Hail Caesar! received a considerable amount of praise in the last few weeks but, alas, I was no fan. As part of the NFTS ‘Passport to Cinema’ season at the BFI, thankfully Robert Altman’s The Player was screened and it easily surpassed my limited appreciation of Hail, Caesar!
Both films are tinsel town tales of crime, intrigue and the corrupt business of show business. The Player, starring Tim Robbins as Hollywood exec Griffin Mill, has a list of cameos longer than Zoolander 2 and yet remains a thought-provoking dramedy that only becomes more relevant with age. In twenty years, when studios embrace (opposed to #OscarsSoWhite) the inevitable fairness of equality, audiences will watch The Player with alarm, realising that many elements of the industry are, shockingly, true.
Griffin Mill (Robbins) is a busy man, sifting through the endless glut of ridiculous scripts daily, that pass through the gates of the fictional ‘Movies’ studio. He hears a pitch for ‘The Graduate: Part 2’ and a “psychic political radical movie – with a heart”. Then, amongst the post dropped on his desk one morning, is a postcard scrawled in marker pen with a threat: a scriptwriter he turned down wants Mill dead. This sinister threat coincides with staffing rearrangements that, rumour has it, puts his job on the line. Mill is paranoid and fearful, desperate to see who wants him fired – and who wants him dead.
There is an aggressive tone to The Player. A resentment towards the executives who live for the box office numbers. Formulaic films and ‘happy endings’ are the expectation and as long as audiences thirst for mediocre movies to pass the time, they will continue to receive them. Altman lifts the lid on the capitalist mantra that dominates the corporate studio system. Indeed, they are making products to buy and not works of art to be appreciated on their own terms. A particular scene in The Player is at an awards ceremony where Mill delivers a speech to celebrate the artistic merit of the Movies Studio back catalogue. We know it’s all junk (not the catalogue but the speech); a mutual understanding of money changing hands. Levy (Peter Gallagher), a seedy up-and-coming exec, argues that the studio should erase the writer completely and turn to the news for stories. Mill counters him with a suggestion to follow this by turning away directors, actors and editors too. A film industry without artists at the helm and instead, only money-men digitally correlating what audiences want and then ensuring their delivery is made.
This potent, all-too-true reflection of the Hollywood moguls may be true but, by the existence of The Player, it hints at a type of fiction to the entire debate. The Player, dastardly flying the art flag as a proud mantra, has been made in the studio system. Roughly a decade later, John Waters Cecil B. Demented turned up and the same debate took shape. Birdman took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Coen’s latest film slyly pokes fun at an ever-rotating manufactured “artistic” selection of treats. It is interesting how Robbins turned up in an early Coen brothers’ movie, The Hudsucker Proxy, in the same era as The Player.
Suffice to say, though intriguing and engaging, with many conversation starters buried within a multi-thread narrative, The Player is an interesting beast that merely highlights the flaws without truly changing much. Of course, there is a “Happy ending”, and sadly, The Player is right on that front – very little has changed and the churn of Hollywood junk continues over twenty years later.