Earlier this year the Coen brothers released Hail, Caesar!, their ode to the romance of the classical Hollywood era. That film became part of a rich tradition of movies about the movies. From Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood to Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture winner The Artist, the cinema is one of the cinema’s favourite subjects. Some focus on the process of making a film, some simply immerse themselves in the world of the industry. Some tell true stories, some thinly veiled allusions, some straight up fantasy. But all of them reveal something, in their own way, about this industry, art form and cultural pastime that we love. Here are six of the best movies about the movies…
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s film noir classic captures the mystique of Hollywood at the height of the studio era, telling the story of a forgotten silent film star who, hidden away in her lavish mansion on Sunset Boulevard, lives out a delusion in which she is still relevant. Gloria Swanson is wonderful as Norma Desmond, her larger than life style capturing the juxtaposition of this silent star in a more naturalistic sound world. Sunset Boulevard drew back the curtain on the Hollywood dream factory, revealing the unforgiving nature of the industry. Following a screening of the film, it is reported that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer told Wilder that he had disgraced the industry that had made him and ought to be tarred, feathered and run out of town. Features supporting performances from Hollywood legends Cecil B. DeMille (as himself), Erich Von Stroheim (as Norma’s faithful butler), and Buster Keaton (as one of her bridge partners).
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Renowned as the greatest movie musical of all time, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s light hearted exploration of Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films is also one of the great movies about the movies. With The Jazz Singer having made an impact as the first talkie, star Don Lockwood encourages the studio to turn their planned silent adventure film, ‘The Duelling Cavalier,’ into a movie musical spectacular, ‘The Dancing Cavalier.’ The only problem is his previously silent costar was a voice that could strip paint. Compiled almost entirely from songs from producer Arthur Freed’s back catalogue, this legitimately funny film presents a view of studio Hollywood that is everything that Sunset Boulevard isn’t: fun, glamorous and magical. Gene Kelly is the kind of star you just don’t get anymore, and his titular musical number is simply wonderful.
8 1/2 (1963)
Arguably Federico Fellini’s most intensely personal film, 8 ½ tells the story of a celebrated director who has made seven feature films and directed a segment in another – totaling seven and a half films. His next project is highly anticipated, but he has lost his creative inspiration, suffering an existential crisis under the weight of pressure from the fans, his business associates and himself. With Fellini himself having made seven feature films and two short segments, and coming off the success of La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ sees the Italian screen legend examining his own creative dilemma. Episodic and dreamlike, 8 ½ is more stream of consciousness than classical narrative. It is a film which leaves itself open to interpretation, discussion and debate and rewards – maybe even demands – multiple viewings.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
All the other films on this list concern the making of movies, but Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso is a love letter to the cinema itself. A famous director learns that the elderly projectionist from the theatre in his home town has passed away. In flashback we then see the friendship between this filmmaker as a young boy and the gruff old projectionist and its importance in his development. This Best Foreign Language Oscar winner simply overflows with nostalgia and sentimentality. Set in the final years before the arrival of television, Cinema Paradiso is a heartwarming film that beautifully captures the many social roles of the cinema and its important place at the heart of this small community. If you aren’t already, Cinema Paradiso will make you fall in love with the movies.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
A private detective is hired by a movie studio to follow the wife of one of their biggest stars who is believed to be having an affair. When the man she’s been playing patty cake with shows up dead, the star becomes prime suspect. Oh, and the star in question is a cartoon rabbit. A fantastic blending of animation and live action, Robert Zemeckis’ film becomes a noir-ish, Chinatown-like, tale of corporate greed and the corrupting force of progress, all set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s cartoon studios. However the real treat of this film is getting to see your favourite characters from Disney and Warner Bros cartoons sharing scenes together – the piano duel between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck is a particular highlight. It is hard to imagine we will ever see major studios willing to cooperate and share intellectual property to this degree again.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
The only documentary on this list and it’s an absolute belter. “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy… We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” That is how Francis Ford Coppola described the production of Apocalypse Now to a gallery of reporters at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. It is one of film history’s most notoriously disastrous shoots, featuring a typhoon, a civil war, the recasting of a leading man, a star having a heart attack, and Marlon Brando being Marlon Brando. Luckily, Coppola’s wife Eleanor was there with a camera to capture the whole thing. The resulting documentary, compiled a decade later by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper with new interview footage, gives amazing insight into a cinematic master at the height of his megalomania.
by Duncan McLean