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#218: GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.

#218. GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. Movie stars rarely seem to have more fun onscreen than when they’re making fun of other movie stars, and few recent films had more fun with this topic than the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar,” which takes apart the studio system of the forties and manages somehow to be funny, mordant and amiable. The script spins the old Hollywood legends around deftly, and there’s a banger of a cast, George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton and such, down to the smaller character roles—Heather Goldenhersh as the studio head’s secretary, John Bluthal taking off Herbert Marcuse, and, in a bit, Frances McDormand, almost being done in à la Isadora Duncan by a scarf caught in a Moviola. At the center of it is Josh Brolin, playing Eddie Mannix, the man in charge of running herd on the actors and keeping them from soiling their (and the studio’s) highly polished reputations. An obsessive Catholic, he averages just under once a day in the confessional booth, where he comes clean about sneaking a cig or fibbing to his wife but never mentioning his clean-up duties of bribing cops as well as keeping the gossip columns clear of stories of his charges’ illegitimate children, their time in the dryout wards, closet Communism, and omnisexuality. He reports promptly at eight a.m. every day to Mr. Schenck, the studio boss, with a punctuality matched only by his late-night forays disentangling starlets from “a French-postcard situation” and, of course, the confessional. Brolin gives the character an anxious, slightly fuddled earnestness with a low growl of a voice. This man means business.

Being, on the subject of old Hollywood gossip, well below even rank amateur status, it never occurred to me that Eddie Mannix was a real person, so when I saw his name show up on the cover of E. J. Fleming’s book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine (McFarland, 2015) I was curious enough to bring it home. As best I can tell Fleming has gone to some trouble to sort out the verified from the merely rumored, to make the book not just a catalogue of slanders and salacities, and to convey the often destructive results of the studio’s intrusions into the actors’ lives, which were all done in an effort to promote the studio’s mopped-up, sanctimonious and profitable version of American life. “Hail, Caesar” maintains its comic tone by wisely omitting the more horrific cover-ups, so alarmingly detailed in Fleming’s book: people killed or crippled in speeding accidents, the ugly routines of the casting couch, the ruthless exploitation of Judy Garland in particular and the ruin of her health, the yet-to-be fully sorted-out death (suicide? murder?) of George Reeves, who played Superman in the early tv series. The film and book side-by-side are finally quite different experiences. With Michael Gambon in “Hail, Caesar” intoning the studio blather about “producing this year’s ration of dreams for all the weary peoples of the world,” and “a tale told in light everlasting,” the actors’ glee in these venial characters—the clash of Scarlett Johansson’s seductive sashay with her Bronx accent, Tilda Swinton’s eyes glinting as she gets to say the word “sodomy”—is irresistible, almost making us wish the dreams were true. The Fixers, in contrast, is a far more sinister story, both fascinating and repellant; it’s like being at a party full of beautifully dressed guests, all of whom reveal themselves to be rather distasteful people. Observing the overflowing crowds at the funeral of studio head Roy Cohn, Red Skelton said, “This is the type of crowd you get when you give people what they want.” Yep.


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