In the Flix
One of my recent Netflix rentals was 1975's The Day of the Locust, a tale of lost souls clamoring desperately for the tiniest bit of fame in Depression-era Hollywood. It's probably the most apocalyptic view of the movie industry ever made, a well-done film with terrific performances but with a heavy set of emotions hanging above it like Charlie Brown's raincloud. I realize the movie business has its ups as well as downs, so it got me thinking about other films based on the movie industry and the perspectives they present on the subject. The following ten movies I came up with may not be the genre's best, but they are all worthy of a watch and, in their own respective ways, perfectly capture some aspect of show business.
Ed Wood. Tim Burton's 1994 comedy/drama is a great-looking, pitch-perfect take on Edward D. Wood Jr. (as played by the irreplacable Johnny Depp), a man "renowned" as the worst director of all time -- obviously, a fella named Uwe Boll hadn't yet made himself known to the world at that point...
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. One of the most compelling documentaries ever made, Hearts of Darkness is a brutally honest and amazingly up-front first-hand account of the making of the war classic Apocalypse Now, focusing on Francis Ford Coppola battling production problems and personal demons in order to get his passion project in the can.
The Player. My personal favorite film from the late Robert Altman's illustrious career, the dark comedy The Player centers around hotshot studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), as he struggles to maintain his job and his life after being threatened by a writer he once scorned. But don't let the unlikable nature of the story fool you; the writing is so sharp and the performances so precise, you'll, to quote the tagline for Payback, "get ready to root for the bad guy."
RKO 281. The tumultuous making of Citizen Kane, regarded by some as the greatest film of all time, is captured in this fascinating, well-filmed HBO movie, with great performances from Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles and James Cromwell as the sleeping giant whom Welles awoke, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Stardust Memories. A list of the finest movies about the movies wouldn't be complete without at least one flick from the resume of a classic filmmaker -- in this case, Woody Allen. A more serious and introspective film than Bananas or Sleeper, Stardust Memories is a simultaneously amusing and thoughtful look at a director reflecting on life, love, and his career.
State and Main. While shooting in a small Vermont town, a film crew encounters production problems, a randy lead star (Alec Baldwin), and townspeople with agendas in this whip-smart comedy from the pen of the great David Mamet.
The Stunt Man. Those searching for proof that Peter O'Toole is one of the finest actors who ever lived need look no further than this diabolically playful 1980 picture, in which O'Toole delivers one of my favorite male performances ever as a man who may very well be the most pompous, egotistical, challenging, and talented directors to walk the planet. O'Toole's own character affirms the power and magic that movies possess with one of the flick's most classic lines: "If God could do the tricks that we can do, then He'd be a happy man."
Swimming with Sharks. Another tour-de-force of acting, this time from two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey in a fairly early role as the boss from Hell, a Hollywood producer who puts his assistant (Frank Whaley) through an absolutely merciless barrage of verbal abuse and humiliation. Definitely one of the meaner scripts I've come across, but one of the most observant and funny as well.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Have you ever wondered who rates the movies we see? How about what criteria they use? Curious as to why the Motion Picture Association of America is such a mysterious little group? Consider Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated the answer to your questions. It's an expose of the movie ratings board and plays out as something of a detective story for the first two acts before unleashing a barrage of jaw-dropping revelations in the third.
The Wizard of Speed and Time. The underdog on the list, this criminally underseen and endlessly imaginative gem of a film is a highly exagerrated account of writer/director Mike Jittlov's attempts to navigate the complex Hollywood system to fulfill his dreams of making a movie. Packed with cheery-faced idealism and slapstick comedy, you can't help rooting for everyman Jittlov (playing himself) to prove a scheming movie producer wrong and come out with a homemade movie more entertaining than most stuff that shows up at the local multiplex (and all clad in a green wizard's robe, at that!). Jittlov's own special effects wizardry serve up some of the film's most memorable moments.
By no means is this list complete, as there are plenty of documentaries (Burden of Dreams, Overnight) and fictional features (CQ, Silent Movie) that provide their own great stories about the movie biz. But consider these ten a good way to start your own journey of discovery about what Hollywood thinks of itself.
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