The Coen Brothers: ‘The Oscars Are Not That Important’

The revered filmmaking duo of Joel and Ethan Coen open up about new film ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ diversity in Hollywood, and much more.

Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty

Oscar-winning duo Joel and Ethan Coen let out matching bemused groans at the mention of the hot-button #OscarsSoWhite controversy as we discussed their latest film, the 1950s-set backstage Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, during a recent stop in Beverly Hills.

“[That’s] assigning way too much importance to the awards,” said Joel, whose latest film with co-helmer and brother Ethan follows a day in the life of a Golden Age of Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin) tasked with keeping his studio’s stars and scandals under wraps.

“By making such a big deal, you’re assuming that these things really matter. I don’t think they even matter much from an economic point of view,” he continued. “So yes, it’s true—and it’s also true that it’s escalating the whole subject to a level it doesn’t actually deserve.”

Diversity’s important,” clarified Coen, who with his brother has won four Oscars and earned 10 more nominations including a Best Screenplay nod for Bridge of Spies, for which they’ll vie at this month’s 88th Academy Awards show. “The Oscars are not that important.”

Any reasonable person in Hollywood will agree that diverse representation is important in the movies, as it is in today’s America and the world. And yes, award shows are mostly glitzy politicking and PR affairs. But the Oscars nevertheless represent the cinematic achievements deemed most worthy of celebration, in the highest-profile global film event of the year, to the industry and beyond.

That’s why, when this year’s nominations were announced, revealing nary a minority in the bunch for the second year in a row, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag caught on and didn’t let up. It became a national conversation. The Academy felt the kick in the pants so hard it enacted hurried measures to boost color in its membership ranks.

One might consider it a matter of bad timing, then, that the amiable Hail, Caesar! opens in the midst of Hollywood’s diversity “crisis.” When trailers for the film hit the Internet, boasting dazzling turns by the likes of George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and fresh-faced standout Alden Ehrenreich, so too followed a ripple of tangential #OscarsSoWhite backlash. Clooney, one of America’s most untouchable megastars, earned scrutiny after calling out Hollywood’s lack of “options [available] to minorities in film” despite casting few of them in the films he and his production company have made. Even The Washington Post called out the film’s “pervasive whiteness,” asking, “In Hollywood, must ‘white’ always equal ‘universal?’”

By my count there are a few non-Caucasian characters in Hail, Caesar! But subtract the handful of nameless Asian waiters seen working at a local Chinese joint, and that figure drops down to just one with a memorable speaking part: Veronica Osorio as Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda-esque Latina starlet who gets set up on a studio-arranged date with crooning cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich).

Such overwhelming whiteness could conceivably be explained away by pointing to the milieu of Tinseltown circa the 1950s, when the industry’s racial demographic was far less diverse than it is today. I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren’t more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?

“Why would there be?” countered Joel Coen. “I don’t understand the question. No—I understand that you’re asking the question, I don’t understand where the question comes from.

“Not why people want more diversity—why they would single out a particular movie and say, ‘Why aren’t there black or Chinese or Martians in this movie? What’s going on?’ That’s the question I don’t understand. The person who asks that question has to come in the room and explain it to me.”

As filmmakers, is it important or not important to consciously factor in concerns like diversity, I asked.

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“Not in the least!” Ethan answered. “It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”

“It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why aren’t there this, that, or the other thing?’” added Joel. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written. So you have to start there and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

He continued: “You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

“It’s not an illegitimate thing to say there should be more diversity in an industry,” concluded Joel. “But that’s not what that question is about. That question is about something else.”

The idea for Hail, Caesar! had been kicking around for years, prompted and prodded along by Clooney, who’d starred for the Coens in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty, and 2008’s Burn After Reading.

This time around, the biggest movie star in Hollywood plays the biggest movie star in the stable of fictional studio Capitol Pictures, a daft but dashing screen icon named Baird Whitlock who’s starring in the studio’s biblical epic Hail, Caesar: A Tale of The Christ. His ransom by a bumbling communist cult spurs Caesar’s kooky series of backstage crises.

The Coens took real-life MGM vice president Eddie Mannix as their jumping off point. Brolin plays a vastly fictionalized version of Mannix, the guy whose job it is to solve shenanigans like Whitlock’s kidnapping, the unmarried pregnancy of aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), and a casting gap that throws miscast cowpoke Hobie Doyle onto the set of Laurence Laurentz’s (Fiennes) latest high society chamber piece.

“It seemed to promise some interesting story, somebody whose job is just to go out and address all these different kinds of problems that come up,” said Ethan. “Early on, the conceit of the story was we’re going to do one day in the life of this guy who’s confronting all these different sorts of problems, and it just seemed to have story possibilities.”

“He’s sort of the sane person in an insane universe, which is always an interesting place to start with a story,” said Joel of Brolin’s Mannix, a family man laden with a comically mundane sense of Catholic guilt.

“He’s a guy who like Jesus is shouldering the burden of other people’s sins, so in a certain way he’s sort of a Christ figure—and wouldn’t it be interesting to put a character like that in the context of a story about a studio where one of the movies they’re making is a biblical movie about Jesus?”

Unlike Mannix, the Coens insist they manage to avoid worrying too much about, well, just about anything.

“What’s the point of being concerned?” laughed Joel. “There’s something written on Man Ray’s tombstone. I think it’s ‘Unconcerned, but not indifferent.’ I think that’s a good way to be. We’re not concerned—but we’re not indifferent.”