The 89th Academy Awards takes place this Sunday, the 26th of February. For us film fanatics, the Oscars is basically Super Bowl Sunday, so it’s pretty exciting stuff! With that in mind, it’s time to turn our attention to Hollywood’s greatest obsession – itself. Almost as long as there have been movies, there have been movies ABOUT movies, ranging from wholesome homage to biting satire. Before the big night, let’s look at self-reflexive movies about Hollywood, including ingenuous tributes to the industry, like La La Land and Singin’ in the Rain, whilst also looking at more scornful efforts such as Maps to the Stars, Mulholland Drive, and Sunset Boulevard.
La La Land
It makes sense to start with La La Land, the movie that is nominated for a record-tying 14 awards at this weekend’s awards show. La La Land tells the story of the relationship between aspiring jazz club owner Seb (Ryan Gosling) and wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone). The film is a breathtakingly beautiful homage to a classical Hollywood that no longer exists, while also remaining contemporary and original. As such, it invites comparisons with Singin’ in the Rain: they’re both musicals and pay tribute to the Hollywood dream factory, with Ryan Gosling even swinging out of a lamp post at one point! Although the opening scene/number is a tad saccharine, the movie is actually a bittersweet tale of the triumph of ambition and career over love.
Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the film by which subsequent movie musicals will forever be compared. The story is relatively simple: a famous silent movie actor, Don Lockwood (the inimitable Gene Kelly) has to reinvent himself for the onslaught of the sound era, with the help of love interest Kathy Selden (an effervescent Debbie Reynolds). According to Sharon Buzzard, viewers enjoy a “dramatization” of how sound came to the screen (21). Indeed, through its plot, Singin’ in the Rain charts the change from silent pictures to talkies, thereby celebrating Hollywood history. This toe-tapping musical is filled with the spectacular dance numbers ‘Gotta Dance’, ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, and ‘Good Morning’. But perhaps more significantly than that, Singin’ in the Rain provides a poignant insight into an industry in flux, by looking at Hollywood’s attempts to move into the ‘talkie’ era. The difficult transition from silent film to talkies is hilariously evident in the clip below:
Maps to the Stars
Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, referred to Maps to the Stars (2014) as an “exquisitely horrible” depiction of contemporary Hollywood. In fact, it is actually extremely difficult to think of a satire more biting than David Cronenberg’s modern masterpiece. The ensemble piece is populated with a range of kooky and deranged characters, from incestuous pyromaniacs to drug-addicted child stars. The scene-stealer of the film, however, is Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand: an aging actress desperate to step out of the shadow of her famous late mother. The film is a case study in Freudian neuroticism, and is well worth a watch for any fan of Cronenberg’s specific brand of body horror and humour. You can check out the trailer below:
Named by BBC Culture as the best movie of the 21st century and by far the scariest film on this list, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a poisonous ode to Hollywood. The first half of the movie focuses on Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress fresh off the plane to LA, who meets and falls in love with Rita, an amnesiac woman who recently survived a car accident. In the second half, the film basically folds in on itself, and the audience is never really sure who is who and what is actually going on! Because of that, I’m not going to spend too much time explaining the plot of Lynch’s magnum opus. Described by Todd McGowan as a “critique” of the fantasy that we, as viewers, associate with Hollywood, Mulholland Drive is a frightening and tragic story of the hollowness of Hollywood, and the people it chews up and spits out. You can watch Betty’s audition scene here.
Joan F. Dean describes Sunset Boulevard as one the most “acerbic” films ever made about the movie business, and it is not difficult to see why (89). Billy Wilder’s caustic story of the delusions of a washed up movie star has practically ingrained itself into popular culture with its sharp dialogue and the sureness of Wilder’s direction. Gloria Swanson, herself an actress whose heyday was well behind her, plays Norma Desmond, a deliciously disturbed Miss Havisham figure, with camp aplomb. Sunset Boulevard is essentially a film noir, opening with the dead body of a writer who then proceeds to provide the voiceover for this dramatic tale (American Beauty, eat your heart out!). The film also includes cameos from Buster Keaton, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Cecil B. DeMille. In short, it’s a classic. Watch the most famous scene from the movie below:
Bradshaw, Peter. ”Maps to the Stars review – David Cronenberg at his Jacobean best”. The Guardian, 25 September 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/sep/25/maps-to-the-stars-review-david-cronenberg.
Buzzard, Sharon. ”The Do-It-Yourself Text: The Experience of Narrativity in Singin’ in the Rain”. Journal of Film and Video 40.3 (1988): 18-26. Print.
Dean, Joan F. ” “Sunset Boulevard”: Illusion and Dementia”. Revue française d’études américaines 9.19 (1984): 89-98. Print.
La La Land. Dir. Damien Chazelle. Perf. Ryan Gosling. Summit Entertainment, 2016. Film.
Maps to the Stars. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Julianne Moore. Entertainment One, 2014. DVD.
McGowan, Todd. ”Lost on Mulholland Drive: Navigating David Lynch’s Panegyric to Hollywood”. Cinema Journal 43.2 (2004): 67-89. Print.
Mulholland Drive. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts. Universal Pictures, 2001. DVD.
Singin’ in the Rain. Dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. Perf. Gene Kelly. MGM, 1952. DVD.
Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Gloria Swanson. Paramount Pictures, 1950. DVD.