. Even though one of my favorite subjects for obnoxious pontification is why Family Guy stinks and The Simpsons doesn’t – or rather, didn’t for the first decade or so – I will leave off by remarking that the hyperviolent Mr. Smith illustrates the distinction between bad taste in filmmaking and a witty, intelligent satire of bad taste in filmmaking. Enough said.
Dan’s Honorable Mentions: The Player (1992), The Day Of The Locust (1975), Barton Fink (1991)
The Black Dahlia (dir. Brian de Palma, 2006)
Brian de Palma is probably best known for his derivations of Hitchcock’s style and plot devices. His films often feature magnificent cinematography that makes them worth watching even if their plots are full of holes the size of the Grand Canyon. When I heard he was making The Black Dahlia, based on the beautifully written novel by James Ellroy (who also penned L.A. Confidential), I was all kinds of pumped. The murder of Elizabeth Short is one of Hollywood’s most lingering and horrifying mysteries, still unsolved after more than sixty years (I’ve spent a lot of time on crimelibrary.com researching the case and all its permutations). Ellroy’s book is a noir masterpiece, written with a cadence that strives to match the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and pretty much succeeds. De Palma’s flick, on the other hand, is an overwrought, stylistically weighty, and confusing mess.
But while we’re writing about the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, there’s no example better than the Black Dahlia. Short’s corpse was found in a rundown L.A. neighborhood in 1947, cut in half, mutilated horribly, and bearing a gruesome ear-to-ear smile. The Los Angeles PD spent decades searching far and wide for her killer to no avail. In Ellroy’s novel and de Palma’s film, LAPD officers Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), tough boxer cops both, fall into a deadly pit of obsession with the Dahlia’s murder. Both men also fall in love with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), an abused and headstrong love interest. “The L Word”‘s Mia Kirshner plays Short in film reels, while an affected and obnoxious Hilary Swank plays seductive Dahlia lookalike Madeline. Fiona Shaw, who’s getting a fair bit of play as a crazy witch in this season of “True Blood,” chews the scenery as Madeline’s unbalanced mother.
In Hollywood in the ’40s, you’d do anything to get ahead (and we still hear cruel, possibly true rumors about casting couches). As Bucky follows Lee down a horrifying spiral into the dirty underground of stag films, drugs, and prostitution, the Dahlia’s ugly past comes to light. She was an unemployed waitress who affected a tight black wardrobe, created a persona to match, and lied through her teeth about the men with whom she kept company (so to speak). She became the face of Hollywood noir, and de Palma tried to capitalize on the “noir” aspect of novel and character. His movie is so moody, so overacted, so heavily scored, it’s actually boring. And nothing as interesting as this case, or Ellroy’s fictionalization of the murder, should ever be boring. Although it’s not great, it does feature some pretty great first-person camera shots, brilliant mirror composition, and memorable scenes. But really, instead of watching this one, you should just read the novel. Trust me, it’s better.
Where the Truth Lies (dir. Atom Egoyan, 2005)
Where The Black Dahlia goes wrong, Where the Truth Lies gets it right. It’s an underseen indie by renowned director Atom Egoyan. It’s also a little overwrought, but just the right amount of twisty. Although I have doubts Alison Lohman, the pretty, doll-like blond of White Oleander fame, can hold a movie by herself, Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth prop her up with good performances.
In 1957, performers Lanny Morris (Bacon) and Vince Collins (Firth) were at the top of their game. Lanny was the funny cad, the grating, foulmouthed half of the comedic duo. Vince was his British foil, ever proper and always cleaning up Lanny’s messes onstage; his sedate style, however, masked a drug addiction and a violent streak. Their stage show wowed the crowds; they danced, joked, and sang their way through a 30-hour telethon to raise money for victims of polio; they’d caught the eye of the mob – in a good way, if there is a such thing. Then the nude body of beautiful co-ed Maureen O’Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) was found in the bathtub of their Miami hotel room. Fifteen years later, young reporter Karen O’Connor (Lohman), who herself had polio and benefited from the telethon as a child, approaches the duo to get the real story of the implosion of Lanny and Vince. As in all the movies in this Listicle, the shiny surface of showbiz belies some really grotesque, terribly sad secrets.
Egoyan created a lush yet small-scale period piece that smoothly switches between the late ’50s and early ’70s, adding evidence and subtracting red herrings. Firth’s Vince is remindful of A Single Man‘s protagonist George – but as Vince he gets to show off his wicked grin and a nasty temper we rarely get to see. Bacon and Firth have charming chemistry and a complex friendship. Lohman, of course, figures out the sequence of events in the end – but not without becoming deeply mired in the self-centered games of two washed-up stars.
Hollywoodland (dir. Allen Coulter, 2006)
Apparently the mid-oughties were fraught with star-studded show business murder (?) mysteries. Hollywoodland released around the same time as The Black Dahlia, and elucidates a similarly sordid true Hollywood mystery. The original television Superman, George Reeves, was found dead in his house of a gunshot wound to the head in 1959. Although the LAPD ruled his death a suicide, his many bizarre relationships and the strange circumstances surrounding his demise led many to speculate on other theories.
Morally confused private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) dives headfirst into the Reeves investigation at the behest of Reeves’s mother Helen Bessolo (“True Blood”‘s Lois Smith). As he delves into the case, Simo learns more about the rather depressing life of a down-and-out actor. Reeves (Ben Affleck) was unemployed and miserable when he donned Superman’s jumpsuit, and he was perpetually dissatisfied with the role; he wanted to appeal to adults, not sniveling kids. He carried on a long-term extramarital affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), whose husband Eddie (Bob Hoskins) was the head of MGM. When Reeves struck up a relationship with young, gold-digging starlet Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), Toni Mannix began to lose her mind.
Simo imagines different scenarios for Reeves’s death: in one, hotheaded Leonore accidentally shoots him in the head; in another, Eddie Mannix hires a hitman to take him out as revenge for his wife’s misery; and finally, Reeves did just suddenly decide to off himself. The tale is told succinctly and well, but it’s not a terribly memorable movie. It is, however, yet more evidence of the ironic way Hollywood strives to glamorize the real-life tragedies beneath its own shimmering surface.
(Fun fact: Jim Beaver, of “Supernatural” and “Deadwood” fame, is an official Reeves biographer, and served as historical/biographical consultant for Hollywoodland. Well done, Bobby Singer!)
Even the most beautiful people, the truly glamorous actors and actresses of Hollywood’s heyday, were real people with real problems. Ain’t no business as deadly as show business, according to show business itself.