Old Hollywood Revisited in Coen Brothers’ 'Hail, Caesar!'

A witty and intelligent work that has some sharp things to say about the real nature of cinema.

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It has been 25 years since their 1991 movie “Barton Fink,” in which Joel and Ethan Coen sent an idealistic playwright to Hollywood in the early 1940s, where he became caught up in a nightmarish world that destroyed him both creatively and physically. With their new film, “Hail, Caesar!”, the Coen brothers return to Hollywood of a bygone era, this time the early 1950s, and even to the same fictitious “Capitol Pictures” to which they dispatched the hero of their earlier movie. This time as well, the studio is a stand-in for MGM, once the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, though at the historic moment in which the Coen brothers’ film is set, it was just entering its period of decline, along with the entire Hollywood studio system.

The protagonist of “Barton Fink” was a fictional character, who was meant to represent all those American artists, writers and playwrights, who were seduced to come to Hollywood for the money and fame it offered, only to come to ruin there. The protagonist of “Hail, Caesar!,” however, is a character who is both real and invented. This is the main ploy of the script that propels the film and lends it ironic heft, and removes any trace of nostalgia for the old Hollywood (as filmmakers, the Coen brothers are too intelligent to be merely nostalgic).

Josh Brolin is superb in the role of Eddie Mannix. A key figure at MGM in those days was, in fact, one Eddie Mannix, who served as studio head Louis B. Mayer’s right-hand man, and was, above all, known as a “fixer” – somebody who makes sure that when the studio’s main assets, its big stars, get into trouble, the problem will be taken care of far from the public eye. Mannix had a thuggish, gangster-like reputation, but the Eddie Mannix of “Hail, Caesar!” is portrayed as a fixer who tactfully deals with every problem that arises, always looking after the best interest of the studio and its stars in a very reasonable and emotionally stable fashion. This Mannix is a devout Catholic (the real Mannix was also Catholic) who goes to confession daily, but the only sin he can come up with to confess to is that he smoked a few cigarettes against his wife’s wishes. The Coen brothers’ Mannix has a stable, happy home life. Such was far from the case with the real Mannix, who was suspected of involvement in the death of George Reeves, star of the television show “The Adventures of Superman” and his wife’s lover. The death was ruled a suicide, but rumors swirled that Mannix used his Mafia ties to order a hit on the actor.

The total transformation that the Eddie Mannix character undergoes from real to invented in the Coen brothers’ film reflects the main theme of this comedy –the deceptive, illusory essence of the American movie industry and the degree of ideological and moral fraud it involves, then as now.

In the film, the main problem that Mannix needs to fix is that the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock, has been kidnapped for ransom by a gang of Communist intellectuals (the group even includes Herbert Marcuse). George Clooney plays Whitlock as a movie star who is a perfect idiot, and his performance is quite amusing. To make matters worse, Whitlock was kidnapped before filming was completed on the great historic epic from which the Coen brothers’ film takes its name. Whitlock plays a Roman nobleman who is gradually won over by the teachings of Jesus (Throughout the 1950s, Hollywood produced grand historical spectacles with religious overtones, such as “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe” and “Ben Hur,” in an effort to woo back to the movie houses the audience that had forsaken it for the exciting new medium of television).

“Hail, Caesar!” does not only allude to the grand religious-historical epics produced in the 1950s, but also to other products of MGM in that period. The Coen brothers’ film satirically recreates two types of musicals from that era. In one scene, Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams-like swimmer-movie star named DeeAnna Moran, in a spectacular scene of the type made famous by Williams; Moran’s private life presents a whole other problem for Mannix to fix, which he resolves by the usual method used when an unmarried star becomes pregnant. The movie also alludes briefly to the famous story about movie star Loretta Young, who became pregnant by Clark Gable when they were working on a movie together. Young was sent away to some remote location and returned months later with a baby that she supposedly adopted (the daughter only found out much later that Young was her biological mother and that Gable was her father).

Scarlett Johansson as actress DeeAnna Moran, in 'Hail, Caesar!,' a new comedy from filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Credit: AP

Genre sendup

The peak of the film alludes to the musicals that starred Gene Kelly, in two of which he played a sailor (“Anchors Aweigh” and “On the Town”). Channing Tatum plays a movie star called Burt Gurney, who, dressed in a sailor suit and flanked by a group of dancers in sailor suits, performs a musical number that is the equal of the musical extravaganzas of the era, though those old-time musical numbers wouldn’t have so openly revealed all the latent homoerotic aspects of these all-male routines. Another genre the Coen brothers’ movie alludes to is the romantic comedy of manners. The director whose filming is depicted in the movie, with the wonderful name of Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, also marvelous) has to cope with the lead role in his picture being played by a singing star of Westerns named Hobie Doyle, who is a whiz at whirling a lasso but hopeless at reciting “sophisticated” dialogue. Doyle is played by Alden Ehrenreich, who is a real revelation. He is completely endearing.

Other characters on the sidelines include Thora and Thessaly Thacker, gossipy identical twins who despise one another (both played to perfection by Tilda Swinton), and, in a brief but brilliant scene, a film editor by the name of C. C. Calhoun (the great Frances McDormand), who is a little bit too devoted to her work. There’s also a cheerful young actress, played by Veronica Osorio, with whom Hobie Doyle goes out on a date. This character’s name is Carlotta Valdez – I wonder how many of my movie-loving readers can name the great movie classic to which this name alludes. A little joke I’m sure the Coen brothers savored.

Not everything works in the movie, but that’s pretty much to be expected. Following the film career of Joel and Ethan Coen is like riding a roller coaster that veers between cinematic highs like “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” and failed efforts, usually comedies, like “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading.” Sometimes we have no idea what the Coen brothers want from us, and this feeling also comes up occasionally in “Hail, Caesar!,” which has some very successful scenes (like the one in which a bunch of clergymen, including a rabbi, discuss with Mannix how to depict Jesus on the movie screen) and some not so successful scenes; but as a whole, “Hail, Caesar!” is a witty and intelligent work that has some sharp things to say about the real nature of cinema. And it also gives one the feeling that, as always, in their good films and less good ones, Joel and Ethan Coen are making just the movies that they want to make, without giving too much consideration to anything apart from this desire, which guides them on their path and certainly earns them my admiration.

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