It somehow makes sense that in making a movie about movie making, Joel and Ethan Coen would find the ultimate realisation of their recurring themes, one of which is circular, ouroboric self-reflexivity itself (think of a man chasing his own hat, as in Miller’s Crossing (1990), in lieu of a tail). As many of their films are, Hail, Caesar! (2016) is as allusive as it is elusive. How, then, to unpack a film that seems to draw equally from real life, the films of classic Hollywood and the Coen brothers’ own films, while itself blurring the formal lines between cinematic “reality” and movie magic? And is it necessary to have this information to hand to appreciate the film?
The release of a new Coen brothers film rarely fails to provoke a slew of articles identifying tropes familiar from elsewhere in their oeuvre. You won’t find all of them in every Coen brothers film, but this obsessive categorisation is an attempt to make sense of a genre-hopping back catalogue at once recognisably authorial yet tantalisingly and frustratingly opaque. Nevertheless, their films are linked in all kinds of overt ways – e.g. Hudsucker industries features in both Raising Arizona (1987) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), just as the fictional Capitol Pictures connects Hail, Caesar! to Barton Fink (1991).
Hail, Caesar! also continues a longstanding Coen tradition of basing fictional characters, however loosely, on real people. Barton Fink features characters inspired by playwright Clifford Odets (John Turturro’s eponymous protagonist), William Faulkner (John Mahoney’s WP Mayhew) and a composite character (Michael Learner’s Jack Lipnick) based on studio heads Louis B Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner. The Big Lebowski (1998), built around Jeff Bridges’ Dude, has its foundations in a Coens acquaintance named Jeff Dowd. Most recently, the titular singer-songwriter of Inside Llewyn Davis (2014) was ‘inspired by’ folk singer Dave Van Ronk.
Hail, Caesar!’s Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, shares a name, more or less, with a real-life Hollywood fixer. Like his Coen counterpart, the original Eddie Mannix was Catholic and had “a confirmed or suspected hand in covering up everyday misdemeanors like car wrecks and pregnancies”1. On the other hand, unlike Brolin’s character, the real-world Mannix had no children, was named Edgar rather than Edward and allegedly had a hand in covering up “some of the most horrible scandals in the history of Hollywood,” reportedly including rape and murder. Brolin’s Mannix is really a composite character, also based on Howard Strickling2, Mannix’s contemporary and cohort. “A dapper former journalist who controlled how the press reported on MGM’s stars and film,”3 as MGM’s head of publicity, Strickling’s spin tactics complimented Mannix’s more hands-on approach.
Similarly, Thora & Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are an amalgam of both legendary gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and identical twin sister columnists Eppie Lederer (AKA Ann Landers) and Pauline Phillips (AKA Abigail Van Buren). Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) corresponds with Robert Taylor, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, actors in such epics as Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur (which also lends the tagline ‘a tale of the Christ’) and Spartacus. Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing Burt Gurney is modeled on Gene Kelly, but also aesthetically on Troy Donahue and Tyrone Power.
And it continues – Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Williams is analogous with competitive-swimmer-turned-actress Esther Williams, though the ruse she proposes mirrors one undergone by actress Loretta Young. Carlota Valdez, who Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) asks, “Is it hard to dance with all them bananas on your head?”, is a relatively transparent pastiche of Carmen Miranda, famous for her hats piled with exotic fruits. Her name is also a subtle amendment from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which prominently features a “Carlotta Valdes”. As Nick Pinkerton recently wrote, “significant, or just a red herring to tempt film nerds?”4
It’s debatable in all cases how useful this kind of information is going in. That is to say, those nodding in response to the brothers’ cleverness may realise the two were simply nodding towards their own influences, rather than the audience. Their Miller’s Crossing, for example, is on one level a straightforward homage to the works of Dashiell Hammett (particularly his novel Red Harvest). The Big Lebowski has a less overt relationship to the works of Raymond Chandler. Though their inspirations are cheerfully acknowledged, awareness of them is not required to enjoy the films.
However, the thing that really could make Hail, Caesar! the definitive Coen brothers film is that, as is now traditional, they have basically refuted everything above. “Is Scarlett Johansson Esther Williams?” Ethan wondered aloud recently. “Not really. We don’t know anything about Esther Williams.”5 In case that wasn’t definitive enough, Joel added, “We’re not big on research.”6 Likewise, faced with the proposition that, like Hail, Caesar!, many of their films (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo) feature a kidnapping, Joel clarified, “I’m not sure why. They are all very different. We should probably give that a rest.”7
So do you need to “get the reference” in order to enjoy the film? Yes and no. It may help to know the supposed historical context, to know about the studio system, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Spartacus (that is to say, if you’ve seen Trumbo (dir. Jay Roach, 2015), you will be at a certain advantage). It may help digest what is a typically dense confection, but you’ll likely as not get egg on your face if you decide to hold forth on what exactly the Coens mean by all this. And you’ll get no help at all from the brothers, since they tend to dispense with concrete logic or reliable orienting details (dates are fudged, temporal references contradictory). Never mind that every time they’re called upon to comment upon the “meaning” of their work, or to confirm or deny a fan theory or academic proposal, they demur.
They seem to side with Werner Herzog, who famously scorned “the pedantic branch of academia”, the ones “ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there.” Perhaps the Coens are simply more polite than Herzog, who concluded, “Go for it, losers.”8 But it’s not too hard to imagine them saying the same thing – Joel, after all, has described bating overzealous critics with Barton Fink, “like teasing animals at the zoo”9 – even if it is with a typically enigmatic smile.
Sean Welsh, March 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Karina Longworth, ‘The Fixer: MGM’s Eddie Mannix and the lives he ruined’
2. Hail, Caesar! production notes
3. Longworth, ibid.
4. Nick Pinkerton, ‘True Hollywood Story’
5. ‘How the Coen Brothers Survived Hollywood and Lived to Make Hail, Caesar!’ by Ramin Setoodeh, Variety, February 3rd, 2016.
8. Werner Herzog, ‘Interview: Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans’
9. Joel Coen in Allen, William Rodney, ed. The Coen Brothers: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006