The 7: Movies about Hollywood often show the grittier side of the silver screen
The closing scenes of last week’s Oscars ceremony was almost like a movie: The scrappy upstart (“Moonlight”) snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and beating the predicted winner (“La La Land”).
Between that and the Sunday debut of “Feud,” which tells the take Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), who famously clashed during the filming of 1962’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” it seemed like an excellent time to look at movies about movies.
It’s category rich with winning entries. In recent years movies such as the gorgeous “The Artist,” the caustic “Swimming With the Sharks,” and the strange “Mulholland Drive” have put very different versions of Hollywood up on the silver screen. Here are 7 of my favorites.
1. “Singing in the Rain” (1952)
Gene Kelly’s musical masterpiece was one of the films director Damien Chazelle quoted from in “La La Land.” Kelly’s landmark film, beyond its iconic dance scenes, is a funny tale of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. There’s not a false note anywhere here.
2. “The Player” (1992)
Director Robert Altman brought his usual sprawling storytelling style, and sprawling casting, to a story about a studio executive (Tim Robbins) who murders a screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofino) he suspects of harassing him. This acerbic and cynical story driven by a great ensemble cast, including Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett as dogged police detectives, and Robbins’ utterly convincing portrayal.
3. “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
Speaking of utterly convincing portrayals, Gloria Swanson is Norma Desmond in the classic film noir “Sunset Boulevard.” As an aging film star who pines for the glory days in her mouldering mansion, Swanson’s performance is one for the ages. Told from the point of view of Norman’s much younger lover, played by William Holden, “Sunset Boulevard” is one of the best films of the 20th century.
4. “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)
Written and directed by Preston Sturges, “Sullivan’s Travels” stars Joel McCrea as a film director who dreams of making important movies, instead of the silly, and successful, comedies he’s known for. He wants to make a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – the title of which the Coen Brothers borrowed for their 2000 comedy. Plan rejected, he heads out to find real stories of the common man, and along the way discovers the power of laughter.
5. “The Stunt Man” (1980)
“The Stunt Man” is not a great movie, but it’s a fun one. Director Richard Rush has the good sense to cast Peter O’Toole as the egomaniacal film director who clashed with a stunt man played by Steve Railsback. Really, the only reason to watch is to see O’Toole in one of his best and most diabolical performances.
6. “A Star is Born” (1954)
The story of a talented young woman finding mentorship, love and eventually heartbreak with an older man has been told so many times. First by Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. There’s even plans for a new one, in 2018, with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. My favorite is the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason. It’s one of Garland’s best performances – she earned an Oscar nomination for it – and Mason brings a good balance of charm and sadness to his role as the aging film star.
7. “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
This one casts its focus on the periphery of the entertainment industry. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the film centers on three police officers – Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – as they track down crime and corruption inside and outside the L.A.P.D. Along the way we meet tabloid newspaper editors, prostitutes made to look like movie stars and all kinds of shady dealings. Directed expertly by the late Curtis Hanson and based on the novel by James Ellroy (it’s part of his L.A. quartet, with “The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere” and “White Jazz”), “L.A. Confidential” is jazzy and dark and sunny all at the same time.