If you liked Damien Chazelle’s debauched Hollywood epic, check out these satirical takes on Tinseltown.
Babylon has arrived at last, carried into theaters on a magic cloud of stardust and cocaine. The latest from Damien Chazelle, Babylon promises to be a different vision of Hollywood in the Silent era: a dizzy, debauched free-for-all populated by degenerates and mad geniuses, a lawless frontier town in the days before talkies came along, and moneyed interests gentrified the place. Snake fights, golden showers, amphetamines sold like snack food – The Artist, this ain’t.
Despite a rather dour second act, Babylon ends up as something like a love letter to Hollywood, albeit one written on a cocktail napkin with some unspeakable stains. But it still finds the time to puncture the glossy, idealistic fairy tale of Tinseltown, with both its manic first half and death march of a second half. If you liked watching this three-hour slab of movie, it’s worth taking a look at these other films that, with varying degrees of seriousness and affection, poke at the image Hollywood has constructed of itself.
Part film noir and part black comedy, with a soupçon of gothic horror thrown in, Sunset Boulevard is unforgettable from the first frame. The corpse of hack writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating face-down in a swimming pool, describes his death. He details a partnership – and eventually a bizarre romance – with faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who wanders her decrepit mansion like Miss Havisham, preparing a triumphant return to fame that will never come. At first, he thinks he’s just humoring a batty old rich woman; soon, however, he learns that Norma won’t let go of her dream – or her new pet writer – so easily. Despite its biting cynicism towards Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard shows sincere appreciation for the silent era, from the meta casting of Swanson and Erich von Stroheim to a hilariously uncomfortable bit where Norma tries to seduce Joe as Charlie Chaplin. The business may be ugly, but the movies themselves are beautiful – no wonder Norma dissolves into the celluloid at the end, lost in the dream.
While Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t have quite as many piss scenes as Babylon, it’s arguably its closest antecedent when it comes to plot. Set, like Babylon, in the transition between silent film and talkies, Singin’ in the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a movie star who is now expected to do more than just tap dance. Both movies detail the premiere of The Jazz Singer, and both feature uncouth starlets (Jean Hagen and Margot Robbie) who can no longer hide their nasal bullhorn of a voice. But while it has fun with studio-mandated relationships, silent-film overacting, and Don’s eternal, elusive quest for dignity, Singin’ in the Rain is mostly gentle; it’s effervescent and life-affirming, as light on its feet as Kelly prancing through rain puddles. No wonder the recent Sight & Sound has it as its tenth-best movie of all time.
On the far, far other end of the idealistic spectrum is The Day of the Locust, which may be the most caustic Hollywood satire ever made. Based on the novel by Nathanael West, Locust populates its Depression-era Los Angeles with a familiar collection of misfits: Burgess Meredith’s failed vaudevillian, Karen Black’s shallow social climber, and a truly evil little boy played by a young Jackie Earle Haley. But rather than taking lazy potshots at easy targets, Locust pities and empathizes with its strung-out, desperate cast, who have “come to California to die.” When the film arrives at its fiery, apocalyptic climax, it doesn’t feel like the divine punishment alluded to by its title; instead, it feels inevitable, as though Hollywood was a mass delusion waiting for an excuse to return to chaos.
“Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman once said of working in Hollywood, and Barton Fink captures that not-knowing as effectively as any movie ever made. The Coen Brothers’ genre-defying art deco fever dream follows the titular Barton Fink (John Turturro) as he tries to make it as a screenwriter; he scurries around Hollywood and through the bowels of his decaying hotel as he’s beset by argumentative executives, a drunken literary legend, and a serial killer. He’s lost, and so are the people he runs into as he tries to write a screenplay; the difference is that the others are louder, and therefore able to sound like they know what they’re doing. It’s frequently funny in a Coen-esque way, but the prevailing mood is one of mounting dread: peeling wallpaper, a distant attack on Pearl Harbor, and the sense that, by choosing Hollywood, Fink has entered a labyrinth he can never hope to escape.
It doesn’t get much more Hollywood than this. The Player is a movie all about how Hollywood is a self-congratulatory, culturally inert pit of vipers, featuring cameos from scores of famous actors and producers cheerfully taking the piss out of themselves, that ended up putting Robert Altman’s career back on track after the failure of Popeye. Perhaps its success is due to its slickly cynical tone that goes down like a poisoned martini; perhaps it’s due to Altman’s steady hand at the helm; perhaps it’s Tim Robbins’ winning performance as a Hollywood executive who gets everything he ever wanted after murdering a screenwriter. Or maybe it’s because, despite everything, it’s a pretty mild satire, written with the knowledge that the real Hollywood is much worse.
David Lynch has described Mulholland Drive as “a love story in the city of dreams” – and it’s not not that, centering on the increasing closeness between aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Harring). But it’s also a story about a film director (Justin Theroux) whose movie is meddled with by forces beyond his ken; a story about a frightening club in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles; a story about some…thing resembling a smiling homeless person giving a man a heart attack behind a diner; and, quite possibly, a story about the literal dream of a woman in trouble. Whatever the significance of the blue key or the word “Silencio,” it’s a movie that encompasses everything strange and sinister about the City of Dreams, in a way only David Lynch can manage.
Departing from his typical mockumentary format, Christopher Guest takes a look at the undignified practice of award campaigning – that is, making numerous press appearances and other behind-the-scenes maneuvers in order to be nominated (or win) an award. For Your Consideration may be more sour than easygoing, feel-good films like Best in Show or A Mighty Wind, but there are still laughs to be found as the cast of a melodramatic piece of Oscar bait, Home for Purim, sell out for an award. (In a nice bit of irony, Catherine O’Hara was herself briefly in the awards conversation for her performance as character actress Marilyn Hack.)
Yes, Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface is still problematic, even if there’s an in-universe explanation for it. And yes, Tom Cruise’s scene-stealing turn as unhinged producer Les Grossman is (slightly) less funny now that we know more about his real-life inspirations, Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin. But Tropic Thunder’s laughs, as broad as they are, land because they ring true. How many pieces of Oscar bait have been compared to Simple Jack in the years since Tropic Thunder? How many tales of extreme method acting sound like they’ve been pulled from Kirk Lazarus’ playbook? Do we honestly think Scott Rudin wouldn’t sell out a movie star to a foreign terrorist cell for insurance money? It’s the best kind of big, broad studio comedy, one that’s become increasingly and unfortunately rare as mid-budget movies become an endangered species.
On paper, David Cronenberg sounds like an odd choice to direct a Hollywood satire. Even when he took a break from body horror, he favored heavy, occasionally esoteric subjects, like psychoanalysis or Don DeLillo adaptations – it would be weird if he just took cheap shots at vain starlets and bratty child stars. But thankfully, Maps to the Stars is a lot weirder than that: it’s a strange, haunting tale of generational trauma and mental illness, populated by pill-poppers and pyromaniacs. It’s not a subtle movie, but thanks to Cronenberg’s exacting vision – and a gonzo performance by Julianne Moore – it’s not one you’ll shake off anytime soon.