Streaming: Babylon and the best films about Hollywood
It’s an old industry adage that Hollywood likes nothing more than films about itself. But the line between alluring insider lore and indulgent navel-gazing can be a fine one, and Damien Chazelle bounds so heedlessly across it in Babylon (2022), a three-hour ode to 1920s movie-making and off-camera debauchery, that even Hollywood found it a bit much. Rejected by audiences and awards voters alike, the film, now streaming on multiple platforms, is a grand, beautiful folly but not a disaster. There’s something wryly self-knowing about its excesses, a love for warts-and-all Hollywood that gives every wart its own meticulous closeup. I think it’ll find its cult.
Still, it joins a crowded subgenre: even under the more specific criterion of “portraits of Tinseltown in the transition from silent cinema to talkies”, it was never going to match Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for ageless exuberance and nimble comedy. More recently, Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-laden The Artist (2011) tackled the era with a spry, metatextual sense of pastiche.
Nobody is more sympathetic to the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter than the Hollywood screenwriter
As fairly upbeat, all’s-well-that-ends-well comedies about the Hollywood machine, those two titles stand in a relative minority. Babylon, rather, follows in the long tradition of Hollywood holding up a dark mirror to its own rather fabulous corruption. It would pair neatly with John Schlesinger’s fascinatingly nasty The Day of the Locust (1975), which portrays Hollywood as a kind of heaving, writhing pandaemonium, minus even the moments of farce and sexy decadence that alleviate Chazelle’s descent into showbiz’s bowels. David Lynch’s slippery Mulholland Drive (2001), of course, takes that nightmarishness to trippier levels with its bisected portrait of a disillusioned starlet. The satire in David Cronenberg’s grotesque, harshly hilarious Maps to the Stars (2014; free on Plex) likewise hovers halfway between the businesslike fantasy Hollywood sells to its denizens and an actual, irrational dreamscape.
Both Lynch and Cronenberg’s films are partially concerned with the construction and demolition of movie stars, a theme foregrounded in two of Hollywood’s most iconic reflections on itself. If George Cukor’s 1954 A Star Is Born – the best of its many iterations, as I’ve written before – depicts the shattering emotional labour involved in reaching the top, Billy Wilder’s wickedly funny, quasi-gothic cautionary tale Sunset Boulevard (1950) shows just how punishing the fall from said summit can be, even decades after the fact. The 1965 Natalie Wood vehicle Inside Daisy Clover (Amazon Prime Video) hasn’t nearly the same lofty reputation, but it’s affecting and unusual: an alternately soapy and severe study of a working-class girl, ruined by stardom, leaving it all behind.
A mixture of romanticised nostalgia and bleak cynicism, Quentin Tarantino’s history-rewriting Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019; Netflix) puts a male star through bumpy career purgatory; unsurprisingly, he doesn’t suffer quite as much. Robert Townsend’s fizzy, vibrant, semi-autobiographical Hollywood Shuffle (1987), meanwhile, puts a rare emphasis on the black experience in what remains a very white business, as the director-star dramatises his own experiences with prejudice and stereotyping as a young actor on the scene.
Moving away from the spotlight, nobody is more sympathetic to the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter than the Hollywood screenwriter. The humble, sidelined scribe becomes the protagonist in the Coen brothers’ feverish, Kafka-esque Barton Fink (1991), in which a naive Broadway playwright accepts a Hollywood offer and finds himself sucked into a bloody underworld. Humphrey Bogart’s jaded screenwriter also finds himself living a real-life noir in Nicholas Ray’s immaculately cool, nihilistic In a Lonely Place (1950). The writing process itself is the enemy in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s ingeniously self-reflexive Adaptation (2002), in which Kaufman makes himself not just a character, but his own worst alter ego. David Fincher’s epic-scale Mank (2020; Netflix), about the creative wrangling of Citizen Kane, at least presents writerly agony with a sumptuous, satiny finish.
Even at the top of the food chain, producers don’t get it easy on screen. Their soul-sapping trials in the industry are central to such essential Hollywood self-critiques as Vincente Minnelli’s splendidly acidic fable The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), while Robert Altman’s chaotically spiralling The Player (1992) palpably delights in putting an unctuous studio executive through the wringer, all the while showing off Hollywood’s wares via endless A-list cameos. The best Hollywood movies beat themselves up a bit while still leaving us starry-eyed.
All titles are available to rent on multiple platforms unless otherwise specified.
Also new on streaming and DVD
My favourite film of the last year rewards repeat viewings with deepening moral and philosophical questions, and subtle hints of the uncanny. Cate Blanchett’s performance as a conductor on the edge of career ruin is as seductive and terrifying as the vast pile of accolades she’s received for it might suggest, though perhaps not enough has been said about how funny it is. Every provocation in the film is chased with a delicious punchline.
A Man Called Otto
A Man Called Ove, the 2015 Swedish film on which this treacly Tom Hanks vehicle is based, was nothing to be precious about, and the remake serves it well enough. In any language, it’s watchable creamed-corn stuff, in which frozen hearts are melted and life lessons learned. As a crusty widower drawn out of his shell by young new neighbours, Hanks’s dry, dignified performance lends it some class.
When the trailer for this gleefully camp killer-doll horror-comedy went viral last year, many of us suspected the film itself couldn’t live up to the marketing, but it does. Just silly enough and just scary enough, it hits its marks and doesn’t outstay its welcome, knowing exactly how much it can milk from the irresistible sight gag of an android that dresses like Sarah Jessica Parker and thinks like the Terminator. Quite a lot, it turns out.