Movies About Movies: Twelve Fictional Tales Of The Cinema

July 11, 2016
With Hail, Caesar! hitting Digital, DVD and Blu-ray this week, we take a look at twelve other fictional films that have also tackled the big, bold subject of cinema itself.

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THE PLAYER (1992) When any discussion turns to the subject of movies about movies, Robert Altman’s 1992 comedy-drama-thriller, The Player, is usually and justifiably tossed up. That said, it hardly occupies the same lofty heights as other gilt-edged works of the unofficial subgenre, like A Star Is Born or Sunset Boulevard. There’s something wholly original and dementedly playful about The Player that prevents it from taking on rarefied “classic” status. With a wonderfully bilious screenplay by Michael Tolkin, the film tracks a self-absorbed studio executive (Tim Robbins) whose seemingly perfect life hits a screeching spin when he starts receiving threatening correspondence from a writer whose screenplays he has rejected. Bursting with film in-jokes; packed to the brim with celebrity cameos (including everyone from Burt Reynolds and Nick Nolte to Cher and Susan Sarandon); and boasting one of the best films-within-a-film of all time (starring Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, no less), The Player is untouchable when it comes to movies about movies. Made by a man who had been truly battered and bashed by the film industry, this nineties milestone comes with the kind of sting that only the truly embittered can impart. According to Robert Altman, however, The Player is only half the story. “It’s not a truthful indictment of Hollywood,” the director told Total Film. “Hollywood is much uglier than I portrayed it, but nobody would’ve been interested if I’d shown just how sadistic, cruel and self-orientated it is. Whenever I try to sell a movie, I too have to do that whole shorthand pitch [seen in the film]. I say, ‘It’s gonna have that Nashville quality, but it’s also gonna be like California Split.’ It’s a fucking circus.”

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THE PICTURE SHOW MAN (1977) Australia doesn’t make many movies about movies, and when we do (The Extra, Cut), they often tend to, well, disappear without a trace. Our best entry in this tiny subgenre is undoubtedly the 1977 charmer, The Picture Show Man, directed by John Power, and produced and written by Joan Long, who had previously made several documentaries about the Australian film industry, including The Passionate Industry and Pictures That Moved. In 1971, Long was interviewed on television about The Passionate Industry. She was seen by Lyle Penn, who sent her an unpublished manuscript that he had written about his life. Penn was the son of a “picture show man”, who travelled around the country via horse and carriage in the twenties screening silent films for the entertainment-starved denizens of the small towns that dotted Australia’s barren landscape. After writing the script for the downbeat 1975 classic, Caddie, Long turned her attentions to what would become The Picture Show Man. “After Caddie, I felt like doing something really heartfelt and a lot of fun,” Long said at the time. Starring John Meillon as travelling picture show man, Maurice Pym; Harold Hopkins as his sprightly son, Larry; and Aussie superstar, Rod Taylor, as their Texan competitor, the film is driven by the typically raucous humour that characterised so many local films of the era. It’s also a finely etched study of a time when entertainment was so much more difficult to access than it is today. Appropriately, the film had its own fair dinkum movie star in the rugged personage of Rod Taylor. “He certainly was a gimmick, if you wish, to make people go see our picture,” John Power said.

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GET SHORTY (1995) Many that have exited on the other side minus their money and dignity would likely argue that the movie business is equitable to a criminal enterprise, and none have summed that up as brilliantly and amusingly as renowned crime author, Elmore Leonard, who skewered Hollywood with full force fury in his rollicking novel, Get Shorty. The book was expertly adapted for the screen in 1995 by screenwriter, Scott Frank, and director, Barry Sonnenfeld, with a perfectly cast John Travolta in the role of Chili Palmer, a mobster who hits Hollywood to collect a debt, and discovers that the movie business isn’t that different to his current line of employment. Mixing it up with a hack director (Gene Hackman) and a pompous movie star (Danny De Vito), Chili soon lights out on his own, with surprising success. After watching for years as his novels were butchered for the screen, Get Shorty saw Leonard really come out swinging. The book was also a partial response to the author’s dealings with actor, Dustin Hoffman, and director, Martin Scorsese, who had jerked him around mercilessly in the seventies over a possible adaptation of his novel, La Brava. “Finally, I said to them, ‘Look, it’s okay for you guys, but I’m not getting paid for this,’” Leonard told The Guardian. “Hoffman said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be paid retroactively.’ My agent is rolling on the floor laughing when I tell him this. He said, ‘They’ll never make the picture.’” They didn’t, and the sour aftertaste led to not just a classic piece of Elmore Leonard literature, but also subsequently to one of the funniest, snappiest and most in-the-know movies about movies ever made.

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LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995) When it comes to movies about movies, the subject is usually the big, blundering world of Hollywood. Films about independent cinema are considerably rarer, which makes writer/director, Tom DiCillo’s 1995 effort, Living In Oblivion, all the more special. Gritty, punchy and cynical, this wry comedy tracks one day in the life of Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi), a harried director trying to put the pieces together on a low budget independent movie. Beset with budgetary concerns, an overly involved and hyper-artistic cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney), and a leading lady (Catherine Keener) painfully unsure of her own abilities, Nick is one step away from a major meltdown. Pushing him even further is his leading man, a preening poseur by the name of Chad Palomino (James LeGros). While Tom DiCillo has resolutely denied that the character is based on actor, Brad Pitt, with whom he worked on 1991’s Johnny Suede, the director has been upfront about Living In Oblivion being ripped from his own experiences in the film industry. It was born during a dark period when DiCillo had failed in mounting another production which was painfully close to his heart. “A friend came up to me and said, ‘Hey Tom, you made a movie! You made Johnny Suede! You’re so lucky!’ And I said, ‘Shut the fuck up! You don’t know anything about it! Making a movie is one of the most tedious, boring, painful experiences, and that’s just when something goes right!’ An actress could be in the middle of the most emotional scene, and suddenly the microphone comes into the shot, and you lose it…the idea for Living In Oblivion came out of that moment of frustration.”

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WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) When it comes to movies about movies, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a true stand-alone. Has a director ever made a feature film about the reaction to and legacy of one of his previous films? This extraordinarily self-reflexive 1994 slab of horror and social commentary is, in fact, so unusual and incomparable that it rarely rates a mention in the canon of its lauded writer/director, Wes Craven, the man responsible for such horror classics as The Hills Have Eyes, Scream, and Last House On The Left. New Nightmare is Craven’s direct response to the success of his 1984 game-changer, A Nightmare On Elm Street, and its subsequent sequels featuring Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger, a child killer with a razor-fingered glove who returns from the dead to kill innocent teenagers in their sleep. In New Nightmare, Wes Craven, actors, Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, and even New Line Cinema boss, Robert Shaye, star as themselves in a daring story which has Freddy Krueger angrily manifesting himself in reality after he was killed off in 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. “Everyone involved with A Nightmare On Elm Street had been forever touched by the phenomenon,” Wes Craven has said. “I went to New Line’s Robert Shaye, and said, ‘I want to make a movie about the phenomenon of the movie. I want to use that as the basis, and then jump outside the stories entirely.’ I also wanted to deal with this whole censorship issue, and whether horror movies are good or bad, and whether they cause people to do things. That has been a question constantly asked of me, and of everyone who makes horror movies.”

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FADE TO BLACK (1980) One charge often levelled at movies is that they can serve as the trigger for the future actions of psychopaths, and that they can ineffably and irrevocably damage the psyches of any fragile types that might be watching them. The cheap, lurid, but ultimately cruelly compelling 1980 horror-thriller, Fade To Black, plays with these notions to grim and occasionally amusing effect. Minor cult figure, Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away, A Wedding, the upcoming Django Unchained), throws down a creepy, career-best performance as Eric Binford, a hardcore movie geek in an era waaay before that was close to being anything remotely cool. A bullied weakling (his tormentors include both his domineering aunt, and Mickey Rourke, in one of his first roles), Eric develops a dangerous fixation on a neighbourhood Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Wagga Wagga-born Linda Kerridge), before finally snapping after one bout of abuse too many. Eric responds by dressing up as his favourite movie characters (Dracula, The Mummy, Tommy Udo from Kiss Of Death), and dispensing with his enemies in disturbingly cinema literate ways. A keen movie buff himself, Dennis Christopher helped to elevate Fade To Black from b-grade bottom feeder to something truly memorable. “I did a lot of work on the script,” the actor told Mondo Video. “Also, all the things that are stuck up on the walls in Eric’s room? I put those up. When I first walked on that set, they only had two movie posters on the wall. I said, ‘What the fuck is this? He’s supposed to be a total movie buff extraordinaire and he’s only got two crappy movie posters on his wall?’ Ultimately, I just identified with Eric…I loved movies too.”

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THE STUNT MAN (1980) If you want to get really intense, movies can be seen as a kind of madness, as a group of people commune in a dark room, and hopefully – if the film is good – give themselves over to a complete break from reality, experiencing a fictional world that can ultimately ignite a great sense of meaning in their lives. There is no better depiction of movies as madness than Richard Rush’s (Freebie And The Bean, Psych-Out, Color Of Night) little seen but much loved 1980 head trip, The Stunt Man, which throws the audience into the confused, unbalanced world of Cameron (Steve Railsback), a fugitive from the law who literally stumbles onto the set of a WW1-set adventure movie. Eyed by the film’s imperious, autocratic director, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), Cameron is promptly charged with replacing the film’s recently deceased stunt man, who died while executing one of the movie’s action set pieces. But was it an accident? A delirious study in fear and paranoia, The Stunt Man is also a cogent and enjoyably cock-eyed depiction of the inherent insanity of movies, blurring the lines of what’s real and what’s not with stunning inventiveness. “I was fascinated with the idea of doing a picture that dealt with the theme of ‘illusion and reality’ as a big action movie,” Richard Rush told Spectacular Optical, “where the hero, confused by his unfamiliarity with the nature of a movie company, starts to believe that the director is going to kill him in order to capture his death on film – and thereby giving me the chance to examine the universal paranoia that drives man to fight windmills as well as wars.”

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SPECIAL EFFECTS (1984) The image of the Hollywood director as a perverse, autocratic figure viciously pulling the strings on the various underlings that populate a film set is a cliched but somewhat appropriate one. Writer, director and exploitation movie hero, Larry Cohen (It’s Alive!, Q – The Winged Serpent, The Stuff), grinds every ounce of value out of this stereotype with 1984’s Special Effects, his gruesome, disturbing, and bitingly funny meld of horror, thriller and scathing satire. In his first major screen role, playwright and actor, Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio), stars as Christopher Neville, a director looking for a job after his last film was a massive, embarrassing bomb. When Neville kills Mary Jane (Zoe Tamerlis), a young wannabe actress, during a bout of caught-on-camera sex, he perversely sees this as the kick-off point for his next film, and decides to make a movie about Mary Jane’s sordid, sorry life, with her filmed death as the climax. In a Machiavellian move to rival anything pulled by Erich Von Stroheim or Alfred Hitchcock, Neville even casts Mary Jane’s boyfriend (Brad Rijn) as himself in the film, and throws the investigating cops off his trail by giving them producer credits and roles on the film. Sleazy and unforgiving, Special Effects sees Cohen raging against a movie industry that births desperation and broken dreams. “Nobody’s interested in anybody unless they get decapitated in some horrible accident or something,” Larry Cohen says in the book, Incredibly Strange Films. “If you live, you just get forgotten completely. You have to die in a bizarre fashion or go mad or something to maintain your celebrity forever. Then you’re really a star…that’s what this picture says.”

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PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972) From the caustic novel by Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays is a loose and experimental study in Hollywood vacuity from director, Frank Perry (David And Lisa, Mommie Dearest), who ingeniously utilises The Dream Factory as the microcosm for a seventies society characterised by emptiness and ennui. In a cacophony of funky-as-hell dresses, sunglasses, smocks and boots (all provided by wardrobe designer, Joel Schumacher, no less!), the tragically underrated Tuesday Weld (Pretty Poison, I Walk The Line) is at her strident, dreamy best as Maria Wyeth, a once-hot, Nevada-born actress turned Hollywood queen recounting the going-nowhere-fast nature of her privileged life from the manicured lawns of an upscale psychiatric institution. Director Perry not only cuts across time narratively, but also injects brief scenes from different points in the story, most notably a striking image of Maria shooting at traffic signs while zooming down a barren LA highway. Through this fragmented, refracted structure, we slowly discern the source of Maria’s high-strung pain, which largely stems from her arrogant, upstart director husband, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke), and his diffident, Hollywood insider-and-procurer producer, B.Z (Anthony Perkins). “It’s not a Hollywood movie,” director, Frank Perry, told journalist, Roger Ebert, in 1972. “It’s about people. It’s really more about Silver Wells, Nevada, where Maria Wyeth grows up, than it is about Hollywood. The movie world is just the impetus for her search for whatever happened to that young girl who came out of Silver Wells.” Despite Perry’s mild protestations, Play It As It Lays is indeed a movie about Hollywood and the movies, and in particular the psychological pain that can be wrought on those often damaged souls who make them.

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MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970) Movies about movies don’t come much weirder than Myra Breckinridge. Adapted from the novel by iconic author, Gore Vidal, and directed by cult weirdo, Michael Sarne (Joanna), the film kicks off with the simpering Myron (played by Rex Reed, one of America’s most high profile film critics!) getting a sex change and emerging as…Raquel Welch! “I still can’t believe I took this role,” the actress memorably sighs on the film’s DVD audio commentary. Now a pneumatic babe renamed Myra, she becomes a one-woman army for women’s liberation. Setting her sights on Hollywood, Myra battles to turn the whole world on its head, and targets a macho young wannabe actor as a symbol of everything that she’s fighting against. Throw in a hideously aged and disgustingly over-sexed Mae West, a decrepit and perverted John Huston, and a very wild scene involving Ms. Welch and a strap-on, and you have an honest-to-god seventies freak fest. Director Sarne revels in and punctures the inherent sexuality that keeps the cogs in The Dream Factory clicking away; his Hollywood is a surreal, horribly debauched place, and he cruelly uses inserted clips from old movie mainstays to hammer home his often brutal barbs. Myra Breckinridge was excoriated by critics upon release, and pilloried for its perceived tastelessness. Pop artist, Andy Warhol, however, later declared it to be twenty years ahead of its time in Interview Magazine. “I meant the thing to be very funny,” director, Michael Sarne, said in 1971, “and I’m laughing at the critics who have taken it seriously. Myra Breckinridge is supposed to be satirical; it’s a gigantic whack at all those complacent bloody people who run the film business.”

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HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975) The Wild West is almost as important to American history for its depiction on film as for its actual existence. The western – a wholly American artform, like jazz or the blues – forms a vital part of the American pop cultural landscape, and while there have been thousands of “horse operas”, movies about western movies are few and far between. One of the finest in this small field is 1975’s Hearts Of The West, a charming, elegiac comedy-drama from late director, Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin). Set during The Great Depression, Hearts Of The West stars a fresh-faced Jeff Bridges as Lewis Tater, a farm boy with dreams of becoming an author of western novels. He heads off to Nevada to chase his dreams and, after tangling with two con men, ends up stranded in the desert with their loot in his pocket and the bad guys on his trail. The guileless, innocent Tater is rescued by a posse of cowboys – movie cowboys, that is, employed by western specialists, Tumbleweed Productions – and soon finds work as a horse-riding, stunt-performing extra in the company’s bottom-of-the-barrel oaters. Tater gets sage advice from an older veteran (the late Andy Griffith) and finds romance with the company’s tough talking but big hearted script girl (Blythe Danner) in what is a sunny, longingly nostalgic paean to the Hollywood western. The son of legendary actor, Lloyd Bridges (who starred in the classic, High Noon), Jeff Bridges has a longtime fascination with the western genre, and the period that spawned it. “That time in our history was so unique,” he told FilmInk in 2011. “It’s such a small period of time, but it was so fascinating.”

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INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) “Movies are my religion,” writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, once said. “When I make a movie, I want it to be everything to me; like I would die for it.” The one time video store clerk behind modern classics like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is also Hollywood’s most famous movie geek, a man with seemingly endless enthusiasm for the moving image, and extraordinary knowledge of its darker and more fascinating corners. Though billed principally as Tarantino’s “WW2 movie”, his 2009 effort, Inglourious Basterds, is also his most impassioned tribute to cinema itself. While Tarantino has homaged wildly in all of his films, the cinema actually plays a major role in this tale of a covert Allied operation to take down Hitler and his cronies: Michael Fassbender’s British soldier is a film critic; Diane Kruger’s double agent is a movie star; Daniel Bruhl’s German war hero is the star of a propaganda film; and Melanie Laurent’s Jewish survivor runs a movie theatre. And in a bravura masterstroke that could only have been engineered by Tarantino, the film climaxes with Hitler and his henchmen getting wiped out in said theatre, with celluloid itself used as an incendiary device. Typical of Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds is in some ways the ultimate movie about movies. “I’m an academic at heart, and my study is cinema,” Tarantino told The Village Voice in 2009. “I’ve been writing a movie review book over the years. It wasn’t enough that I was just seeing movies – they were being lost to the atmosphere. It’s like my whole life I’m studying for a professorship in cinema, and the day I die is the day that I graduate.”

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