The Coens at their most inventive
Four-time Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Fargo) write and direct Hail, Caesar!, an homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, a valentine to the studio system laced with a lovingly acerbic edge.
Hail, Caesar! celebrates the dream factory, while cleverly pulling back the curtain to reveal some of the less-than-flattering inner workings of the film business in its heyday.
When the world’s biggest star (George Clooney), vanishes and his captors demand an enormous ransom for his safe return, it will take the power of Hollywood’s biggest names to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
Bringing the audience along for a comic whodunit that pulls back the curtain and showcases the unexpected humor and industry drama found behind the scenes, Hail, Caesar! marks the Coens at their most inventive.
The idea for Hail, Caesar! originated more than a decade ago, according to George Clooney, the Oscar-winning actor who appears as the vain and spoiled Baird Whitlock, the star of the Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, which gives this film its name.
Clooney was starring in another Coen brothers’ project when the filmmakers approached him. “At the time,” Clooney recalls, “they asked if I wanted to play this actor who gets kidnapped. They had about three pages of plot written down and a few terrific lines. That’s it. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Over the years, when journalists asked Clooney about his upcoming projects, he’d inevitably mention Hail, Caesar!.
“It even showed up on IMDB,” Clooney laughs. “But here’s the thing. There was no script.”
Joel Coen reaffirms the story: “It’s true. Finally, we got so much grief, that we decided to sit down and write the script. Besides, it was time. If we waited much longer, everyone we wanted for the film would be too old for their roles.”
At the same time as they comically send up the more hypocritical aspects of the studio system, the Coen brothers showed great respect and admiration for the professionalism and craftsmanship that characterized Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Through the various movies being shot on the Capitol lot—and on location in and around Los Angeles—we follow the on- and off-screen lives of those whom Mannix protects.
The comedy is set in the early 1950s, a period for the motion picture industry when its glamorous façade was beginning to show visible cracks. The major studios had recently been forced to divest themselves of their theaters and were facing the sudden growth of a new rival: television. They were also beset by changes in the post-World War II political and social landscape, including the hysteria of the Red Scare and the Cold War. Hollywood responded to these threats, real and imagined, by providing audiences with big, splashy escapist entertainments: wide-screen Biblical epics featuring casts of thousands, bold Technicolor movie musicals and Busby Berkeley-style aquatic spectaculars, as well as a supply of Westerns and sophisticated drawing-room dramas.
The well-oiled machine was run like a fiefdom, with studio bosses exerting tight control over every aspect of their talents’ professional and private lives. Careers were shaped and manicured. Stars were told what movies they could appear in, how to dress, and who to date. When, inevitably, some of the actors chafed or rebelled, studios employed a fixer to cover up indiscretions and keep them out of the public eye.
No cost was too great to maintain the illusion of glamour.
“Today, we’re so used to knowing every little thing about actors and celebrities and digging into the deep dark truths of their lives,” observes Scarlett Johansson, who plays DeeAnna Moran, an aquatic film star loosely patterned on Esther Williams. “Back then, the public wanted to believe that the stars were in fact as otherworldly and ideal as they were being projected. The studios did more to protect their ‘trophies’ back in that system. The stars were like property, under contract forever and could be loaned out at any time. There were good things about that system and bad. On the one hand, they were taken care of, and on the other, it could be rather suffocating.”
Back in the day, stars were protected by the likes of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the fixer for the fictitious Capitol Pictures.
The character is a composite of the real Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, who performed the same function for MGM. Mannix, a former bouncer, spends his days putting out fires, from sexual peccadilloes to coaxing religious leaders to approve the latest Biblical spectacle.
Explains Ethan Coen: “His job would be to find some movie star down in San Diego drunk, and retrieve him and pay off all the people that he offended along the way, or get somebody who is secretly gay married off.”
For his part, Working Title’s Eric Fellner was pleased to be back on board with the Coens. He reflects: “Tim and I have been so fortunate to work with Joel and Ethan for so many years. This film is not only a culmination of their work, it’s a reflection of their love of the industry. It’s no surprise that so many of their favored performers have returned to be a part of it, and we so appreciate the obvious care for the material and unparalleled craftsmanship they’ve delivered.”
A bridge between Hollywood’s Golden Era and how movies are made today
For most of the actors in Hail, Caesar!, the film represents a bridge between Hollywood’s Golden Era and how movies are made today, highlighting the good, the bad and everything in between.
George Clooney who, in Hail, Caesar!, adds to his oeuvre of playing what he calls “idiots” in Coen brothers movies, which he’s done three previous times—in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading.
But the character of Baird Whitlock, he says, “is maybe the dumbest character I’ve played for them. He’s just a clueless movie star, which of course could never happen in real life, now could it?” he grins.
Clooney imagines what it must have been like to be a contract player at a studio during Hollywood’s heyday. He likens the long-term commitments to the ones young athletes still face to the present day. “It’s like the deal you make with the devil,” he explains. “You’re excited to be offered a contract and to be under contract. At first you’re overpaid, but over time you realize you’re being vastly underpaid. It must have been very frustrating. It still goes on today, mainly with young athletes.”
Clooney himself got a dose of that early in his career when he was under contract, though it was a much less constrained agreement and he had greater latitude to work elsewhere. “I have some idea of what it’s like to work on a lot, and know all the crew and all the soundstages. I’ve had a taste of that.
“What hasn’t changed,” he continues, “is the actual physical process of making of a movie, which Hail, Caesar! celebrates. There have been some great technical improvements, but there’s still a crane with a camera. Lighting it still lighting. Sound is still sound, and the director still calls the shots.”
Tilda Swinton agrees with her fellow star: “Films continue to transport all of us, even those who are lucky enough to work in them. There’s something forever about them. As Eddie Mannix says about Baird Whitlock, my characters can’t expose him as I am threatening to do, because he has to remain a fantasy, a dream. People needed it then, and they need it now.”
In the past, studio fixers represented one of the main ways in which stars’ images were cultivated and protected. “I think they need them today, probably more than ever,” says Channing Tatum.
“Now stars have publicists and lawyers instead, because a fixer would have a hard job today. People have to watch what they do. But back in 1951, you could literally get away with murder and go to Eddie Mannix and say, ‘Hey I messed up man,’ and he’d say, ‘Don’t touch anything. I’m on my way.’ It’s a scary thought.”
Though some of the problems Mannix dealt with wouldn’t be terribly scandalous today, observes Josh Brolin, they still have contemporary parallels. “The issues are different, but there’s still the National Enquirer and those kinds of things. Those reporters don’t give up, because their philosophy is that every actor, filmmaker and director is lying. They think that they’re never telling the truth, and if they keep at it you’ll find the dirt. The problem is, at least 50 percent of the time, they’re right. Even when they are wrong, though, and you confront them, they refuse to admit they’re wrong.”
Beneath the humor, says Ralph Fiennes, Hail, Caesar! is truly a microcosm of the entertainment business.
“It looks at the hierarchies, the vanities, the insecurities and loneliness. It looks at the dream of success and the heartbreak of failure. It shows how human vulnerabilities are exposed and magnified within the movie and theater world.”
One thing that’s never changed, Fiennes stresses, is the tension between the business and the art of film.
“Directors still want to imbue a film with their vision, but their artistic vision may not be viable in putting people in seats in the movie theater.”
And truly, in the end, the one thing that hasn’t changed and never will, according to Tatum, is that films are still all about helping an audience escape. The best part of Hail, Caesar!, he shares, “is that the movie is wildly entertaining on any level. It’s a tribute to an art form, even if some of its luster has been lost somehow along the way.”