The Best Movies About Making Movies

Ross Douthat claims the movies are dead. The movies think he’s wrong.

What can you say about a 127 year old art form that died? 

New York Times,resident ethicist, religion writer, and pontificator Ross Douthat recently took a long draw on his juxtaposable digit of choice to produce for the Gray Lady–itself constantly hovering over the dustbin of history because of industry disruptions–the latest proclamation of the end of cinema. FIN. 

Douthat’s meandering logic wasn’t entirely clear. Douthat places the blame for cinema’s alleged passing on, in no particular order: Marvel Comics, people who invent things, globalization, Jeff Bezos, Netflix, phrenology, declining interest in watching torpor-inducing three-hour industry award shows, rampant wokeness, plague, and the ongoing cretinization of the general populace. 

Formidable challenges all. But before we go full movies-obituary drafting mode, let’s make sure Father Ross hasn’t gotten over his skis. After all, changes in delivery platforms do not eliminate the product, nor does a sizable deserved dip in ratings of the award show that celebrates it. So let’s hold off launching that GoFundMe account to defray the Seventh Art’s funeral expenses and examine the remarkable resilience the industry has exhibited in face of previous “existential” threats.

What better way to do so than an examination of the best movies about movie making? So many of them had a subtext of an industry facing seismic change.

The Player (1992)

Cold blooded murder of yet another annoying screenwriter (See Barton Fink, Adaption, Sunset Boulevard etc… etc…) is just one more item on the to do list of a busy on-the-rise Hollywood exec in Robert Altman’s exploration of the underbelly of the movie business circa 1992. 

In The Player, the uniquely talented, genre-bestriding Altman puts his well-earned cynical love-hate relationship with Hollywood on full display. He has reluctant affection for the giddy amoral careerists, cannon fodder creatives, high-energy hangers on and delusional artistes who populate the system. 

As Griffin Mill, the glib, oleaginous, beloved by the fates entertainment executive doing everything and anything he must to keep his career and the industry afloat, Tim Robbins has the role of his career. 

On the self-regard front, what could be more achingly inside baseball than Altman’s loving homage to the immortal opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’s brilliant but cursed Touch of Evil at the onset of this movie about making movies? 

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow takes The Player’s cynicism up a notch, but only a notch, by positing 1922’s Nosferatu was more documentary than fantasy, as the film maker employed a real vampire to play the role of creepy Count Orlock, complete with contract riders—eating your co-star at the end of filming—that would make Ozzy Osbourne’s head spin.

There’s a lot going on in this ambitious film. 

A white-lab-coat bedecked, goggle-wearing John Malkovich plays F.W. Murnau, the multi-talented director of Nosferatu, who saw early film both as an art and a science. Working with the original crank-driven 1920s camera Murnau actually employed, looking for all the world like some sort of megalomaniacal German Expressionist organ grinder/ Doc Brown from Back to the Future mash up, Malkovich rallies his crew on the first day of shooting with a St. Crispin’s Day worthy barn-burner that ends with the line “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory…but our memory will neither blur nor fade.” Hurrah!

Building on this. director E. Elias Merhige’s ruminates on parallels between the movie industry and the undead. Parallels wherein vampiric film cameras suck the life from performers within the frame transmogrifying them into the immortal shadows that flicker for eternity across the silver screen.  

This interesting conceit makes the umpteenth appearance of the line“You and I are a lot alike” lobbed by a film’s antagonist, Count Orlock, towards his protagonist, the the film’s director Murnau, bearable. Barely. 

For his work as Max Schreck, the actor who played Count Orlock in the original film, a very well cast Willem Dafoe, rightly received an Oscar nomination and–just edging out Larry King–the role of the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man franchise.

Day for Night (1973)

Catnip for sensitive cineastes still flush with the first love of film and no need for a steady income. A palette cleanser en route to renewed enthusiasm for those whose celluloid dreams have already been crushed. 

The ensemble bonhomie of Francois Truffault’s tribute to a way of making movies; established stars, magnificent sets, hotel rooms for on location shooting, myriad technical support staff, soaring scores and swooping crane cameras—that his own gritty New Wave Cinema considered passe—is irresistible. 

Director Ferrand, the film within a film’s director, ensures or at least tries to ensure, in the end, all is right with the world, at least on the cloistered and holy environs that is the film set. 

Unbeknownst to Truffaut, novelist, quasi-spook, and occasional movie critic Graham Greene graced the film in a cameo as an insurance agent. 

Boogie Nights (1997)

Day for Night for the porn industry and almost as affecting. Burt Reynolds as louche, amiable, at peace with his place in the world and those around him, 1970s “adult films, exotic pictures” director/producer Jack Horner is this take’s Director Ferrand. The febrile ensemble under Horner’s care is, if anything, even more colorful and besieged by changing circumstance. In this case the seismic change destabilizing his once happy demimonde is video. 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson coaxes outstanding performances from all involved. His Sister Christian/Jessie’s Girl drug deal gone wrong sequence is about as good a 10 minutes of cinema as you’re going to find. “I gotta plan. I gotta a very good plan.” So much fun. And Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell? “Those are great names!”

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

Vaudeville comic duo Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s very meta, before meta was a thing, take on the movie business as well as a petulant curtain call and defiant last gasp from the unruly Ziegfeld Follies style entertainments moving pictures so recently interred.

Asked to adapt their successful Hellzapoppin’ revue from stage to film Olsen and Johnson present movie making as madcap fun. But fun that, unlike vaudeville, the deceased art form it pushed out of the entertainment ecosystem, requires adherence to a lot more conventions. Certainly a plot and ideally a love story. The anarchic comic duo’s resistance to these structural demands being imposed on their art form is the crux of the film.

Worth viewing for the rambunctious opening sequence set in a rather genial, apart from the spit roasting, conception of hell. Also: Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame as the wall-breaking projectionist. A show stopping, gravity defying, everybody get out on stage, dance extravaganza set by and in a pool. A still-talked-about appearance by Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. adjacent dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Repeated Subliminal Seduction style cries of “Oscar! Oscar!”at a time when the now too much drawn upon and tinkered with totemic power/social significance of the award had not yet nose dived.  A comic cameo from Citizen Kane’s sled and the title card put up by one of the devils–evidently a true vaudeville fan, stating “any resemblance between Hellzapopin’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”

If you want to understand what a truly dead popular art form looks like, check out Olsen and Johnson’s beloved vaudeville. There was nothing like it. It existed and then it was gone.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Once pays tribute to almost every filmmaker’s favorite era—the one that produced the movies they grew up watching. Forever enfant terrible director QuentinI don’t accept your premise” Tarantino examines the characters behind the camera and the machinations and meltdowns that put the magic up on the silver screen. 

As veteran stunt man Cliff Booth, Brad Pitt, in true the main subject of art is other art form, does his best late 1960s early 1970s, Little Foss and Big Halsy-era Robert Redford impersonation–right down to the aviator sunglasses and taut bared torso and it works. Leonardo DeCaprio, along with Pitt, one of the few old time style movie stars still standing, plays one. The kind–think My Favorite Year–we hope they really are. Margot Robie, as Sharon Tate in luminous groovy Earth Mother mode, personifies all that was good of the era. She dominates every scene she is in. 

A celebration of old style lingering studio system testosterone and film making that has been described as yet another love letter to yet another Hollywood that no longer exists. It’s also a middle finger to the current one. 

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond puts her long stenciled eyebrows into Daddy Long Legs overdrive in director Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece that tells the story of a fragile silent film screen queen’s losing battle against ageism and the technological disruptions of her era. In this case the advent of sound. “Talk! Talk!” “Words! Words!” “Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!” 

Ultimately, the movie industry adapted to these technical advances and flourished. Unlike Norma and William Holden’s Joe Gillis, the magnificently compromised “I always wanted a swimming pool” screenwriter. 

Two years later Singing in the Rain would do a more cheerful take on the transition to sound and almost sixty years after that academy award winner for Best Picture, The Artist (2011) would do it again. 

Matinee (1993)

In director Joe Dante’s Matinee we find the movie industry once more in turmoil facing yet another existential threat, this time from the relatively new medium of television. Spoiler alert! It survives. The film tells the story of B movie mogul, atomic mutant monster movie maker, promoter extraordinaire and AR guy before his time Lawrence Woolsey’s efforts to lever a premiere of his latest opus in Key West into something much bigger. Much Cold War drama and teen romance ensue. 

Woolsey, inspired by historical figure William Castle, is played by the always affable John Goodman. Woolsey seeking to differentiate his audience’s film going experience relies on early harebrained AR systems, such as a buzzers in seats, Atomo Vision “the new motion picture miracle,” fetching fake nurses in attendance at screenings in case of heart attacks, and various publicity stunts in the competition for eyeballs.  

Goodman’s Woolsey is emblematic of the oh so necessary, imperfect, gobsmacked with love for the medium visionaries that keep the industry going.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 plays an important supporting role encouraging escapism. Watching ridiculous movies about giant mutated half men half insects–Dentist: “An ant must’ve bitten Bill while he was having his teeth X-rayed”–magically soothes looming nuclear conflagration-worn nerves. 

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Director and screenwriter Preston Sturges’s still brilliant, more relevant than ever, wonderfully-scripted meditation on the place of social commentary/wokeness in film. It brings to life the old adage that the moviegoing public has no appetite for films that “stink with messages.”

Sullivan’s Travels, on more than one level, tests this received industry wisdom. 

The result? A movie conceived in the depths of the social and economic disaster that was the Great Depression and the early days of World War II ends up arguing for the industry to keep the focus on entertaining. Or does it?

Joel McCrea plays successful, wealthy light film maker John L. Sullivan who, in the midst of a moral crisis, seeks to ditch the ephemeral fare that made his fortune and make better use of “the greatest educational medium the world has ever known”. 

Through the usual cock-ups of comedy Sullivan’s attempt to better understand the underclass, after some brief unpleasant experiences with the less fortunate, short circuits. After a run-in with some railway company “bulls” Sullivan ends up experiencing both amnesia and some relatively brutal time in a chain gang lightened only by a screening of a“Playful Pluto” cartoon short arranged for the prisoners by a sympathetic Black church, a rare non-stereotypical depiction of African Americans that the head of NAACP lauded at the time.

Emerging from the trauma, a wiser Sullivan concludes ordinary people who deal with real life all day find escapist film fare done well a rare gift. As opiates of the masses go–it’s a good one! At the film’s conclusion he thus grandly renounces his plan to do a serious film and declares he’ll keep making light comedies. 

However, the irony in his statement is real. The more subtle takeaway of Sullivan’s Travels, itself an exercise in progressive social commentary–it was banned from screenings outside the US under wartime laws forbidding export of films which could be seen as critical of the country–is more complex. The film by its very popularity and enduring acclaim refutes the warning against social commentary. But, it rightly cautions, if you want anybody to watch, you’d better wrap it in a good movie.  

Epilogue

So what do you say about a 127 year old art form somebody says has died? 

How about,“Here’s to another 127!” 

Given the industry’s track record the smart money says you won’t be seeing the movie business in the Oscars In Memorium segment anytime soon.  

Roll Camera!

Other Notable Movies about Moviemaking (There are a lot.)

Mulholland Drive (2001)

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Adaptation (2002)

Barton Fink (1991)

Hugo (2011)

Bowfinger (1999)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Blow Out (1981)

Ed Wood (1994)

81/2 (1963)

Get Shorty (1995)

The Artist (2011)

The Day of the Locust (1975)

The Stunt Man (1980)

Silent Movie (1976)

Singing in the Rain (1952)

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

5 thoughts on “The Best Movies About Making Movies

  • April 4, 2022 at 10:38 am
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    Very interesting piece! I especially liked the segments on The Player, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard. The list of films should definitely include The Last Tycoon. I highly recommend that novel of Fitzgerald’s as well as his Pat Hobby Stories.

    Reply
  • April 4, 2022 at 2:21 pm
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    I couldn’t read this. If these films are ranked, this writer is on glue.

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  • April 4, 2022 at 2:30 pm
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    Thanks Michael! Yes The Last Tycoon certainly belongs on the list. F. Scott’s novel was brilliant as was his series featuring the broken but still trying screenwriter Pat Hobby. “The Homes of the Stars” was one of my favorites and the one where Pat crossed paths with Orson Welles. I loved Pat’s script “punch up” work things like substituting “Scram!” for “Get out of here!”.

    Reply
  • April 4, 2022 at 2:32 pm
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    Hi Billy, The movies are not ranked.

    Reply
  • April 5, 2022 at 10:48 pm
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    Don’t forget Living in Oblivion, a forgotten classic of 90’s indie filmmaking about filmmaking. Starring everyone.

    Reply

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