Behind the Curtain: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

It’s not often that a movie inspires me to look up the real people behind the story. Most of the time I’m content with things the way they are presented. Actually, as I’ve written before, any connection with “real life/events/etc.” comes off as gimmicky to me. But when I learned there was a real Eddie Mannix, who was the head of MGM, my interest was piqued. Who was this guy? What was Hollywood like back in the 50s?

Note: By look up here I mean a cursory perusal of his entry in Wikipedia and an article on Den of Geeks.

If what my “research” turned up is true, wow, Eddie Mannix was a bastard. Quite different from the character portrayed by Josh Brolin. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence and conjecture, but regardless he was an interesting character. From that small bit of reading on him it is obvious why the Cohen brothers made Hail, Caesar! How could they not?

A film based, even loosely, on Mannix’s life is the kind of story that when viewed from 10,000 feet is so intriguing it writes itself. Consider: the collective fantasy about life is Leave it to Beaver. Remember, we’re talking 1950s America. Contrary to popular delusion, the reality of the matter is life is more like Animal House. Or, specifically thinking in terms of Hail, Caesars! setting—i.e. Capital Studios, the biggest movie studio at the height of the golden age of movies—the world is more like Porky’s. Right in the center of this Dionysian excess is Eddie Mannix, a poor bastard charged with keeping it all together. OMG! I could write that!

Well, no, I couldn’t, but like so many things done well, the genius of Hail, Caeser! is partially due to the fact it seems so simple and clear and evident that anyone could have—should have—written it themselves.

There are so many aspects of that world to explore: the studio system, the childish behavior of the stars, the pageantry of the movies being produced, the shameless, self-serving tactics of those looking in, the different movies being “filmed” on the different stages, the list goes on. What’s great is the Cohens do explore all of these. This circus style madness is the makings for an instant Cohen brothers classic.

This kind of story is almost too much, it’s a tap wide open. Luckily that’s where the Cohen’s are most at home—swirling madness. Hail, Caesar! sweeps us up in its vortex and tosses us around but eventually we’re set back down, gently, almost where we were. Amazed and slightly dumbfounded we ask ourselves, “How did I get here? Wasn’t I one seat over?”

It was not until my trip home from the theater that I started piecing it all together. Each thread lacing with the next, disparate stings weaving together. To borrow a metaphor, the resulting fabric becoming a grand tapestry.

And then it hit me. Hail, Caesar!, the movie within the movie, is a film struggling towards life with one man, Mannix, behind the scenes keeping it all together. Take a step back and Hail, Caesar!, the film we are watching, is a movie celebrating the brilliant insanity of bringing films to life in the golden age of film with two men, Ethan and Joel Cohen, behind the scenes keeping it all together. Both of which are strangely familiar to a movie, produced by MGM, the actual studio in which Eddie Mannix worked, in which a wizard, hiding behind a curtain, runs a magical land of make believe, that’s actually the inspired imagination of a young girl looking for answers to her harsh world. Mind. Blown.

Well played, sirs. Well played.

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