Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Every generation believes it’s the first to be good or bad, clever or gullible, brave or cowardly. Its members tend to be absorbed by making friends, finding love, and discovering their talents. How can they be expected to look into our communal past?

I suspect the current generation’s fondness for Marvel comic-book heroes and video-game action movies will prevent the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar! from rising to the top ten in their movie-going choices. Hail, Caesar! requires some looking back, some knowledge of Hollywood and its progeny through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

First, the Hollywood then and now produced films grand in scope. Star Wars and Star Trek in all their incarnations, prequels, sequels, and reboots are at their core, Hollywood Westerns. Good guys face off against bad guys. There are shootouts in space and shootouts in corrals. Horses give way to pods, and weapons shift from fists to six-shooters and laser beams.

Hail, Caesar! invokes that love of the Hollywood Western with a character named Hobart Hobie Doyle, a Will-Rogers-ish star who rides, ropes, and talks folksy. He’s also smart, the only one to provide a solid lead in solving the studio’s mystery. He's also the one who accidentally finds the missing star.

Photo provided by Al Griffin of Al Griffin Photography
Because he’s so handsome, the studio decides to replace one star with Hobie’s rising star power, but Hobie is unpretentious and unsophisticated. He doesn’t speak high society, another film style in vogue. In these films, a ruling class with time on its hands wore tuxedos and evening gowns to dine late at night, sip champagne in clubs, and dance until dawn.

With little direction, Hobie tries to slide into the role. He looks great in a tuxedo, after all, but his delivery is flat, the words sounding foreign and strange with a folksy drawl. The effeminate director, Lawrence Laurentz, coaches Hobie in mirthless laughter, wry tones, and clipped speech. Hobie fails miserably. His five-word response becomes a short, clipped two words that he can speak with convicion.

The effeminate director and several lines of dialogue serve to introduce stars, writers, and directors who are snugly inside closets. They were not free to be themselves or to acknowledge their sexuality publically. Women were similarly burdened as DeeAnna Moran’s character proves. She is a pregnant single woman whom the studio wants to marry off because no single woman could survive being pregnant without a husband and father by her side, especially if the father happened to be married to another woman. Ingrid Bergman’s story proves that truth.

DeeAnna refuses the studio’s first offers because they would create a sham marriage for her. They would marry her to men disinterested in her as a sexual partner. The marriage would simply provide her with cover until a divorce could be arranged.

DeeAnna also represents a different sort of grand film--a film designed for her and her alone. Audie Murphy’s wartime heroics inspired writers to create Westerns and movies about war for him. Esther Williams’ Olympic medals inspired Busby Berkley   
spectacles featuring choreographed synchronized swimming.

The sharpest wit and parody go to Baird Whitlock, a debauched actor who’s prone to dames and booze. He’s as shallow as they come--so shallow in fact that a group of Communists persuade him to become their ally in a few short hours. He even returns to the studio and gives voice to his newly acquired theories about workers, justice, and rights. The studio boss literally slaps the nonsense out of him before commanding him to forget it, never speak of it again, and to deliver a moving speech about the Son of God in the closing scene in a third type of grand film favored by Hollywood of old--historical epics, usually set in Rome.

Whitlock acquiesces quickly. He’s a commodity bought and paid for, after all, but in a final irony, he speaks the speech beautifully. His delivery moves the crew on set until he forgets the last word, breaks characters, and curses. The word he forgets is faith, the essence of Hollywood. After all, the fans have faith that the actors are what they portray whether that is hero or villain, lawman or miscreant, ingénue or vamp, dreamer or cynic. That was and is the essence of typecasting.

The industry also has faith--a sort of cockeyed optimism that what it produces matters and therefore the people involved matter. The Coens seem to suggest that Hollywood is at least full of itself and perhaps even delusional. With a nod to the blacklists during the nation’s fear of Communists and to the writers who were accused of subversive messages, writers in Hail, Caesar! admit to covert, subversive speeches, but they are just as delusional as the studio bosses. Their plot to extort money from the studio fails; their speeches in scripts and in person change nothing. Theirs is a tale of fury told by an idiot signifying nothing (from Macbeth).

Reading Challenge:

Read Hail, Caesar!

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Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.