I didn’t see any of the Oscar nominated films this year. I’ve become extremely cautious about traveling for twenty minutes to spend ten dollars to sit for two hours to see something that is far less interesting than the trailer had made it out to be. The last experience was seven months ago, it was not a happy one, and, like Mr. Bennet, I am reluctant to be sent on a fool’s errand again.
I do find many movies about movies noteworthy, however; it’s always interesting to see how capable a profession is of self-examination, so I’ve listed ten of movie movies that are well worth looking up.
10. Sweet Liberty (1986) Professor Michael Burgess (Alan Alda) has written a historical text on a little-known Revolutionary War incident. His book is optioned, the production comes to his home town to shoot and Michael is both horrified by the banal adaptation of his scholarly work, and charmed by the lead actors. Michael Caine, as the womanizing leading man, and Lillian Gish, as Michael’s eccentric mother are delightful.
9. RKO 281 (1999) In 1939, 25-year-old Orson Welles was given an unprecedented contract with RKO to develop his own projects. RKO’s 281st production was Citizen Kane. The film takes a prevalent theory – that Charles Foster Kane was based upon William Randolph Hearst – and proposes that the story line was developed as retaliation for insults exchanged between Welles and Hearst at a dinner party. James Cromwell as Hearst, Melanie Griffith as Marion Davies and particularly Liev Schreiber as Welles are very good.
8. Overnight (2003) – This documentary should be screened in graduating film classes as a cautionary tale. In the late 90s, Troy Duffy, bartender, musician and aspiring screenwriter attracted an impressive offer to direct his script, The Boondock Saints. How and why the deal unravels is a chilly expose of Hollywood politics.
7. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Preston Sturges wrote and directed the tale of sheltered filmmaker John Lloyd Sullivan, who wants to abandon lightweight comedies to make his dream project, “something that would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is”, a realistic drama about human misery called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? His plan to disguise himself as a tramp and acquaint himself with raw humanity spirals downward, and Sullivan comes away from his brush with what we now call “flyover country” concluding, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.”
6. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) If Baby Jane could be categorized, it would belong to a thinly populated genre called Tinseltown Gothic, just below Sunset Boulevard. Here, two aging stars – former child star “Baby Jane” Hudson, and her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche – wage a war of envy, bitterness and escalating cruelty. Based on Henry Farrell’s thriller, Baby Jane was shot in brilliant black-and-white by Robert Aldrich, who went on to do another Farrell gothic, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Overtly a shocker, Baby Jane can also be seen as an indictment of Hollywood’s culture of disposability.
5. Hollywood Shuffle (1987) – Robert Townsend co-wrote, directed and stars in this semi-autobiographical satire of Hollywood; specifically, the dearth of roles for actors of color. While Bobby Taylor (Townsend) auditions for the only available roles for African-Americans – pimps, thugs and assorted second bananas – his fantasies conjure up “Black Acting School”, with subjects like Jive Talk 101, casting directors fixed on finding an Eddie Murphy type and a hilarious, expletive-laden send-up of Siskel and Ebert, “Sneakin’ into the Movies”. Townsend’s film is quite savvy in the use of comedy to make a larger point; it’s interesting, and perhaps a bit said, to see that after a quarter of a century, the point still applies.
4. Lady Killer (1933)- Long before Get Shorty, Lady Killer speculated that a life of crime may be the perfect training ground for a Hollywood career. James Cagney stars as Dan Quigley, an incompetent theatre usher who is fired, falls in with a gang of crooks, flees the cops, winds up in a Hollywood where he uses his street smarts to boost his acting career, until the film world and the underworld collide. Cagney is brilliantly funny and Mae Clarke is the perfect foil.
3. Ed Wood (1994) – Tim Burton’s sly, affecting and impeccably cast send-up to the 1950s filmmaker who came to be known as the Worst Director of All Time. Burton recreates Wood (Johnny Depp) by way of his shoestring-budgeted, seat-of-your-pants productions, his utter lack of skill and boundless enthusiasm. Wood’s film sets became a gathering place for a loyal band of misfits, marginally-talented hopefuls and oddities, including the aged, drug addicted Bela Lugosi, brilliantly played by Martin Landau.
2. My Best Fiend (1999) – How does a determined, poetic, but ultimately pragmatic director carve out a working relationship with an actor who is both brilliant and mad? My Best Fiend is Werner Herzog’s document of a turbulent 15-year working relationship with the actor Klaus Kinski. In a resume weighted with forgettable films, Kinski’s collaborations with Werner Herzog were the ones that stood out. Herzog’s laconic accounts of the effects of Kinski’s erratic behavior – “Towards the end of the shooting the Indians offered to kill Kinski for me,” he says of Fitzcarraldo. “I declined at the time, but they were dead serious” – bring some wry humor to this fascinating portrait. (My Best Fiend is not to be confused with the 1982 documentary, Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo.)
1.The Big Picture(1989) – An award-winning short film springboards film school graduate Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) onto Hollywood’s fast track. Soon he’s taking meetings, attending parties, cozying up to an ambitious ingenue (Terri Hatcher), while elbowing aside his loyal friends and downsizing his values. This incisive and witty take on making it in the film industry, from director and co-writer Christopher Guest is very smart, and a lot of fun – plus it has one of my favorite all time lines, when the agent tells his client that he has a stack of scripts and he’s “read almost all of them almost all the way through.”