In almost every writing class, students are instructed to: “Write what you know.” But the rule is completely, wholly untrue for anyone with ambitions in scriptwriting. Want to quickly end a pitch meeting with a producer? Just say you have a screenplay, play, or television pilot about movies, theater, or television production. It may be what you know, kind of, does anyone really know Hollywood? But the privilege of reflecting on the process is usually given to those with established careers and don’t have to go to pitch meetings – or are self-funded.
In early cinema history, theater was the metaphor for “the business” and was most often reflected upon in terms of the lives of actors: Stage Door and 42nd Street being notable. But the unique process of filming a movie, and all the disparate players and industries involved didn’t have much to reflect upon until the mid-twentieth century and now is something of a genre unto itself. So it’s time to give credit where credit is due, and contractually obliged, gone over by an agent, lawyer, manager, and all appropriate guilds, unions, and government entities.
And the ten best are:
10. Bowfinger – 1990, Directed by Frank Oz, Written by Steve Martin
Big silly fun, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy leave no stereotype unturned in the classic story of a dreamer making it big in spite of himself. While the bad film makes good conceit has been done, and done well before, the simple charm of the actors and a trip across the 101 Freeway by Murphy pushes Bowfinger past the usual. The undocumented workers brought on as film crew who study Truffaut and Citizen Kane only adds to the collision of cultures and expectations that are part and parcel of the film industry: it is the FedEx truck coming for Bowfinger that the main character dreams of.
9. Sunset Boulevards – 1950, Directed by Billy Wilder, Written by Charles Bracket and D.M. Marshman Jr.
Perhaps the best known classic film about Hollywood starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson, told by a dead man, is about his involvement with a silent movie actress, Norma Desmond, and the delusion and desperation that are often strewn into the daily life of the entertainment industry and its subculture. Not the just by the “beyond her prime” star suffers from clinging to glories past, but so do those around her. The protagonist, the one the audience is to identify with, is already dead.
8. Mulholland Drive – 2001, Directed by David Lynch, Written by David Lynch
What? You don’t think it’s about Hollywood, being lost in a fantasy world, and the painful truth of reality intervening upon hope? Okay, but that’s what I got out of it. The title references a lovely, if motion sickness inducing, winding road in Los Angeles and one of the first power players in the City of Angeles. As with Sunset Boulevard, movies about business and Los Angeles define the journey in terms of roads, and Sunset Boulevard’s dead narrator may be the key to getting into (onto?) Mulholland Drive.
7. The Artist – 2011, Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, Written by Michel Hazanavicius
A black and white silent film about black and white silent films made in the twenty-first century. A young starlet comes to Los Angeles to make it big, well, you know the story, but that is something of the point. The derivation from classic silent cinema is brilliantly woven together with humor, but melodrama not skimped on as the main character played by Jean Dujardin clings to a can of film as his home burns dramatically and his dog goes for help.
6. Gods and Monsters – Directed by Bill Condon, Written by Bill Condon
A pondering on the last days of James Whale, the director of such indelible films as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the uncomplicated character played by Brendan Frasier shows the lure and desire to see through and be seen through a lens of an artist, if blind to the artist framing the picture. Ian McKellan mixes genius and childishness seamlessly much like James Whale’s classic movies and monsters.
5. Postcards from the Edge – 1990, Directed by Mike Nichols, Written by Carrie Fisher
Very loosely based on Carrie Fisher’s book of the same title and with a script written by Carrie Fisher, the self-effacing reflections of a Hollywood insider vary between just plain funny to sad. Meryl Streep is brilliant, does that need to be said? And when the main character let’s go of a fake ledge on a projected set and doesn’t plummet to the street below, the whole theme of the movie is encapsulated as is the falseness of happiness based on fame, and the falseness of the projection that it must always be great to be Carrie Fisher.
4. Swimming with Sharks – 1994, Directed by George Huang, Written by George Huang
If Kevin Spacey has made a career playing the devil (does he have to pay residuals?) he’s never more unnerving than in this movie about a put upon assistant played by Frank Whaley finding out what it really takes to make it in the entertainment industry. Where many of the movies about movies ultimately celebrate human foibles and the creative process, and/or lack thereof, Swimming with Sharks shines a spotlight on the truly dark aspects of the business of filmmaking and makes law school so much more enticing.
3. Argo – 2012, Directed by Ben Affleck, Written by Chris Terrio
Technically, a movie about making a fake movie, Argo gave cinema history the line, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.” The business of Hollywood and the artifice involved with the seeming empowerment to actually fund a film, even before any cameras are turned on, is as complex and byzantine as the filmmaking process itself – along with international espionage. The bows to Star Wars and the use of an actual film being shot interfering with the spy craft – the nasty red light holding up answering an important phone call – only deepens the commentary on perception.
And you can see Princess Leia as an action figure at the end of the movie.
2. Singing in the Rain – 1952, Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Hollywood became self-reflective about its own history without much history to be self-reflective about, and did a wonderful job in the process. A musical starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds about silent filmmaking is a funny conceit. The bravura talent and technical skill showcased only adds to the film’s long renown as a classic.
And you can see Princess Leia’s mom, Debbie Reynolds, before she became Carrie Fisher’s mom.
1. Ed Wood – 1994, Directed by Tim Burton, Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski
It is only right and good that the best film ever made about the filmmaking process is about what is arguably the worst movie ever made – Plan Nine from Outer Space, directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Plan Nine from Outer Space was declared the worst movie ever made by The Golden Turkey Awards written by Harry and Michael Medved published in 1979. The film is also mentioned as the goal in the Seinfeld episode where the gang is waiting at a Chinese restaurant in real time trying to get to a movie.
The joy of filmmaking is shown and the human spirit is celebrated in a film about a cross-dressing, would-be movie mogul played with innocent verve by Johnny Depp and a drug-addled Bella Lugosi played by Marin Landau. The details of the filmmaking process are realistically portrayed in this black and white fever dream and driven by a man with absolutely no talent for what he does – but he doesn’t let that stand in his way. Even the great Orson Wells makes a “cameo” appearance and encourages young Ed to pursue his vision, whatever that might be.
The fact that Ed Wood didn’t live to see his work fully “celebrated,” just like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emily Dickenson, only adds to the complete truth of the picture and why it should be required viewing in all film schools.