There have been great movies about Hollywood almost as long as Hollywood has been making them. Damien Chazelle’s much-Oscar nominated “La La Land” is part of a grand tradition going back beyond “Singin’ in the Rain” and running past “Mulholland Drive.”
Some have even inspired their own movies. “Sullivan’s Travels,” Preston Sturges’ great 1941 satire about a movie director (Joel McCrea) of broad comedies (“Ants in Your Pants” is one credit) who goes undercover as a hobo to make a serious social drama. Decades later, the Coen brothers used his planned title for real: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Sturges’ film would be worthy of any list of Hollywood greatest self-portraits, as would movies like “All About Eve,” ”Ed Wood,” ”A Star is Born” and the Coens’ “Barton Fink.” But here are five of the best:
—”In a Lonely Place”: Nothing has captured the dark desperations and delusions that lurk in Hollywood like Nicholas Ray’s devastating 1950 noir. Humphrey Bogart, playing the self-destructive screenwriter Dix, was never better — which is saying something.
—”Sunset Boulevard”: The same year, another screenwriter. Billy Wilder’s eminently quotable 1950 classic (winner of three Oscars) remains the gold standard for movies about the movie industry, for depictions of an aged star (Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond) and for deadpan narration. “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool,” says Joe Gilles (William Holden) while his body floats face-down in one. “Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.”
—”The Bad and the Beautiful”: Vincent Minnelli’s 1952 tale about a deceitful and ambitious movie producer (Kirk Douglas) is another film that’s probably right now being quoted on some movie set. The five-time Oscar winner remains one of the sharpest examinations of Hollywood as a business. “Don’t worry,” says Douglas’ Jonathan Shields. “Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.”
—”The Player”: Robert Altman’s 1992 sardonic satire plunged further into the psyche of the studio boss (Tim Robbins), who drowns an insolent screenwriter in a puddle. There’s a parade of star cameos in Altman’s Hollywood send-up, but the most famous thing in “The Player” is its audacious opening shot, a seven-minute take through a studio lot where a security chief (Fred Ward) raves about the long shot in “A Touch of Evil” and grumbles about modern movie editing. “All this cut, cut, cut,” he seethes.
— “Sherlock Jr.”: From studio heads to the lowly movie theater projectionist. In Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent classic, Keaton’s napping projectionist dreams himself onto the screen (the movie is “Hearts and Pearls or the Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love”) where he plays detective and performs some of cinema’s greatest gags.