• James Kunovski

Showbiz on Showbiz

We've all heard that quote - "there's no business like show business." But what does it represent? Is it referencing the attitudes of actors? Or its fast-paced system? Does it intend to undermine the industry, or celebrate its disposition? Perhaps, it is this elusive nature that attracts filmmakers to often turn the cameras unto their own industry...


 


To Be or Not to Be | 1942 | Ernst Lubitsch


Legendary director Billy Wilder once held a sign in his office that asked, “what would Lubitsch have done?” Well, at the height of the Nazi threshold, Ernst Lubitsch would have made a film about a Polish acting troupe becoming entangled in a plot to track down a German spy. He felt that the Nazis were foolish third-rate actors and, as a defence, used humour to laugh them off the world stage. The performances are top-notch, Carole Lombard, in her last film role, is spectacular as ever, and the delivery is beautifully meta and self-aware. Despite the occupation of Poland, Joseph (Jack Benny), a lead in the troupe cannot believe that someone has walked out during his delivery of the eponymous Hamlet monologue. It is perhaps unfavourably overlooked by Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, from two years prior. Lubitsch’s film should not be underestimated in the ranks of great Hollywood comedies. This multi-genre masterclass in gag scenery and farcical schemes is often considered his finest achievement.


 

All About Eve | 1950 | Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz


When asked if she’ll greet her fans waiting by the stage door, Bette Davis’ sharp-witted Margo Channing whips around in her dressing room chair. Her face full of cream and hair netted away, she denounces: “Autograph fiends! They’re not people… They’re nobody’s fans. They’re juvenile delinquents.” Pointed remark for sure. Channing is the diva to end all divas, and she’s got a million more bon wots headed your way. Margo, in spite of her receptiveness, hires ingénue Eve (Anne Baxter) as her personal assistant, heedless to the fact that Eve plans to connive her way to the top. The doughty characters continue to Channing’s theatre friends, played by Celeste Holm and George Sanders in equally impressive turns. Even Marilyn Monroe has a small role. All About Eve received fourteen nominations at the Oscars, an undeniable record at the time, and went on to win Best Picture in one of the most stacked years in Oscar history. If the backstage shenanigans of a theatre troupe are of no interest, watch it for the perfectly sharp writing and to witness some of the greatest stars from Old Hollywood playing boisterous, extended versions of themselves.


 

Sunset Boulevard | 1950 | Directed by Billy Wilder


Welcome to a film that starts off at the end of the line. An unlikely encounter with faded silent-screen legend Norma Desmond, played by faded silent-screen legend Gloria Swanson, has cost hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) his life. He floats face down in her mansion’s pool, the bursts of flashes from reporters and detectives illuminating the broken space. “He always wanted a pool” the noir-ish narration accounts, “well, in the end, he got himself a pool – only the price turned out to be a little high.” We might laugh at the trite dialogue today, but it’s only because Sunset has greatly influenced film history. Swanson’s characterisation of Norma is complete. She criticises the Hollywood of today, with its prospering ‘talkies’. “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” There seems to be a waiver of truth in her voice. Wilder’s film holds a kernel of truth. At the time, Mary Pickford and Clara Bow, both silent film stars rejected by the studio system had become mansion recluses. It is with this relevance that Sunset Boulevard catches wind and truly becomes boundless. As Desmond enters Paramount Studios, she remains disgusted by the gate keeper’s "incompetence" and quips that there wouldn’t be any Paramount without her. Not far from the truth, considering Swanson was their top-paid star six years running.


 

The Bad and the Beautiful | 1952 |

Directed by Vincente Minnelli


Like so many films of its era, Minnelli uses a flashback narrative to trace the rise and fall of ambitious Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). We see this journey through the eyes of his closest acquaintances which include a writer, a star, and a director, who reminisce in a single-sitting at a Hollywood studio office. Jonathan has used them all to make his way to the top of the game. He is modelled after the notorious producer of Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick. In a deleted scene, Shields accepts the Best Picture Oscar for a film based on an idea he had stolen from his best friend. Instead, he dedicates his entire speech to his late father. Along with Douglas, in usual top form, are Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame, (whose story you may know from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) -- the latter in an Oscar-winning performance. The office in which the former friends meet is adorned with Academy Awards. A special mention is given in the credits to the Academy for loaning them… the film would win five.


 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? | 1962 |

Directed by Robert Aldrich

The rivalry that created a storm between its two leads Bette Davis and Joan Crawford has been immortalised by books, drag queens and the Emmy-winning series Feud. Although we may try to resist, the general public is fixated on tales of women going for each other’s necks. At its core, Baby Jane is a critique of child stardom. Her days long behind her, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) passes the time tormenting her paraplegic sister in their Hollywood mansion. In this case, the plot spilled backstage. One of many stories includes Davis installing a Coca-Cola vending machine on set to provoke Crawford whose husband was the chairman of Pepsi. Regardless of the backstage drama, the film with its star power, Gothic feel and dynamite tension remains a pure feast to indulge.


 

All That Jazz | 1979 | Directed by Bob Fosse


Upon the release of Fosse’s semi-autobiographical musical, Stanley Kubrick announced it as the “best film I think I've ever seen”. Films like this especially resonant with those in the industry, and so, are often recognised by the Academy. It would be too generous to call All That Jazz universal; in fact, it is deliberately centred on the life of a single man to avoid these conceptions. Fosse’s approach is based on a vignetted style and is deeply imbedded in New-Wave Hollywood-isms. He tells the story of a womanising, drug-abusing dancer who mounts musical numbers along the way, only to be inhibited by several heart attacks. There is a dreamlike and theatrical consciousness present. One could describe it as Fellini-esque. Jessica Lange appears as an Angel of Death and provides the film’s metaphorical lining. For those familiar with the Fosse behind the character, the tribulations of lead Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) and the ending may be difficult to digest, but the procedures are infused with a definite vision that make it more palatable than you would think. Just like “Who’s Got the Pain?” from Damn Yankees in which Fosse starred, he hides the sting of his reality behind a rhythmic dance number.


 

The Player | 1992 | Directed by Robert Altman

Its tagline reads “In Hollywood, it's not who you know, it's who you kill.” Altman, a master of weaving a huge ensemble into a coherent plot, takes his vision to Hollywood. Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) receives hundreds of scripts each day, and with most tossed, it’s easy to lose track of the writers you’ve rejected. If only he had a finer memory, because one is sending him death threats. Trying to track down the anonymous writer proves to be a challenge and as expected, the plot thickens. The Player boasts an impressive cast and takes full advantage of the enigmatic silver gleam that Los Angeles permeates by night. The film’s opening tracking shot is a marvel, as is the hilarity of its inside-jokes, and the expert way it taps into audience anticipations. You'll just have to wait til the end. The Player is defiantly ‘of its time’ and uses Hollywood as a metaphor for the avidity of the 1980s. It is a rare commodity, a film that serves to be both shrewd and unabashedly entertaining. It is a sweetly funny thing that some of the best films from Hollywood are criticising its own system.


The poster's alternate tagline reads: “The Best Movie Ever Made!" says Griffin Mill…”