not in our stars, but in ourselves
America after World War II was a funny place, and Hollywood was no exception. Sweeping social changes, brought about (in part) by all those men returning home from Europe and the Pacific, meant that weekly cinema attendance went from 90 million in 1948 to 60 million in 1950 – numbers that kept falling precipitously through the decade. These young men were moving to the suburbs with their best girls, enjoying affluence and leisure time and television, and procreating like crazy. To try to keep everyone’s attention, Hollywood studios cranked out the brightest, splashiest, biggest, most colorful movies they could dream up. Hail, Caesar! is a charming love letter to the studio era’s frothiest, most inconsequential era: the early 1950s.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” at Capitol Pictures in 1951 – although his official title is “head of production.” He ensures that his stars and creative talent are all happy and sober enough to continue churning out Capitol’s wide array of spectacles. We see a few of these while they’re in production: Neptune’s Daughter, an Esther Williams-style vehicle for swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); Merrily We Dance, a would-be society drama that attempts to break singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) out of his typecasting, with abysmal results; an unnamed (I think) sailor musical with the Gene Kelly-esque Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), tap dancing and singing a homoerotic song called “No Dames” with his fellow hot seamen; and the titular epic, Hail, Caesar!, starring Capitol’s greatest matinee idol, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). While shooting a Roman party scene, Baird unwittingly drinks a roofie from the prop wine goblet. Woozy and disoriented, he faints in his dressing room and is abducted by a communist cell called The Future. Eddie, ever the fixer, works to rescue Baird from his captors while ensuring the rest of the yahoos at Capitol don’t get themselves into too much trouble.
Without giving away too many of the plot’s twists and turns, the starting point for Hail, Caesar! seems to have been something along the lines of: “What if McCarthyism had had some basis in reality?” Now, we know pretty certainly that – whatever the sympathies of individual Hollywood types may have been – the Soviets were not recruiting Hollywood luminaries. There were probably precious few actors, directors, cinematographers, producers, editors, etc., etc., who actually thought communism was the best possible solution for America; but of course, a little thing like reality has never gotten in the way of a right-wing blowhard with an axe to grind. Anyway, Hail, Caesar! is a sort of alternate universe where there perhaps was some organized attempt to enforce something like a communist agenda. As was often the case with real Americans who sympathized with communism, our little communist cell in Hail, Caesar! is a group of disenfranchised, exploited, underappreciated workers. That’s right: screenwriters. They’d probably settle for a share of their films’ profits and a more prominent credit onscreen; but in lieu of prestige at Capitol, they turn to the teachings of Kapital. It could have happened. And who knows? Maybe it did!
According to this Los Angeles Times article, Hail, Caesar! is another entry in the Coens’ “numbskull” trilogy, along with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and, I’d say, Burn After Reading. Clooney is, it must be said, a terrific numbskull. He has the look of one of those vacant, handsome screen idols of classic Hollywood: an on-set building façade of a human being. (Please note: I’m aware that Clooney himself is a reasonably intelligent and thoughtful person.) The rest of the cast is delightful, too. Brolin is the film’s anchor, and his Mannix is a sort of cross between No Country for Old Men‘s Llewellyn Moss and Inherent Vice‘s shitheel cop, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Johansson proves, Lina Lamont-style, that a beautiful face doesn’t always come with a beautiful voice; all the more reason to keep her underwater. Tatum is a big beefy delight as the sinister song-and-dance man. Ehrenreich – whom I’d never seen or heard of before – is awfully impressive with his cowboy rope (and, at one point, spaghetti) tricks. The greatest standout, in my humble opinion, is the divine Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker – dueling Hedda Hoppers who try to jostle their ways to exclusive scoops about Capitol’s stars; and, most of the time, missing the boat completely.
I won’t tell you that Hail, Caesar! is among the Coens’ greatest, but that’s not a slight. It is wildly entertaining, immaculately constructed, beautifully shot (by Roger Deakins!), and teeming with fun for us old movie fans. In other words: it’s exactly as entertaining as an early-’50s Hollywood bit of fluff, albeit with a little bit more respect for the intelligence of its audience. The Coens trust us to get all the jokes, to understand what was really going on beyond the Hollywood bubble, even if they (along with us, the viewers) get a big kick out of all the nonsense within that bubble. If nothing else, postwar Hollywood tried to offer the most surreally gorgeous version of humanity it could capture on camera – in fabulous, lifelike Technicolor or in gleaming black and white – in sharp contrast to the dull, staticky murk on primitive television screens. Sure, you could get a kick out of Lucy and Ricky and their stagnant little apartment set; but for sheer jouissance, you could also immerse yourself in the absurdly colorful musicals of the Freed Unit or the bubbly not-quite-sex-comedies of Marilyn Monroe. I mean, I know what I’d rather watch – and so do Joel and Ethan.
That, to me, is the best part about Hail, Caesar!: the brothers’ affection for the subject matter is palpable. They know America was a screwy place at the time; they know these bloated sword-and-sandals epics were absurd; they know the studios did everything in their power to control their stars’ images – and some of that meant controlling the stars in quite a direct fashion. They know all of this. They know it’s not, shall we say, a period of nobility or great art. But they can see the extraordinarily hard work that went into maintaining and creating such illusions. They can see the joy these baubles brought to millions of people each week (even if those millions dwindled as the decade progressed). Maybe I’m just overcome by affection myself, but it seems to me as if early ’50s Hollywood itself is a kind of Coen Brothers character: flawed, loopy, doomed to suffer the consequences of its own foolish decisions, but admirable in its own kooky way.