12.28.11

'The Artist,' 'Hugo,' and the History of Movies About Movies

With The Artist and Hugo being Oscar contenders, Stephen Farber examines the history of film looking at itself—and offers his top 10 movies about movies.

While award-season frenzy is just getting underway, the early choices have pointed to some intriguing possibilities. The first two groups to name the top films of the year—the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review—picked The Artist and Hugo, respectively. Both of them happen to be movies drenched in movie history. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which won the Best Actor award in Cannes and a slew of audience awards at other festivals, is an imaginative, nostalgic homage to the silent-film era. It tells the story of George Valentin (splendidly played by Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-type star who is cast aside when movies begin to talk. Martin Scorsese’s 3-D extravaganza, Hugo, is set a few years later, in the early 1930s, when a young boy living in the Paris railroad station comes into contact with a crabby toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who turns out to be the forgotten French film pioneer Georges Méliès. Add in a third choice, My Week With Marilyn, about Marilyn Monroe’s difficulties while filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, and you have a fascinating, unprecedented contest shaping up. (All three movies were nominated for Golden Globes this month.)

If any of these films were to win Best Picture when the Oscars are handed out on Feb. 26, the choice would make movie history. It would mark the first time in 84 years that an inside look at the movie business has ever won. Over the years, top Hollywood directors—and innovative foreign filmmakers as well—have made plenty of juicy, entertaining, sometimes downright brilliant movies about moviemaking. After all, this is a subject they know better than any other, and it’s not surprising that this theme has sparked the passion and creativity of some of our best writers and directors. But not a single one of the hundreds of films on the subject has ever been selected as Best Picture, and very few have even been nominated in the top category.

At the same time, many of the other arts have sprinted into the winners’ circle.  Several movies about the theater have snared the top prize, going back to the second film to be named best picture, The Broadway Melody, released in 1929. Other winners include The Great Ziegfeld from 1936, Shakespeare in Love in 1998, and Chicago in 2002.  In 1950 there was a direct contest between the two realms; the top contenders for Best Picture were Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a scathing portrait of an aging movie star, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, which scrutinized a similar sacred monster of Broadway. Wilder’s masterpiece lost to Eve, perhaps partly because voters wanted to defer to the loftier world of the theater.

Other forms of art and entertainment have also been celebrated in the Best Picture category. Movies about literary lions and lionesses—The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Out of Africa (1985)—took home the gold statue. Classical music got its due in Amadeus in 1984. Even the circus took top honors when The Greatest Show on Earth was named Best Picture of 1952, the same year that two memorable movies about Hollywood—Singin’ in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful—weren’t even nominated.

Several movie-besotted movies from abroad were named Best Foreign Film: Federico Fellini’s (1963), François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1989). But none of these three movies was nominated in the all-important Best Picture category, even though a dozen other foreign films (including Z, Cries and Whispers, Life Is Beautiful, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) have competed for best film.

Surveying all these snubs over the years, one can’t help wondering if this indicates a strange inferiority complex on the part of filmmakers not usually known for their humility.

Surveying all these snubs over the years, one can’t help wondering if this indicates a strange inferiority complex on the part of filmmakers not usually known for their humility. Academy voters may fear that these movies set on their own back lots will seem too insular to the masses, and they will find themselves accused of narcissism. Hollywood people have a curious mixture of grandiosity and insecurity. They can’t quite believe that their own profession deserves the respect afforded miners (How Green Was My Valley), soldiers (From Here to Eternity, Platoon), boxers (Rocky), or religious martyrs (A Man for All Seasons).

Could Hollywood finally make amends this year? The Artist is the current Oscar frontrunner, and Hugo also has its champions. Maybe the Academy will feel comfortable honoring one of these movies, since each of them has a foreign flavor. The Artist is a French film that pays tribute to Hollywood history, while Hugo is an American movie in which Scorsese, a longtime film fan and preservationist, celebrates the legacy of early French cinema. The dual national identity of both these movies is apt because America and France invented motion pictures at virtually the same time. Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers played a crucial part in launching a brand-new art form. Those of us who love movies about movies will feel gratified if the Academy finally pays a long overdue tribute to its own bad and beautiful visionaries.

Yet there’s no guarantee that this will happen. The old jinx may return, and the Academy could well decide that a movie about 9/11 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), wartime casualties (War Horse), or racial conflict (The Help), or one led by a movie star (the George Clooney-starring Descendants), would be more suitable subjects for the highest honor. If this happens, it will be one more opportunity missed, and Hollywood will again thumb its nose at one of the most vital currents in film history.

At year’s end, why not revisit some of the best movies-on-movies that have tickled audiences over the decades? The field is so rich that it was tough to narrow the list. Many top filmmakers have turned their lens toward the movie business: Jean-Luc Godard in Contempt, Blake Edwards in S.O.B., Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the Coen brothers in Barton Fink, Tim Burton in Ed Wood. But here are 10 of the best films to celebrate and skewer movie folk:

Sullivan’s Travels (1941), from writer-director Preston Sturges, may have been the first important film to feature a film director as its main character. Joel McCrea gives a delightful performance as a director determined to make his magnum opus, O Brother, Where Art Thou? When the studio suits balk at such highfalutin fare, he decides to embark on a cross-country odyssey to put him in closer touch with his audience. What he learns is that they just want to laugh, and he starts to appreciate the mindless entertainment he has churned out for years. In a way the film is a perfect parable about moviemakers who undervalue their ability to entertain. There were no Oscar nominations for this classic comedy.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) won three Oscars, including one for the brilliant screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman Jr. The movie is filled with dialogue that has entered the pantheon. “I am big,” faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden), the screenwriter who becomes her lover. “It’s the pictures that got small.” This bitter, ironic tribute to an earlier era of Hollywood glamour is also a stinging indictment of the soullessness of the contemporary industry. Rumor has it that when Louis B. Mayer saw the film, he lambasted Wilder for biting the hand that fed him. You could also check out Wilder’s later companion piece, Fedora, released in 1979.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) earned one significant Oscar nomination, for Jean Hagen’s hilarious performance as a silent-film star whose shrill, squeaky voice threatens her survival after the arrival of sound. In addition to its marvelous dance sequences, the film includes peerlessly funny scenes of an industry trying to adapt to brand-new technology. The nimble direction by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen does justice to the witty script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) won five Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame) and Best Screenplay (by Charles Schnee), but it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Kirk Douglas shines as a driven, ruthless producer, and Lana Turner as an alcoholic star has one memorable scene, excitingly staged by director Vincente Minnelli, when she has a breakdown while driving right into oncoming traffic.

A Star Is Born (1954). This musical version of the oft-told tale, directed by George Cukor from a screenplay by Moss Hart, turns a bit maudlin at moments. But the Oscar-nominated performances by Judy Garland and James Mason galvanize the archetypal tale of a Hollywood marriage threatened by the changing fortunes of the couple. (While her star rises, his recedes.) And who can forget the classic tear-jerking ending, when Garland pays tribute to her late husband: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mrs. Norman Maine!”

Federico Fellini’s (1963) may be the greatest of all movies about moviemaking, with Marcello Mastroianni ideally cast as the director’s alter ego. Tender flashbacks and ribald, outrageous fantasies alternate with satirically precise scenes of a movie being made and unmade by an extravagant director suffering through a creative and spiritual crisis while on location. Forget the dreadful musical remake, Nine, which missed all the impudent wit of the Fellini original.

Inside Daisy Clover (1965) was a flop when it came out, but it’s one of my personal favorites, and it got three Oscar nominations, including one for Ruth Gordon as the heroine’s senile mother. The entire cast is extraordinary. Natalie Wood was a little too old to play a teenager groomed for stardom during the 1930s, but she achieves a number of poignant moments. The same year that he starred as the goody-goody Von Trapp family patriarch in The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer gave a far more compelling performance as the sinister studio chief in this film. In one of his first movies, Robert Redford also makes a striking impression as the gay matinee idol who marries the naive Daisy. In this cult favorite written by Gavin Lambert and directed by Robert Mulligan, eerie Gothic details contribute to a haunting depiction of celluloid madness.

Day for Night (1973). Francois Truffaut’s valentine to moviemaking prefigures the approach taken by French director Michel Hazanavicius in The Artist. Truffaut celebrates the craftsmanship and sheer love that goes into even the most routine film. Along the way he has fun with all the fragile characters who come together on a movie set. Most memorable is the actress (Valentina Cortese) who can’t remember her lines, to the consternation of her ever-patient director (played by Truffaut himself).

The Stunt Man (1980) presents a less glowing portrait of the obsessed movie director. In Richard Rush’s film, written by Lawrence B. Marcus, Peter O’Toole gives one of his greatest performances as an auteur who will go to any lengths—including murder—to get the sublime shots that he considers essential. Some of the script’s reality-and-illusion games seem a bit sophomoric, but this cheeky, energetic film contains a definitive portrait of the filmmaker as a tyrant with a megaphone.

The Player (1992). This mordant black comedy about contemporary Hollywood marked a dazzling return to form for director Robert Altman, who received his first Oscar nomination in 17 years after toiling on tiny-budgeted movies in the intervening decade. Altman, working from Michael Tolkin’s novel and screenplay, got to vent his frustration with movie moguls in this juicy tale of a paranoid studio executive (Tim Robbins) who is convinced a disgruntled screenwriter is trying to murder him.