It should come as no surprise that films on the filmmaking process are among Hollywood’s favorites. Filmmaking is typically not a side hustle, and for many people, it undoubtedly consumes all of their time. Since Hollywood has always been a lot like an old-fashioned business town, with residents who live and breathe their work, it’s no surprise that there are a lot of films about the film industry. The fact that so many excellent examples exist is remarkable.
Hollywood has always been a center of scandal and rumor, but these movies generally have nothing to do with the industry’s long history of shady dealings. They concern the creative process more generally, and it is at this level that our interest is piqued.
Concerns about how capitalism stifles creativity and silences people who truly have something to say aren’t exclusive to the film business and can make them cynical even of talented artists. Films have become such an integral part of our culture in the decades since their invention that, when done well, films about cinema may feel as universal as films about life.
Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ provides a comic portrait of the era of the transition from silent to talking pictures that is both entertaining and accurate concerning the difficulties of the time that its actors and directors experienced. The main fictitious film company tries to convert a silent film into a talkie in the middle of production.
The film’s leading lady, Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, has a harsh Brooklyn accent that is wonderfully misplaced in the romantic period drama The Dueling Cavalier, and she is one of several actresses who aren’t used to playing to a microphone.
Similarly, authors who aren’t used to constructing lengthy dialogue often find themselves stuck at the climax, where they then have to come up with the same “I love you, I love you, I love you” line over and over again, which always gets a chuckle from the test audience.
(The whole scene is loosely based on the true story of His Glorious Night, a notoriously terrible early talkie that effectively terminated the career of the once-unstoppable silent movie star John Gilbert, whose performances didn’t translate well to sound pictures.)
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Dolemite is My Name
Even in the United States, filmmaking has never been confined to Hollywood alone. The role of Rudy Ray Moore, the stand-up comedian, entrepreneur, filmmaker, rap pioneer, and hustler who converted an offensive stand-up routine into a blaxploitation era smash hit about a pimp and his kung fu-fighting prostitutes is played by Eddie Murphy at the height of his career.
It’s a hilarious depiction of Moore and of the ego, talent, and flair necessary for foreigners to succeed in Hollywood.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
After the initial six films in the Elm Street series were released, Wes Craven came back to the franchise to play himself (more or less), and Heather Langenkamp, who played the original Nancy Thompson, returned to the franchise as a version of herself invited to reprise her role in a new Nightmare film.
In a meta-movie move that foreshadowed Scream, Freddy (credited as “himself” here) is a real evil force that was once confined behind the screen but is now gaining strength because there is no longer a movie audience to keep his presence firmly rooted in fiction. The core idea that we can use horror films (and other forms of dark narrative) to channel our own darker impulses is a strong one.
Where to Watch: Digital rental
John L. Sullivan wants to branch out from the comedies that made him rich for Hollywood (like 1939’s Ants in Your Plants) and try his hand at something deeper and more significant. His current ambition is to make a somber, introspective movie version of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (in case you were wondering what the Coen Brothers were referencing in 2000).
Sullivan dresses as a vagrant and travels throughout the country, meeting a struggling actress named Veronica Lake as he does so that he can gather information for the film that his studio will not allow him to produce.
The film’s underlying message is that escapism comedy is just as valuable as high-handed attempts by wealthy filmmakers to convey poor people’s stories about their own lives and that there’s nothing wrong with a little of both.
At the demise of a legendary studio, two documentary producers set out to track down Chiyoko Fujiwara, a former Hollywood star who went into seclusion three decades before. The elderly actress tells her story, but her reality is a subjective but no less real blend of dreams and memories from the films in which she acted.
This beautiful and touching film is ultimately about more than just one actress; it’s about the power of cinema and how it influences all of us.
Barton Fink plays at times like a comedy and at others like a horror film, and its 1940s Hollywood setting gives it a particular energy that the Coen Brothers would return to on multiple occasions (most overtly in 2016’s Hail, Caesar!).
Playwright Clifford Odetts, portrayed by John Turturro, is a well-known New Yorker who made the transition to the vastly different world of Hollywood screenwriting.
Fink is forced to produce “product” rather than art in the film, and does so in extremely unpleasant conditions; however, he is not a completely tragic hero, as the Coens are also interested in examining the elitism inherent in the belief that a “highbrow” play might inherently have more artistic value than a “lowbrow” movie.
Mel Brooks of the classic era was not only a skilled satirist but also a director with a strong appreciation of old-timey Hollywood movies, as evidenced by Blazing Saddles and especially Young Frankenstein two years earlier.
Even while he makes a comprehensive mockery of movie studios in Silent Movie, reminding us that greed has always won out over art, it is possibly his most precise and loving satire, despite being less well-known than the other two.
The satire here consists of the attempt to make a “contemporary” silent film portrayed as a silent film, complete with parodies and spoofs of legendary silent films from the 1920s. It’s a parody of the ’70s and a critique of the movie industry at the same time.
Where to Watch: Wherever it may be, officially speaking; nonetheless, some resourceful Googling may be in order.
Souls for Sale
Beings Up for Grabs has everything that popular silent cinema of the 1920s was great at romance, melodrama, and murder, with a wonderfully soapy plot that finds “Mem” Steddon (Eleanor Boardman, a mega-star of the time) escaping from her new husband by jumping off a train (good thing, too, as it turns out he has a history of murdering wives for the insurance money).
Mem is being stalked by not one but two men (three if you add her husband the murderer), and she finds herself in the lead role of a circus picture, which ends up being the setting for a spectacular showdown. She meets actors like Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin and actresses like ZaSu Pitts, and she even gets to go on the sets of actual movies being shot at the time (meta before meta).
Rupert Hughes produced and directed it just three years before his nephew Howard visited Hollywood and made his indelible impact on the industry.
Where to Watch: YouTube
The Bad and the Beautiful
Vincente Minnelli’s melodrama is a pretty darn entertaining piece of Hollywood product despite its almost continuous negative portrayal of the film industry. Jonathan Shields, played by Kirk Douglas, is a ruthless producer who will happily toss aside anyone who stands in the way of the success of one of his films.
Those that Shields has betrayed are willing to come crawling back when it benefits them, showing that friendship and love are readily disregarded, but the movie also shows us that this is a completely circular process. Blending history and fiction, the film makes subtle jabs at the real-life directors of the time (David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Val Lewton, etc.).
A young black actor named Bobby Taylor (played by director and co-writer Robert Townsend) faces the age-old issue for non-white players in Hollywood: does he take broadly clichéd roles (as in the movie’s Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge) only to pay the bills?
Do his values and the possibility of having to give up his hopes and goals cause him to make a different choice? There is a deep sense of truth within the hilarity because Townsend was speaking from personal experience.
Where to Watch: Tubi, Pluto, Hoopla