Billy Wilder went to great lengths to add an air of authenticity to his scathing 1950 satire. He cast familiar industry faces (Cecil B. De Mille and Erich von Stroheim amongst them), referred to real studio epics (like Gone with the Wind), and gave a leading role to Gloria Swanson — once herself a prominent silent film starlet who made the jump to talkies, but saw the hits quickly decline. She embodied fading star Norma Desmond in Wilder’s bitter masterpiece. “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Swanson tells us. The forgotten star is an exquisite, haunting symbol of Hollywood at its darkest and celebrity culture run amok.
Hollywood’s dead-end dreams are filled with humiliation, heartbreak, and obsession. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a sinuous, shape-shifting indictment of the movie industry and the loss of innocence for those who manage to survive it. As Naomi Watts’ young hopeful hypnotically shifts identities, taking us through nostalgic daydreams and disturbing fantasies, the “poisonous valentine to Hollywood” reveals itself beneath the glamour and gold stars.
Hollywood counts statues, but the porn stars in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights count inches. Both industries aren’t all that different when you think about it. Money and popularity fuels them. The tragic, touching, and devastating portrait of a porn star who finds fame during the golden age of skin flicks, and sees his career crumble during the age of excess in the 1980s, is an honest and bleak look at celebrity and its insatiable hunger.
One of the greatest self-reflexive films, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 follows a director beset by a creative block that sends him into fits of fantasy. “Ironic, that Fellini’s film is about artistic bankruptcy seems richer in invention than almost anything else around,” Roger Ebert once said of the film. Even though Fellini’s masterwork is an incredible piece of filmmaking, we don’t envy his alter ego (Marcello Mastroianni), who wades through frantic uncertainty and his own self-importance.
A Star is Born
Judy Garland’s tragic real-life story is completely entwined with George Cukor’s 1954 musical. She appears in the Hollywood satire as a young up-and-comer guided by James Mason’s washed up movie star who is crippled by alcoholism. The movie was Garland’s chance for a comeback, but her public history of emotional breakdowns gave it a tragic air. The story has been reborn countless times — most of them quite terrible — adding to its mythic quality. The film’s emotional, introspective resonance makes it the ultimate Hollywood tell-all.
Oh, that charming Jean Dujardin. Watching his portrait of an aging silent film star trying to cope as the world he once knew slowly slips away is a somber spot amongst the dazzling artistry of Michel Hazanavicius’ film. The 2011 Academy Award-winner is a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age of cinema, but also a look at the fear of artistic irrelevance.
Cult filmmaker Ed Wood earned a reputation as the worst director in cinematic history with a slew of spirited B and Z-grade flicks that popped up during the monster movie craze of the 1950s. Wood was dedicated to his craft even though he was critically panned and fought to stay afloat by moonlighting as a pulp novelist. Tim Burton tells the filmmaking maverick’s story in his 1994 biopic that explores creative insecurity, doubt, and independent risk-taking. It’s also a poignant reminder that the American dream isn’t promised to everyone.
Martin Scorsese summed up several core themes in Michael Powell’s controversial proto-slasher film Peeping Tom when he described its self-reflexive connection to shifting perceptions, voyeurism, and the medium of film itself:
“I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two… Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates… From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.”
A film director’s social consciousness is awakened, and he longs to leave his string of shallow Hollywood comedies behind to explore the plight of the poor and needy. He lives like a hobo, finds companionship on the road with a down-on-her-luck actress, and gets a different kind of reality check than he hoped for during his journey. Sullivan’s Travels sounds like a clear-cut screwball comedy, but it’s also a cautionary tale with tragic touches about the artistic ego.
“The emotions that Charlie is going through [in the film] are real, and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script,” Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said of the 2002 Spike Jonze film. The movie is at once about the creation of cinema, the nature or concept of adaptation — which Chris Cooper as John Laroche compares to his love of plants and describes as a “profound” process that helps one figure out how to “thrive” in the world — and the blurry lines between fiction and reality. The creative process is likened to the exotic plants that The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) describes, leaving Orlean and Charlie “swamped by incongruity and paradox.”