The Awful Truth About Hollywood and Us

Contrarian that I am, I like Hollywood movies about Hollywood. I tend to give the genre the benefit of the doubt, despite the traditional box-office resistance to movies about movie people, because what else do filmmakers know as well? Besides, some of the best movies have taken this Pirandellian posture, most notably Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), William Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Unfortunately, America’s Sweethearts , directed by Joe Roth from a screenplay by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan, is too cynically slick and emotionally shallow, and The Anniversary Party , written and directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, is too formlessly turgid, to make the cut with the winners above. Still, there are compensations in both flawed works, which is to say there is some interest in knowing what movie people think of themselves, each other and the line of work in which they’re engaged.

In this respect, America’s Sweethearts is structured much like a video game, with each character more or less defined by his or her place in the power grid. The Anniversary Party is more of an unrehearsed reality show, with drugs, casual toplessness, a few hints of bisexuality and an alleged layer of improvisation. Hence, America’s Sweethearts is more a movie, and The Anniversary Party more a film.

America’s Sweethearts begins with the improbable premise of a man-and-woman romantic team–on-screen and off–in today’s Hollywood. There have been no such popular pairings in the past 40 years at least. Look around you at all the all-male couples in action, and try to think of their male-female equivalents: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan seem to have called it quits after the diminishing returns from Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail ( 1998), and they were never an item for the scandal sheets, anyway. Indeed, the witty montage of attractions starring Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) applies more to the studio star system of the 30’s and 40’s than to the agency-run misogyny of the 80’s and 90’s. But press junkets, like the one in the movie, are a comparatively recent phenomenon.

The joker in the deck is top-billed Julia Roberts, who plays Kiki Harrison, Gwen’s supposedly ugly-duckling sister with a supposedly hopeless crush on Eddy. Ms. Roberts has a couple of flashback scenes in which she appears in a “fat suit” and ugly glasses. When we catch her in the present, she has magically shed 60 pounds but still works as Gwen’s drudge-like personal assistant. The advance publicity suggested that Ms. Roberts had accepted a less-than-stellar role to play in an “ensemble” film. Something must have happened in between, because Ms. Roberts had more competition from Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding than she gets from this witchy-bitchy Zeta-Jones here. It’s not entirely Ms. Zeta-Jones’ fault that she comes out so humorlessly unsympathetic. Her witless dialogue certainly doesn’t help, and despite her undeniable physical assets, she clearly lacks the comedy style to make a narcissistic star truly funny.

For his part, Mr. Cusack is too earnestly plebeian a personality to glide through a part the younger Michael Caine could have played in his sleep. That leaves Mr. Crystal, as a studio publicist named Lee, with the burden of supplying most of the heavy guffaws, and he is reduced to involuntary simulated fornication with an aggressive hound to get his fade-out laughs.

Along the way, however, there are a few chuckles to be had at the expense of press freeloaders, a ruthless producer and a legendary pain-in-the-neck Godardian wannabe named Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), a director who won’t let the producer look at an inch of his footage until he’s good and ready.

Unfortunately, when the duo’s latest film is finally unveiled for the junketeers, it turns out to be not a reprise of the former romances from the now estranged Harrison-Thomas team, but a free-form Cassavettean Candid Camera shambles. This was supposed to be the cream of the jest, but the intended “satire” falls flat. Kiki and Eddie wind up together, Gwen saves a little face–but not much–and Lee ends up playing Cupid when he’s not being virtually raped by a dog. The message: Movie-making is a ridiculous way to make a living, and most movie people are insincere to a fault.

The Anniversary Party , by contrast, is a humanist statement. A self-conscious one, to be sure, but one not entirely devoid of sincerity, however incoherently revealed. Alan Cumming’s Joe Therrian and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Sally Nash have invited some of their friends to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary at what Los Angeles film critic Kevin Thomas describes as their “exquisite Neutra mountain-top home overlooking the expanse of the Los Angeles Basin.” Thanks, Kevin–I must confess that all of Los Angeles is terra incognita to me.

Why celebrate the sixth anniversary? It seems that what they’re really celebrating is the end of their sixth-month separation. Joe is a bankable British novelist, and Sally a fading thirtysomething actress whom Joe has passed over for his own movie in favor of the “hotter” Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been invited to the party over Sally’s fierce objections. As if that weren’t enough guaranteed angst for the evening, Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), Sally’s Oscar-holding co-star in a movie still shooting, is also at the party with his wife, Sophia (Phoebe Cates), and his two small children. Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) is not only directing Cal and Sally in their current project; he’s also brought some raw footage to the party to confirm his and Cal’s impression that Sally has lost whatever light and slight talent she once had. For her part, Sally now seems to be drowning in some mysterious grief.

There are other guests who provide emotional cross-currents that intersect the paths of the professional movie people. Mac’s wife, Clair (Jane Adams), is an actress and new mother, strung out on diet pills and envious of Sophia for having given up her movie career to raise her and Cal’s children. Sally’s business manager (John Benjamin Hickey) and his motormouth wife (Parker Posey) add to the chaos; the manager has come to warn Sally about her extravagance in the midst of her professional decline. Decline, in fact, is everywhere in the air, but the fall is averted, despite the infusion of the drug Ecstasy to the proceedings.

There is an obsessive preoccupation with children–real and aborted–and dogs, beloved as loyal pets and hated as distracting noise-makers. Joe’s bisexuality threatens to come to the fore, but never does. His sister, far off in England, dies, perhaps because of Joe’s guilt-wrenching neglect of her. There is much crying all around, but amid all the human wreckage, a feeling of resiliency emerges, not so much from hope as from emotional exhaustion–at which point the survival instincts take over. The Anniversary Party is not a good movie, but at least it has the courage of its confusions.

One Man’s love of Gambling, Another’s of a Woman

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), from a screenplay by Melville (1917-1973) and Auguste Le Breton, is a film that was far ahead of its time in the mid-50’s, both as a film noir and as a precursor of the nouvelle vague . It will be shown at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, from July 27 through Aug. 9.

I happened to see it in a retitled version as Fever Heat in a Times Square grind house, long before the whole area was transformed into a Walt Disney theme park. As I recall, the stills featured the moderately unclad charms of Isabelle Corey, a French pastry of the period. Ah, those were my salad days.

Melville’s location shooting in Montmartre and Deauville is drenched with the dark romanticism of his later crime classics, such as Le Doulos (1961), Le Deuxième Soufflé (1966), Le Samourai (1967) and Un Flic (1971) . He also collaborated in 1950 with Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) on Les Enfants Terribles , an elegant filming of Cocteau’s stirringly neurotic play. The point is that Melville (self-named after his favorite American author) brought emotional depth and stylistic polish to the gangster genre.

Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) is a silver-haired ex-felon known as le Flambeur , a slang term for high-roller or compulsive gambler. He takes on the tutelage of a young hoodlum and helps plan a holdup in a Deauville gambling casino. At their moment of success, his gambling obsession takes over, with ironic results.

While we’re heading back down Memory Lane to the age of fully sifted auteurs, there’s another chance to look at Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), from a screenplay by Buñuel (1900-1983), with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel La Femme et le Pantin by Pierre Louys (1898). The film is currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

One oddity in this production–that is, odd even for Buñuel–is the casting of two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, to play the single character of the temptress Conchita Perez. Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando’s co-star in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) five years earlier, was found unsatisfactory by Buñuel, and so he decided to replace her with two actresses performing alternately in separate scenes. Buñuel claimed later that many people in the audience didn’t notice the difference, but I suspect Buñuel cashed in on his avant-garde surrealist reputation by making his art-house audiences wonder what he meant by his doubling of the same character.

In my view, this stroke of insolence (or inspiration) contributes to the feeling of futility that Fernando Rey experiences as he laboriously strives to deflower the coquettish Conchita. Her duality is thus but another dimension of her maddeningly inscrutable mystery, and the mystery of all women.

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) adapted the same story for Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman (1935). It was the last film of their long collaboration, and it failed dismally at the box office. But its beauties are subtler and less outrageously farcical than those of the Buñuel. And the censors were less tolerant in 1935 Hollywood than in 1977 Paris.