Hail, Caesar!, the latest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) offers a tongue-in-cheek bow to Hollywood circa 1951 through a series of escapades that take place during a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, production head and unofficial "fixer" for a major studio. It should surprise no one that the Coens have conjured a delectably stylized and madly screwball satire of this scenario.
Those familiar with Hollywood history know that there once really was an Eddie Mannix and that he was a studio exec/"fixer" at MGM (not the Coen's "Capitol Pictures"), the most powerful of all studios, for several decades. As General Manager and head of production, he was a right hand to studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, and it wasn't until 1958, after Mayer's ouster and death, that Mannix left MGM; he'd been in the picture business for 42 years by then.
|Eddie Mannix, Clark Gable and Howard Strickling|
That's a quick peek into the life of the real Eddie Mannix but Hail, Caesar! is no biopic. The Coen's fantastical tour of tinseltown follows a devoted family man/practicing Catholic version of Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he careens from one scandal-in-the-making to another while trying to hold his studio together and decide whether or not to leave the movie business altogether and take a high-paying but staid exec job in the "civilian" sector with Lockheed.
|Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix|
A collection of problematic oddballs contribute to Mannix's tortuous agenda: an oversexed "aquamusical" star (Scarlett Johansson) is unmarried and pregnant; the charismatic, hard-drinking leading man (George Clooney) on the studio's in-production biblical epic has mysteriously disappeared; a popular singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is badly miscast and struggling in the film adaptation of a sophisticated Broadway play; the emigre director (Ralph Fiennes) tasked with directing the cowboy is at his wits' end; an acting/dancing star (Channing Tatum) harbors a bizarre secret; and rival twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) threaten to reveal an unsavory old rumor in print. This assortment of divinely cast characters, along with Jess Gonchor's production design and Roger Deakins's cinematography, provide the sizzle and gloss to a very entertaining if sometimes unwieldy sendup.
|Channing Tatum (center)|
According to 13-time Oscar nominee Deakins, the Coen brothers decided to ignore the relentless digital revolution and shoot Hail, Caesar! on film because they felt the movie's content demanded it. Deakins had great fun filming footage of the Coen's fictional studio on the Warner Bros. back lot where, with the shooting area carefully blocked out and the aisles between stages cleared, he said, "it was pretty much as it would've been" back in the day.
Gonchor, production designer on six Coen films and Oscar-nominated for True Grit (2010), decided while doing his research to employ set construction methods used 60 years ago to recreate the Hollywood of that time. As a result, the majority of the film's sets were built by artisans and craftsmen of the old school: plasterers, scenic painters, sculptors and mold-makers. Relying on these traditional techniques and turning to the MGM archives for ideas, Gonchor crafted several sets of scrupulous period detail including the "Capitol Pictures" studio, a sleek mid-century beach house and a fashionable Hollywood nightclub.
|snazzy Old Hollywood night spot set|
Though only Eddie Mannix of those depicted in Hail, Caesar! bears the name of someone who actually lived and worked in early-'50s Hollywood, most of the supporting characters were based on or were composites of some of the town's famed denizens: Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, is reminiscent of Kirk Douglas; Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a nod to Gene Kelly; Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) echoes another Laurence - Mr. Olivier; DeeAnna Moran, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, seems a spoof on Esther Williams but the solution to her scandalous situation was taken from Loretta Young's real life; and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) could be any B-movie singing cowboy from Gene Autry to Roy Rogers.
|Tilda Swinton as Thora...or is it Thessaly?..Thacker|
The Coen brothers' sly re-working of Hollywood legends and myths is clever enough, but it's their over-the-top twist on communists in the movie industry that reduces Hollywood history to surreal rubble.
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Architectural Digest, "Take a Look Behind the Scenes of Hail, Caesar!" by Lisa Liebman, February 2016
Variety, "Roger Deakins on Hail, Caesar!, Old Hollywood, and Going Back to Celluloid" by Kristopher Tapley, January 2016