Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Josh Brolin – Eddie Mannix, Capitol Studios executive
George Clooney – Baird Whitlock, star, cast as Roman tribune
Alden Ehrenreich – Hobie Doyle, a cowboy star
Ralph Fiennes – Laurence Laurentz, British film director
Scarlet Johansson – DeeAnna Moran, star of swimming movies
Tilda Swinton – Thora and Thessaly Thacker, sisters and rival movie columnists
Channing Tatum – Burt Gurney, dancing sailor film star
Veronica Osorio – Carlotta Valdez, Latin film star
Heather Goldenhersh, Eddie’s secretary
Francis McDormand – film editor
Jonah Hill – Josh Silverman, a studio surety agent
Max Baker- lead communist writer
John Bluthal – Herbert Marcuse, communist philosopher
Voice over: Michael Gambon
It begins to get annoying that films like this and High Rise flit through the multiplex (if they get there at all) in a couple of performances per day for a week, then disappear for a month before hitting the “second run” cinemas in Arts Centres and community theatre / cinemas. Some of them, like The Lady In The Van, sell out the community cinemas for four days, and return a week later by public demand and repeat it. Hail Caesar! only attracted about thirty on a Monday evening, but then again that’s “half price day” at the multiplex 5 or 6 miles away. Hopefully it did better on other days. It deserves to.
Hail Caesar! is set in 1951 Hollywood, and has a frame story, which is really an excuse for some glorious adventures in pastiche by the Coen brothers. It’s the sort of film where DVDs should prove popular for showing clips rather than the whole movie. Or according to last week’s newspaper, clips being accessed on YouTube. The pastiche clips are the joy of the film, and there’s one for each of the principal actors.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)
The frame story follows Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix, who is introduced in portentous voice over (Michael Gambon). Eddie is described by all reviews as a fixer, though in his religious sensitivity discussions and his assigning of roles and ordering directors about and checking footage, I’d call him a producer. Eddie (Josh Brolin) is a family man of high moral principle, boring the priest with his daily confession on how many cigarettes he has smoked. We then see him retrieving starlet DeeAnn Moran (Scarlet Johansson) who has been lured to a porn shoot after a party. The fact that she’s wearing a dirndl shows it’ll be a porn shoot. I say retrieving, rather than rescuing. He cheerfully bribes the police, then cadges a cigarette from them. Something else to confess. Five minutes in, and they have skilfully created a character.
Scene from “Hail Caesar” the film within the film. George Clooney as Baird Whitlock as a Roman tribune.
The studio, Capitol, are making the Story of The Christ as Hail Caesar! with George Clooney as actor Baird Whitlock, playing the Roman tribune who is converted at the cross. Baird is impossibly manly … think Kirk Douglas, or Rock Hudson. Never has Clooney’s jawline looked so magnificent. The morality theme re-emerges with Eddie chairing a meeting with a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi on depicting the divinity. There has to be a joke there … but the discussion was about right, in that as in Ben Hur, Christ is just seen as a foot, or the back of a head. In a late scene, a floor manager looks up at the cross and asks the unseen actor playing the foot of Christ if he’s a principal or an extra. The actor being crucified,“Todd,” isn’t sure.
The banquet scene with cup full of drugs
During a banquet scene, two extras drug Baird Whitlock, and nip outside where he’s learning a line change (ardour has replaced passion in the script, which is a hard one for him) and kidnap him. Baird is taken away to Malibu and left in a garage. In fact, he’s not locked in or tied up. He has been kidnapped by a communist cell of writers based in a super-luxurious Malibu beach house. I’m unsure what the Coens are doing with the writers. The McCarthy era Hollywood trials of writers for being alleged communists or fellow travellers had many expelled from Hollywood, or if they were really good and therefore useful, having to work under pseudonyms. Richard Nixon was part of the prosecution … they miss that reference. The (real) philosopher Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man) is with them. These communist writers make several points about not enjoying the true fruits of their labours, but turn out to be “real commies” in a comedy sense, eventually contacting a Russian submarine. In some ways, the writers scenes, gently persuading Baird to join them, are a weak spot in the story, or rather the pastiche film extracts are so re-watchable that they dwarf these writer scenes. They are not “a scene from a film” though when they row out to the Russian submarine, it is the over the top night shot of a ship in a tank, so another pastiche.
DeeAnn (Scarlet Johansson)
It’s those film extracts you’ll love. We meet Scarlet Johansson’s DeeAnn in a synchronized swimming extravaganza, where she plays a mermaid with a lurid green tail … echoing Esther Williams. They go to town on the synchronized swimming, then we meet DeeAnn without the tail and find she’s a pregnant broad with a coarse, rasping voice and only a vague idea of who the father might be. Major fixing job for Eddie.
Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich)
Then we meet the star of the show, because for both of us watching, Alden Ehrenreich (who should get a more critical typing finger friendly name) walks away with all the honours in this film. Alden plays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy of extraordinary athletic skill in jumping on and off horses and lasso twirling. There he is in a spotless white John Wayne shirt with a Roy Rogers gunbelt and boots, jumping on and off a white horse. Trigger, let’s call it. DeeAnn describes him later as ‘a rodeo clown.’
Hobie is directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes)
Hobie Doyle is assigned to a role in sophisticated drawing room drama Merrily We Laugh. This gives us one of the most YouTube replayable scenes, where Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz has to direct the wooden Hobie with his cracker Southern accent through the scene (though he is said to be from Akron, Ohio). Hobie is hilariously inept … I think the Coens make a good point much later in the film. Eddie Mannix is watching a black and white playback of the scene, artistically shot with many foot pictures. Even though he is still ineptly wooden, the camera loves Hobie and his dumb expressions come out as right for the scene when it’s cut together.
Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) tries to look sophisticated
The other magnificent pastiche is the sailors in a bar musical. Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney (with several knowing references) a tap dancing, singing Gene Kelly figure. The long bar scene of singing sailors is great dancing (they surrounded Tatum with Broadway musical actors). There are a couple of snippets where he gets a little close on both sides to other dancer’s buttocks … a hint.
Dancing on tables
It turns out that Burt is the leader of the communists. His little dog and the dance hints that he’s the McCarthy era’s other terror, not only a commie, but a Hollywood commie faggot!
Hobie takes a Carmen Miranda Latin star, Carlotta Valdez, on a studio arranged date to see his latest movie, That Ol’ Moon. Another film within a film pastiche. In it his singing cowboy is upstaged by a comic bearded sidekick, Gabby Hayes to his Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey, but he good-naturedly sees that the audience love it and is mollified. Back in a restaurant, while doing lasso twirls with spaghetti to entertain Carlotta, he sees the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money! Burt Gurney has it. Hobie follows Burt to the beach house, where he finds the dumb Baird, still in centurion gear, enjoying a Martini. All the communists, led by Burt, are out contacting the Soviet sub which will transport Burt to Moscow.
Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) at the foot of the cross
Hobie retrieves rather than rescues Baird, and takes him back to the studio. Baird has been converted to the party line and tells Eddie, who slaps him about, leavering him quivering, and out he goes to perform his final lines. He is so moving that the film crew have tears in eyes and lumps in throats, until inevitably he blows the last line.
Gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton) and Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)
Throughout we have Tilda Swinton playing a pair of sisters, rival gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. They both believe they have a story that has wings, about an earlier Baird movie The Eagle Has Wings Eddie has to fix them too. The story, as it turns out, is that Baird, just then doing his final scene of devotion to the cross, started his career due to letting that English director, Laurence Laurentz, sodomize him. The Rock Hudson line, then, and Laurentz being both English AND wearing a cravat (or Ascot) confirms it. Eddie’s final fix is knowing that the sisters’ source must be Burt Gurney. As Burt is a communist, to print it would make them guilty by association of conspiring with commies. In fact, Baird with anecdotes about “shaving Danny Kaye’s back” had telegraphed it.
Yet another subplot is that Lockheed are trying to lure Eddie to a better job … and we guess it’s “fixing” opinions and publicity about the hydrogen bomb. A “cleaner” job than Hollywood, they tell him.
Critical opinion was warm, but not ecstatic. That includes film sites like Rotten Tomatoes. People who go online to look at discussions are film fans, and they liked it more than the general public, who proved negative on responses leaving cinemas. I guess you need to know your American film history, which generates knowing smiles that the Malibu beach-house of the plotters resembles North by Northwest or that Roman painted backdrops summon up Quo Vadis. You may even have to be old enough to remember Roy Rogers, Trigger and Gabby Hayes. Few of the audience would relate directly to 50s Golden Age classics. Nowadays, with so many TV channels you could find them, but would you seek them? My generation knows its Golden Age classics secondhand. I never bothered to watch much TV in the late 60s. In the early 70s, I watched a lot of films on TV. Because I was lecturing part-time in film studies, I kept thick notebooks and pasted every film synopsis in from the Radio Times and TV Times and made notes. In those days, it took many years before studios released films to TV, so our 70s late night diet was 30s, 40s and 50s films. Video wasn’t an issue till the late 70s, and even then studios were parsimonious with releases to VHS and Betamax (we had the latter), so much of the stuff at the rental shop (remember those?) was older material. When we had our first Betamax, we used to drive six miles to the nearest rental shop. For a younger audience, while North by Northwest will be in the budget section of even a medium-sized supermarket, Quo Vadis won’t be there, and few would choose to watch an Esther Williams swimming epic and very few indeed would seek out the singing cowboys in spotless white shirts. So younger viewers might enjoy it, but will miss so many references.
I was ticking off points with glee. I loved about eighty of the one hundred minutes, or four fifths.
Four stars then.