If there’s one constant across the Coens’ intimidating filmography, it’s the brothers’ affection for cinema in all its forms. Right from their debut, Blood Simple – an intricately-plotted neo-noir – they’ve paid homage to Hollywood history, whether aping noir aesthetics (in both Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There) or gently parodying noir conventions (The Big Lebowski). In fact, the one surprise in their extensive oeuvre is that – despite dancing through Westerns (True Grit), screwball comedies (Raising Arizona) and full-on remakes (The Ladykillers), the Coens’ only real capital-H Hollywood picture has been Barton Fink, which reimagined a writer’s journey to Hollywood as a surrealistic descent into hell.
That all changes with their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, a comically conflicted, vibrantly entertaining sojourn into ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood that trades the hellfire of Fink for the warmth of heaven’s light (or, in a pinch, “Divine Presence To Be Shot”). Like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, though, Hail, Caesar! isn’t interested in offering uncritical nostalgia while recreating an era populated by tapdancers, cowboys and ‘professional persons’. Rather, Joel and Ethan temper their love for the ‘50s industry by subtly emphasising the dubious and exploitative practices upon which it was constructed.
Not that protagonist Eddie Mannix – ably played by the ever-reliable Josh Brolin – thinks twice about such practices. He’s too busy, spending his days solving each and every problem offered up by the whirring studio machine – underqualified actors, hidden pregnancies, unexpected rainstorms and long-dormant scandals. As the film’s poster promises, Mannix’s biggest problem is the disappearance of marquee star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s abducted and indoctrinated by an aging crew of card-carrying communist screenwriters. They call themselves “The Future.”
Mannix is based on MGM’s “fixer” of the same name, and pretty much every other major role in the cast is an analogue for a real-life Hollywood personality. Clooney’s essentially playing Charlton Heston in Ben Hur – reimagined as the eponymous production, Hail, Caesar! – even if it’s hard to imagine Heston parroting communist rhetoric. Tilda Swinton plays Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – reimagined as identical twins, naturally – while Scarlett Johansson and Veronica Osorio fill in as renamed takes on Esther Williams and Carmen Miranda. Channing Tatum is part Gene Kelly, part Fred Astaire, part Russian double agent. Even Frances McDormand gets in on the act, delivering a hilarious cameo as a Margaret Booth-style editor for the studio.
Most of the roles are cameos, in fact. Other than the irrepressibly charming Alden Ehrenreich as cowboy/actor Hobie Doyle, Brolin is probably the only actor to clock up more than ten minutes of total screentime. That’s probably a reflection of how in demand actors like Swinton, Tatum and Johansson are nowadays; a convenient contrast with the studio star system portrayed in the diegesis, where actors’ public images are at the whim of the studio heads. Meanwhile, the numerous recreations of classic movie moments – like Tatum’s joyous, unabashedly homoerotic tapdance scene – complement the film’s anthology structure, which ambles from one soundstage to the next.
You get the sense that much of the Coens’ motivation for making Hail, Caesar! was simply to pay homage to the films and stories they grew up with; as though atop their filmmaking bucket list was “get an extended tapdance scene into a modern movie.” Of course, this would be a bit sickeningly sweet without some perspective, and the screenplay finds time in between the musical moments and comedic repartee to temper its nostalgia with realism. Hollywood’s history of exploitation – financial and sexual – is never too far beneath the surface. It’s most vividly realised in “The Future” – who we’re encouraged to regard as ridiculous, but whose points aren’t so easily dismissed, even in couched in obsolete Soviet rhetoric – but the film is densely populated with references to the darker side of showbiz.
In Hail, Caesar!, you see, Hollywood isn’t an industry – it’s a religion. The screenplay is peppered with references – perhaps too many references – to religious (particularly Catholic) dogma. Mannix begins the film in a confessional, and even meets with a selection of religious leaders to vet the references to Christ in Hail, Caesar!’s screenplay (the film-within-the-film – we don’t get that meta). While the Coens do overplay this a tad – we spend too much time on Mannix’s crisis of faith as he considers a career change – it’s an effective metaphor for the film industry of the time (and, perhaps, today).
Faith, after all, requires an ideological balancing act; Catholics, for instance, must balance their belief in God with the recognisance that the Church is a rigid institution, capable of bigotry and exploitation that cuts against its avowed beliefs. So it is with 1950s Hollywood; an institution whose glitz and glamour is founded on inequitable capitalism, that presents its stars as epitomes of morality only through bribery and duplicity. To love – to truly love – Hollywood, one must reconcile the joy of the industry’s output with the uncomfortable truths behind it – but that’s just how faith works.