We’ve all heard about the Red Scare in the 50s. What must the world dreamed up by Joseph McCarthy been like, where Communists were secretly infiltrating the country through the Hollywood studio system? 2016's Hail, Caesar! imagines this world as only the Coen Brothers can. Both a loving satire of old Hollywood and a gleeful evisceration of paranoid right wing fantasies, it shows its love and makes its argument by being the inimitable collection of odd, very human Coen brothers characters.
I haven’t seen any post-1970 film that captures the people of old Hollywood films as well as Hail, Caesar! does. I’m not sure how much of this is because filmmakers lack the skill or if they feel a modern audience won’t take people speaking with period accents and diction seriously. But the Coens again show their talent for finding the right actors for the right roles even when one would never have imagined any of these actors in anything like these roles. Tilda Swinton is surprisingly Joan Crawford-ish and vulnerable in two roles as Hedda Hopper type gossip columnists; Veronica Osorio is delightful as a Carmen Miranda type whose name, Carlotta Valdez, is a reference to Vertigo; Alden Ehrenreich is a perfect amalgamation of Ken Curtis, Slim Pickens, and maybe a little Montgomery Clift. My favourite, though, is Scarlett Johansson.
She plays DeeAnna Moran, seemingly modelled on Esther Williams, a beautiful swimming movie star. But off camera, talking to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), she has the quick, earthy demeanour of Thelma Ritter. And wonderful unselfconscious crassness—I loved the way she kept referring to her mermaid tail as “my ass”. I honestly wouldn’t have imagined Johansson had this kind of performance in her.
The only person who really doesn’t work is Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, a movie musical star. The film invites a comparison to Gene Kelly which really doesn’t do the dead eyed Tatum any favours. Serious, who the fuck is this guy? Why is he in movies? I still can’t shake the feeling he was mandated by the Castigliane brothers from Mulholland Drive.
The movie centres on Eddie Mannix, based on the real life Mannix, who was a “fixer”, covering up the dirt of stars’ private lives. The film begins with a scene reminiscent of one from The Big Sleep—the same book The Big Lebowski is based on—with Mannix finding a starlet getting her pictures taken in a private home somewhere. So the film is sort of a detective story with Mannix’s main case being the abduction of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who’s taken from the set of one of the big biblical spectacles that used to be made in the 40s and 50s.
He plays a Roman officer who gradually turns Christian, a plot sort of like Quo Vadis, The Robe, and with a bit of Ben Hur thrown in. The movie amusingly juxtaposes hatred of Communist philosophy with the very Communist sounding Christian rhetoric one hears in these kinds of movies. To reference Thelma Ritter again, I thought of her scene in Pick Up on South Street where she talks about poor, working class folks having enough to worry about keeping a roof over their heads until they die without having to worry about Communists, too. The apparent complete ignorance of what Communism actually is being played with absolute sincerity.
Baird gets along pretty well with the group of Communists who’ve kidnapped him, who are a bunch of middle aged academics, the very fact that they’ve hatched this plot illustrating the sort of precious absurdity inherent in the whole Communist plot concept.
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The noses shrank inside the extra cheek.
Inflating faces found the cloud parade.
A shorter pant withheld the sherpa’s peak.
The visage cut through stone in snow cascade.
In green we washed too much, the lights diffused.
For anything a boot of stone’ll smash.
A bulb or cup’s not safe when ghost’s refused.
Electric eyes surprise in darkened dash.
The sunbeam blanched to stall a gang ashore.
A withered bowl acclaimed in forms resends.
The water caught in tangled trees restored.
Misplaced in xylophone the heart ascends.
The lasso thought ignites spaghetti bowls.
A switching planet’s spokes were movie holes.