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Monday, November 12, 2007

Self Portraits, Part 2 (originally published 1/01)

One of the perennial favorite subjects for filmmakers is filmmaking itself. Fortunately for them, movie audiences seem to be equally fascinated with the process of filmmaking and the personalities of those who work in the industry. "State and Main" is the most recent film to exploit this familiar subject matter, but, as we saw last week, it has a long line of cinematic ancestors. Here are some additional movies about movies to look for on home video.

"Singin' in the Rain" (1952). During the 1950s, MGM was Hollywood's top producer of elaborate musicals. Perhaps their best known musical of all was this sensationally entertaining confection featuring the talents of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor in an affectionate satire of early Hollywood. The film is set in the late 1920s, when silent films were on their way out and talkies were the latest new sensation. This was a period of upheaval in the industry, with actors, directors, and technicians alike trying to adapt to the new technology. The many pitfalls of this radically different form of filmmaking are cleverly lampooned in "Singin' in the Rain" as Kelly portrays a romantic screen idol trying to make the transition from silent star to talking picture actor.

"Two Weeks in Another Town" (1962). This rather melancholy tale centers around two archetypical examples of fading Hollywood royalty. Director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) and former star Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) have worked together on some hugely successful pictures in the past, but both their careers are now in decline. Out of favor with the studios, they find themselves struggling to make a low-budget picture in Italy. Interestingly, this film reunites some of the same people who made "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952), which we looked at last week, including Douglas, director Vincente Minnelli, and producer John Houseman. Minnelli's in-joke acknowledgement of this takes the form of a screening of scenes from an early Kruger film, which consists of clips from "The Bad and the Beautiful."

"The Last Tycoon" (1976). F. Scott Fitzgerald's final novel was a natural for film adaptation, since he took as his subject Hollywood itself. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald did not live to complete the novel, thereby leaving a daunting task for any screenwriter charged with basing a script on the material. The challenge was taken up by no less a dramatist than Harold Pinter, whose screenplay forms the nucleus of this insightful look at Hollywood's power structure during the height of the studio system. Robert De Niro stars as Monroe Stahr, a young, brilliant movie mogul based on Irving Thalberg.

"The Stunt Man" (1980). Although only moderately successful when it was released, this inventive look at moviemaking as a metaphor for life has developed something of a cult following through the years. The storyline involves a Vietnam veteran on the run from the local sheriff who stumbles across a film crew on location. The eccentric director, played with bravado by Peter O'Toole, offers to harbor the fugitive if he agrees to take the place of the company's recently deceased stunt man. Director Richard Rush used this premise to craft a cinematic hall of mirrors in which you can never be too sure what is real and what is not.

"Sweet Liberty" (1986). Every writer who has ever published a novel has probably daydreamed about getting an offer from Hollywood to adapt the novel for the screen. College professor Michael Burgess (Alan Alda) learns that having that wish come true is not necessarily all that it's cracked up to be. When the rights to his Revolutionary War novel are bought by a Hollywood studio, the production company descends upon the professor's small college town like a biblical plague. What's worse, he soon learns that the meticulous historical accuracy he had lavished on his novel has been thrown right out the window for the film version.

The proliferation of movies about moviemakers is perhaps understandable, given the nature of the industry itself. In an industry that is so thoroughly ego-driven, a certain amount of navel gazing is to be expected. Even so, it is interesting to note how many of these films portray the industry in a less than flattering light. If only some of our other contemporary mass media industries could develop a similarly self-critical eye, we might all be better off.

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