Lost in the Looking Glass

When Hollywood makes movies about Hollywood, the villains are really sick and the backstabbing is extra painful.

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It is an innocent young man's first day on the job. He has just been informed by his new boss that what he thinks doesn't matter and what he feels doesn't matter. Actually, he should forget he even exists, except to fulfill one purpose: to serve the boss's needs, however contradictory, however demanding, however absurd.

"But that's crazy!" the young man protests. "That's no way to run a business."

"Uh-uh!" shushes the more seasoned assistant he's replacing. "This is not a business. There are no rules here. Save that candy stripe crap for Wall Street wimps. This is Show Business. Punching below the belt is not only all right, it is rewarded."

The film is George Huang's intense, hilarious 1994 black comedy Swimming With Sharks, and if you think movies about Hollywood couldn't get funnier or darker, guess again.

Sunset Blvd., that gothic 1950 classic directed by the late, great Billy Wilder, remains the quintessential Hollywood movie about Hollywood, as fresh as ever after half a century, and of topical interest not just because Wilder died this past spring. "Hollywood" is more than ever a compelling subject in films. Uncurl the kinks in Mulholland Drive, which earned director David Lynch an Oscar nomination, and you find a thematic remake of Sunset Blvd. The same sense of waste is there, the same lethal darkness. And where Wilder's film is narrated, rather drolly, by the dead body afloat in a swimming pool, the Lynch film is, once you decode it, the last flashing nightmare of a once-promising actress who is now in the act of killing herself. The dreamy, half-joking proximity of the two films is deliberate on Lynch's part. If you know your L.A. geography, Mulholland Drive runs exactly parallel to Sunset Boulevard--except that it's much more twisted and operates at a dizzier altitude.

For over 50 years Wilder's film has set the standard for how moviemakers judge the traps of their own profession. A melancholy comedy, Sunset Blvd. culminates in the image of a faded star (played by actual silent star Gloria Swanson, gloriously spoofing herself), driven mad with the memory of her lost beauty and fame, advancing on the camera like a killer insect, demanding another close-up. This brilliant bit of poetry rings truer now than ever, and makes the blood run cold: Is this the stuff that dreams are made of?

See enough movies about Hollywood, and you can only be struck by the incredible darkness of the tradition. There may be rare exceptions. Singin' in the Rain takes the movie biz for a setting and celebrates its magic wonderfully. Ed Wood is the story of a pie-eyed dreamer who doesn't have a clue how freakish he looks to the rest of the world--Bela Lugosi loves him, and that's all he needs. The performances of Johnny Depp as Ed and Martin Landau as Bela transform what might have been an alienated farce into a sweet, spiritual variation on the father-son love story. Otherwise, movies-about-movies presume a license to be unsympathetic that audiences usually only grant to crime films.

When he made the jump from vaudeville to movies back in the 1920s, comedian and pundit Will Rogers marveled that movies sure were a strange invention: "You not only get to be in a show, you get to sit in the front row and clap at yourself." Such a crazy hall of mirrors was a new phenomenon in human history. Reality has never been so compellingly depicted as in film, and therefore, the invention of movies is arguably a far more potent invention than the atom bomb, because its fatal radiations are less easy to see, and they travel farther.

Narcissism, the disease of getting lost in our own reflections, has reached epidemic proportions--with Hollywood leading the way. Just look at the growing number of male leads who can't seem to escape their own reflections, and thereby escalate into self-pleased icons who cease to be capable of disappearing into a role, no matter how talented they once were.

Hollywood and its capacity to damage personalities the world over is a central preoccupation in Woody Allen's work, starting with Annie Hall, in which we briefly tour a New York comedian's idea of hell: Hollywood in the late 1970s. "I forgot my mantra," Jeff Goldblum groans into the telephone at a crowded party. The local restaurants serve food so healthy it's literally unheard of: "I'll have a plate of mashed yeast," Woody tells a waiter. Allen and his cinematographer Gordon Willis deliberately open the lens by an extra f-stop for every scene set in California, so that wherever you look, everything you see feels overexposed. Such comedy turns pitch black in Allen's lesser-known Stardust Memories: Here the subject is the mad circus of overloaded impressions that can crowd your head if you have the mixed luck to become successful in the film business. Everybody who approaches the beleaguered hero wants something from him. Even the extraterrestrials who land at the climax are tired of Woody's "serious" explorations of the human psyche, and demand that he make funnier movies.

One of the most persistent themes of movies-about-moviemaking, from The Bad and the Beautiful to The Player, from A Star Is Born to hurlyburly, is that it's always your so-called best friend who is your worst enemy. Why this should be so is a mystery so rich that countless treacheries in endlessly varied films about Hollywood can't exhaust it. In Hollywood, of course, your best friend is on your payroll and so never says "no" to you--until there's blood in the water.

"Friends, my eye!" bellows the bitter publicist who has rescued the washed up, alcoholic star Norman Maine time and again in A Star Is Born--a romantic portrait of downfall Hollywood has remade three times: "I don't like you! I never liked you! Nothing made me happier than to see all those cute little pranks of yours catch up with you, and land you on your celebrated face!" As novelist Caroline Gordon once put it, "A sycophant is always an assassin at heart."

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