Ready For Their Close-up: Hollywood Movies About Hollywood

Instead of talking about ENTOURAGE, let's talk about some better movies set in Tinseltown.

It’s a long-held truth: Hollywood loves navel-gazing. Films about filmmakers, filmmaking, acting, writing and the shady action behind the sunny streets of Hollywood are cheerfully celebrated by those who live the life, and Birdman’s recent Best Picture win is one in a string of Academy Award recipients that tell the tale of Tinseltown.

As Doug Ellin’s Entourage struts into theaters this week, here are six other movies about movies.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, dir. Preston Sturges, 1941

In an age when the divide between poverty and privilege is hyper-obvious, Sullivan’s Travels is more culturally intriguing than ever. It tells the tale of a Hollywood comedy director who decides to live amongst the poor to research his serious social drama O Brother Where Art Thou (the Coen Brothers were heavily influenced by this film). It’s full of screwball dialogue, comic music and madcap chases, but more than that, it’s about comedy as social service.

Sullivan himself is the personification of Pulp’s “Common People,” a poverty tourist hopelessly out of touch with the people he pretends to be, with a safety net of Hollywood money waiting to catch him. Only when he forgets his identity does Sullivan learn what it’s like to lack privilege. But even that is short-lived, as he ultimately remembers and returns to civilization to make a comedy, having learned the most useful thing he can do is make ‘em laugh.

Of course, Sullivan’s Travels was made by Hollywood, so its well-intentioned ideas ring a little false and self-serving at times. And it fails to take into account comedy’s ability to comment on social issues. But while it doesn’t completely practice what it preaches, and what it preaches is kind of oversimplified, the film’s central theme holds true. Patronizing Hollywood dramas might not be able to fix society’s ills, but its comedies can make them a little easier to bear. After all, laughter is all some people have. (Andrew Todd)

SUNSET BOULEVARD, dir. Billy Wilder, 1950

Of all of Hollywood’s films about Hollywood, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the darkest, a noir so pitch-black that it opens with the narrator’s corpse floating face-down in a swimming pool. This is a movie that hates everyone, an acidic anti-ode to the men who run La-La Land and the women who run the men who can’t run anything.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a screenwriter in name only who has had very little success in the option business. He flees a repo man directly into the driveway of the bygone silent film star Norma Desmond (a brilliant Gloria Swanson in a role in turns desperate and alluring). He flirts his way into a script-doctoring role for her screenplay about Salome, the film intended as her grand comeback, and a dangerous, unhappy alliance is born.

Sunset Boulevard features cameos by Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner, but this is no tinsel-covered, star-studded salute. Sunset Boulevard is ruthless and utterly unforgiving in its portrayal of Hollywood and humanity at large. (Meredith Borders)

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL , dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1952

Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful is pretty proud of itself for daring to look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to expose the raw ambition and ruthlessness that drives the industry’s most successful individuals. It’s one of the first films to question the morality of the Dream Factory, but its “bravery” is somewhat undercut by a murky message that wants to have it both ways.

Told via flashback, The Bad and the Beautiful paints a portrait of Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), an ambitious film producer who claws his way out of Val Lewton B-movie land (his first big hit is a transcendent genre effort called Doom of the Cat Men) to become a major player in the industry. His rise is recounted by a trio of souls -- an actress (Lana Turner), a director (Barry Sullivan) and a writer (Dick Powell) -- who he seems to have chewed up and spit out on his way to the top.

But the catch is that the film veers from being an indictment of the industry, choosing instead to point a finger at these “victims,” in each case laying bare that their interactions with Shields, including his various betrayals and transgressions, have directly resulted in unparalleled success for each of them. Though he’s robbed and abused them (and in one case inadvertently widowed one of them), the film seems to cluck its tongue at their collective grudge-holding and props up the dynamic between Shields and these wronged colleagues as symbiotic. Each side benefits by screwing over the other, and in the end none of them are above jumping back into the proverbial sack with one another, personal affronts be damned, for another taste of success. Hooray for Hollywood! (Phil Nobile Jr.)

MOMMIE DEAREST, dir. Frank Perry, 1981

Based on Christina Crawford's best-selling memoir of the same name, Mommie Dearest exposes a side of screen legend Joan Crawford never seen before. Faye Dunaway slips into the role of Joan Crawford with unnerving energy, portraying the renowned actress with scenery-chewing verve. Dunaway's performance highlights the metatextual bent of the film -- she plays Crawford the way Crawford might play herself in a story of her own life, filled with boisterous nerve, her overreactions a reaction to the personal allegations lobbed against her, to a Hollywood that chews women up and spits them out when they've expired.

It is essentially a caricature of Crawford, but Dunaway finds something relatable in the larger than life icon, a woman who could not merely be contained by the screen or those who engineered it. It is high melodrama verging on soap opera, as we watch Crawford project her insecurities onto the daughter she adopted -- the result of both her desperation to have children before it was too late for her and a calculated publicity move.

The scene in which an outlandish Crawford berates Christina for using wire hangers is the film's most oft-remembered and quoted, an example of her frustrated, desperate need to control a little girl whose mere existence exemplifies Crawford's flaws. But there's a sequence later in the film which more perfectly expresses the film's intentions and Crawford's struggle with herself. When Christina has to take time off from her role on a soap opera, a jealous Crawford offers to step in, absurdly playing the role of a girl much, much younger than she. This defiant act is shaded with complexity, all at once humorous, peculiar and sad. Dunaway's Crawford refuses to be told what she can or cannot do, refuses to be told that she cannot play the same roles once abundantly available to her. She refuses to be placed in a dusty box on a figurative shelf, remembered fondly but now too old and fragile to enjoy.

For all its delightful soapiness, Mommie Dearest's commentary on the struggles of women in Hollywood is just as relevant today, the story of a woman eaten alive and driven mad by a fickle system. (Britt Hayes)

BARTON FINK, dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

The siren call of Hollywood is strong. Just ask the countless would-be actors, directors, makeup artists and (if we're being frank) full-on lunatics who succumb to that call every week, traveling from all over the world for a chance to jam their foot in showbiz's front door. Every last one of 'em is convinced they have a legitimate shot at superstardom, and 99.9% of them will be proven wrong in the end. They arrive with the best intentions, get put through the wringer, and -- if they make it out alive -- they're lucky to leave with their sanity intact. Many of them don't. Such is the fate of Barton Fink.

Released in 1991 and set fifty years prior, Barton Fink is one of the strangest films in the Coen Brothers' already very strange filmography. The plot revolves around a celebrated playwright (Barton Fink of the title, portrayed by John Turturro) who's talked into leaving the low-key success he's found in New York City for a cushy, high-paying gig churning out screenplays for a big-time Hollywood studio. Things go south for Barton almost immediately upon arriving in Los Angeles: he's forced into residence at the nightmarish Hotel Earle, his first assignment has him working on a schlocky wrestling picture and, worst of all, he's separated from the "common man" that was the lifeblood of his writing in New York. Alone, confused and unmoored from the stability of home, Barton falls headfirst down a rabbit hole of cheap booze, writer's block and, ultimately, madness.

Plenty of Hollywood's lost and damned souls have had their stories put to film over the years, but few of them have been as tragic (or, indeed, as terrifying) as the one told in Barton Fink. Like so many others, Barton came out to Hollywood hoping to share his creativity, to tell stories other people might find comfort in, to leave his mark on the world. And in the end, he also ended up like so many others: penniless, directionless, staring off into the middle distance and totally confused how he ended up with a dead lady's head in a box. (Scott Wampler)

GET SHORTY, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995

We may have gotten John Travolta back with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, but the best role Travolta’s career resurgence had to offer didn’t arrive until a year later with Get Shorty. Smart, dangerous, calm and oddly enthusiastic all at the same time, Get Shorty’s Chili Palmer offered Travolta one of his few later roles that could stand up to the likes of Tony Manero, Jack Terry and Danny from Grease.

But Travolta is just one of many elements that make this film shine. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty offers a high quality Hollywood satire that manages to highlight the utter stupidity that drives Tinseltown without letting all that self-examination get in the way of having a good time. Sure, people in Hollywood are ego-driven maniacs too worried about their own puffed-up, empty legends to even see the danger in dealing with actual Mafia types. But they are also hilarious. Every character in this movie has something great to do.

It’s not easy for a film to be meta and clever without crossing over into obnoxious. Get Shorty makes it look easy. The film concludes with a peek at the Hollywood version of the film we just saw, and even though we know it’s parody, we also know a very thin line separates the real Get Shorty and the one in which Chili Palmer is played by Danny DeVito. (Evan Saathoff)

This was originally published in the June issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. Entourage is in theaters this week.