Jen Yamato September 27, 2010
It’s a screenwriter’s nightmare: the shallow studio exec who rejected your movie pitch murders you in an alley, gets off scot-free, is subsequently promoted, and lives happily ever after with your hot girlfriend. Hollywood cautionary tales don’t come much more gleefully cynical than Robert Altman’s 1992 satire The Player (newly released to Blu-ray), in which Tim Robbins’ creatively bankrupt producer enjoys showbiz success only after giving in to his latent sociopathic tendencies.
But writers aren’t alone in this peril; Hollywood’s fraught with murder, mental illness, and back stabbings galore for assistants, actors, directors, and various creative types whose lives are upturned by the seductive siren call of Tinseltown and the monsters she creates.
Long before The Player‘s Griffin Mill earned his happy Hollywood ending, film producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) manipulated his way through Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Having betrayed a director (Barry Sullivan), a smitten actress (Lana Turner), and a reluctant writer (Dick Powell), Shields finds that he’s persona non grata when it all comes crashing down … but a surprise ending suggests the wicked producer won’t suffer his just desserts for long.
With characters plainly based on famous Hollywood figures, The Bad and the Beautiful resonated well enough with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to win five out of six Oscar nominations. So take it from the experts of the Golden Age of Hollywood, who learned the lesson long before Robert Altman put it to celluloid: Never trust a cutthroat producer.
But if producers are so bad, how did they all get this way? In his black comedy Swimming with Sharks (1994), George Huang offers an explanation based ostensibly on his own experiences working in the studio system in the ’90s: the circle of cruelty self-perpetuates within the very infrastructure of the entertainment industry food chain.
Guy (Frank Whaley), fresh out of film school, is hired as the assistant to Buddy (Kevin Spacey), a notoriously harsh but successful producer. Buddy seems to take particular glee in making Guy’s life miserable, as his boss did before him, and as his boss’ boss did before that, etc., dating all the way back to the dawn of cinema (or at least the dawn of when movies started making money). Pushed to the brink by Buddy’s bullying, Guy takes his own revenge by kidnapping and torturing his awful boss.
Of course, Guy is eventually faced with a life-altering ultimatum and forced to think deeply about how he really wants it all to end. Once again the evils of Hollywood win out and corrupt Guy, the champion-turned-role model of beleaguered studio assistants everywhere.
Then again, it’s not always the ruthless producers who are the problem. Sometimes it’s the fading star of yesteryear, long absent from the spotlight save in her own mind, who poses the most dangerous threat. Take “Baby” Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a former child performer who has had a lifelong professional rivalry with her sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford). Now that they’re both retired and living like the Beales of Grey Gardens, Jane becomes increasingly unhinged as she attempts to recapture the fame and glory of her youth — and rid herself of her wheelchair-bound sister in the process.
Pet parakeets and rats for lunch, physical beatings, mental abuse, and murder ensue as Jane’s demented quest for fame drives her insane and nearly kills Blanche, who’s got her own hidden secrets to deal with.
Ambition, hope, and insanity also comingled decades later in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a neo noir-romance-thriller about a fresh-faced and promising actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) who helps an amnesiac brunette (Laura Harring) she finds one day in her apartment. Or maybe Betty’s really Diane, driven mad by her unrequited love for another actress named Camilla. Mysterious figures — a film director, a cowboy, and a hit man — come and go in this Hollywood-set tale, which, like Baby Jane, cautions against getting too close to unbalanced actresses, whether they’re desperate hopefuls or the seductive femme fatale types.
And sometimes — or at least in this instance, once every nine go-rounds in a once great but waning film franchise — Hollywood’s villains leap right off the page to wreak havoc in the lives of filmmakers, actors, and producers themselves. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) takes things literally (and in going meta, explores more fascinating ground than your average slasher pic) as director Wes Craven, playing director Wes Craven, embarks on his new Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.
Actress Heather Langenkamp, also playing herself, finds that her work on the new Nightmare movie production has been blending strangely with reality; Freddy Krueger, it seems, has become self-aware and wants Langenkamp to resume her Nancy character in order to defeat her. The usual slasher tropes unfold with intentional familiarity, but the takeaway lesson here is in the suggestion that even fictional evils played out in art can come to haunt the artists who bring them to life. It’s the most brilliant revelation of Craven’s career: When you go home at the end of the day, learn to leave the work behind. (Especially if said work involves serial killer monsters with razor fingers.)
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