A hug to 1950s Hollywood
Hail, Caesar! - Released Feb 5, 2016. Directed and written by Ethan and Joel Cohen
This 106 minute comedy is about the adventures of Eddie Mannix, Head of Production at Capitol Pictures, a fictitious Hollywood movie company during the days of the "Studio System" in which stars and employees were carefully handled (and closely watched) by the executives that lived in daily fear of scandal destroying a star's reputation, and damaging the reputation of the company itself.
The Coen Bros spend time trying to get us (the audience) into every little room of the studio "factory" (offices, sound stages, editing rooms) so that we get a glimpse of the machinery that made that era of Hollywood what it was. The Coens also give us a look at the activity of the town itself, centered upon movie-making. We see cops who gladly look the other way (with a little donation made to the 'police pension') when a star ("Gloria DeLamour" played by Natasha Bassett) gets involved with a disreputable character, the greasy and sweaty "french postcard" photographer Falco, played by Richard Abraham; or domestic help that does not even blink an eye at the unusual costumes and behavior of actors offstage.
We witness the activities of twin-sister gossip writers named Thora and Thessally Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton, always hunting for scoops on the personal lives of the stars (mainly the star of Capitol's in-production fictitious bible-epic Hail, Caesar!, featuring matinee idol Baird Whitlock, i.e., George Clooney). Mannix runs interference for the actors and tries to juggle the needs of every personality he is responsible for, from the never-seen head of the studio Mr. Schenk (apparently based on the real M-G-M executive Nicholas Schenck); to his own wife and kids.
The story itself is recognizable Coen Bros. territory: in the midst of making a film about faith (the quasi-Roman Empire, sand-and-sandals Bible epic Hail, Caesar!), Mannix has his own crisis of faith (we see him praying painfully over a rosary about decisions he must make in regards to a lucrative job offer from an aerospace company). Mannix is also regularly pestering a weary Catholic priest with confession of every detail of personal failure he experiences, primarily his difficult to break a cigarette habit.
Meanwhile, a group of dedicated and secretive communist cell of Hollywood writers (they call their group "the Future") kidnap Whitlock (Clooney), the actor who incidentally is having trouble getting out lines for his big scene for Hail, Caesar! (in which he can't remember the word "faith") and ends up being held for ransom for $100,000.
Added to Mannix' trouble are the tantrums of frustrated actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who is in the middle of making an Esther Williams' style water-musical and is inconveniently pregnant without a husband ("if I could find a reliable man, I'd grab him" she declares. She will get her chance, in an unexpected place, later).
Added to Mannix' already full plate is trouble with likeable and loyal rising star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who is being shifted from "oaters" (cowboy pictures) into a sophisticated drawing-room musical-romance (titled Merrily We Dance) and is driving the patient and soft-spoken veteran director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to anger and shouting because Doyle can't say his lines correctly, or even, apparently, understand what his lines mean.
Mannix is our hero, and he not only protects the stars (frequently from themselves); but he ultimately goes up against the headhunter sent by the aerospace company which want Mannix's management skills badly, and while sweetening the deal with money and stock options, takes the trouble to insult the actors for being 'kooks' and mocks Hollywood for being an "unserious" business. The condescending remarks (meant to help move Mannix toward accepting the deal being offered) has the opposite effect: Mannix is a serious man who does serious things (he has no compunction about slapping stars and reminding them of what they owe the company and themselves) and asking him to abandon his wayward charges becomes a simple impossibility.
Though visually equipped with antique cars, architecture, beautiful California palms, film gear, and some vintage slang terms, the historical aspects of the movie are not solid. Current 21st era slang shows up ("it's complicated" says Hobie to the camera after his long lines are simplified in a scene from Merrily We Dance), and the cars are all spotless and gleaming, as is the art direction in general for the homes and studio buildings we look at. The scenes from the in-production 'cowboy movie' has villains who are garbed like late-50s or 1960s bad-guys, when 'gritty-realism' was overtaking Westerns. It seems to me, for an early 50s feel we should be seeing the smoothly-dressed outlaws who were dark mirror images of their lighter-costumed heroic foes instead of their more scruffy and more brutal children.
Also, the Coen Bros camera lets us gaze upon every eye-bag sag and facial-line the actors have, whether in the 'real' story or, unrealistically for an "A-Studio" like Capitol Pictures, when these movie stars are filmed into one of these fictitious movies, this seems wrong because genuine old movies seem to use special lighting to prevent shadows from forming beneath the sags of the glamorous Hollywood faces we see in old films, a technique that deprived audiences of insight into the actors sleep-deprivations.
But these are minor authenticity issues and surely invisible to the majority of folks for whom Hail, Caesar! is meant to amuse with the tale of a frantic few days in the life of a busy movie studio.
The film is shot in warm colors (on actual 35mm film) and this fits with the Coen Bros script, a great big warm hug to Old Hollywood. Added to the antics is the theme of the movie itself, "faith," though as much as we see Christianity and Communism batted about onscreen, the real religion being extolled onscreen is the making of good pictures.
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original page June 2016 | Updated September 2021