'Hail, Caesar!': Here's why Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood

'Caesar' is the newest movie from the Coen brothers and stars George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, and Scarlett Johansson, among others. It will be released on Feb. 5.

Alison Rosa/Universal Pictures/AP
'Hail, Caesar!' stars Josh Brolin (r.) and Scarlett Johansson (l.).

“Hail, Caesar!,” the newest movie by the Coen brothers directing team, is a story of old Hollywood and premieres on Feb. 5. 

The film centers on a “fixer” (Josh Brolin), who works for Capitol Pictures and tries to solve various production difficulties. He becomes involved when one of the studio’s stars (George Clooney) is kidnapped.

Actors including Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Tilda Swinton co-star, with Tatum taking on the role of an actor who seems similar to dancers like Gene Kelly and Johannson playing an Esther Williams-like actress. 

The movie, which is co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, is the Coen brothers’ first since the 2013 movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which starred Oscar Isaac. 

The movie is far from the first film to have a plot that’s about Hollywood. It’s not even the first by the Coen brothers, who wrote the 1991 movie “Barton Fink” and which Joel Coen directed. The movie is about a screenwriter attempting to make it in California.

But Hollywood has always enjoyed making movies about itself. The tradition includes love letters to the movie business like the 1952 movie “Singin’ in the Rain,” which tells the story of a silent movie star attempting to make the switch to “talkies” and is often called the best musical of all time, and darker takes like the 1950 movie “Sunset Boulevard,” which looks at an actress who was unable to keep her career going and the budding screenwriter who becomes involved with her. 

More recently, a fun movie about Hollywood also found success. The movie “The Artist,” which stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, also tells the story of an actor also struggling to make it in a new movie business full of “talkies.” It won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012. 

We’ve also seen a bit of this with the 2015 film “Trumbo,” which stars Bryan Cranston as the real-life blacklisted screenwriter. Cranston has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and the movie was nominated for a slew of Screen Actors Guild Awards, including best movie cast (the closest equivalent to Best Picture at the SAG Awards).

What keeps Hollywood returning to these movies about itself? 

Murray Horwitz of NPR pointed out that far from celebrating Hollywood, many movies that focus on the movie business depict the less cheerful side of how the town works.

“One thing that interests me is that for all of Hollywood's vaunted self-promotion and celebration, very few of these films celebrate Hollywood," Horwitz said. "They show the bleak side, the commercialism, the heartlessness… some of the sort of holes in the Hollywood myth are often focused on by these features."

Perhaps Hollywood wants the average moviegoer to realize what really happens with fame and that sustaining it is not as easy as some may believe.

Chris Knight of Toronto’s National Post agrees that these films can at least give the feeling of providing insight into how Hollywood works.

“They allow us all to take a peek behind the curtain,” Knight wrote. “DVD commentaries and ‘entertainment news’ have made us all film experts, more or less, and movies that use movie backdrops as, well, an actual backdrop only feed into that.”

As for those movies that do put Hollywood in a good light and why those may succed at the Oscars, Knight wrote of “Argo,” which centered on Hollywood helping with a national rescue mission, “Anyone wondering why ‘Argo’ has been enjoying such an awards-season love-in need only look at the film’s main characters. Saving the day from behind the scenes are John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood special effects guru and a tough-talking producer. They (by which I mean both the actors and the characters) are white men over 60 who have been in the business a long time – which happens to be the most common demographic for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”

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