Coen Brothers' foray to Follywood

By Helen Barlow

The Coen Brothers have gathered a star-studded cast for a movie about Hollywood's bad old days, reports Helen Barlow.
George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

They've made an idiot out of George one more time. But he's happy about it.

The new Coen Brothers' film Hail, Caesar! arrives as the fourth instalment in what George Clooney had previously called their "trilogy of idiots" - O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading, in which the actor played various charming dimwits.

"When Joel and Ethan write parts for me, they never are the brightest people, " says Clooney. "I think it's some sort of comment about what they think of me in general," he says.

In Hail, Caesar! Clooney is a none-too-bright 1950s movie star, Baird Whitlock, appearing as a Roman soldier in a Biblical epic, complete with leather skirt and sandals

"It's a funny thing but when you get fitted for an outfit, there is this moment and I have experienced this a few times in my life where you are putting it on and you are getting fitted for it and you go, 'This could be the one that actually finally ends my career'."

Joel and Ethan Coen were more than happy to have Clooney return as another doofus.

"George is good-looking and smart but we don't want to show him being smart," muses Joel Coen. "He's a comedic actor. Early on we saw he had a sense of humour going untapped and we discovered he's a great actor to play someone stupid. It amuses him and it amuses us."

Clooney's scenes represent only one of the film's storylines, all linked by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's fixer.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

There's also a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet with a scintillating Scarlett Johansson, a singing cowboy western featuring a breakthrough role for Alden Ehrenreich, a sailor boy musical with a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and a drawing room comedy with a Brit inflection provided by Ralph Fiennes.

All serve to paint a nostalgic, hilarious picture of Hollywood in the early 50s.

"It comes out of our love of movies that came before," remarks Coen. "To take samples from bygone genres is part of the fun."

Channing Tatum in Hail Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
Channing Tatum in Hail Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

In the Coens' way of things though, everything is not as it seems. There are scandals festering beneath the squeaky clean Hollywood images and Brolin's Eddie Mannix, based on a real life Hollywood fixer, is there to clean up the mess and to feed competing gossip columnists, represented by sisters, both played by Tilda Swinton.

Brolin, who starred in the Coens' No Country for Old Men and True Grit, is the straight man of the piece, and doesn't know what the the brothers see in him.

"I don't see myself as the characters I play for them but they see something in me and it seems to work," Brolin says. "I was surprised that they thought of me for something like this but they say, 'Just do what you do and if it's wrong we will tell you.' But I may not get a compliment for a month. I'll finish scenes and look around and they'll be gone. I'll be like where did they go? They'll have walked to the next set because they are setting up for the next scene."

Tilda Winton in Hail Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
Tilda Winton in Hail Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

It's largely through Mannix's eyes that the various strands unfurl. He has to control Johansson's aquatic star, the no-bullshit Bronx broad DeeAnna Moran, who is unwed and pregnant and plans to give her infant to an orphanage so she can adopt the child later.

"It's directly taken from the life of Loretta Young," Coen admits. "She did arrange to adopt her own child. But the rest is just generic movie star scandal stuff that Mannix is dealing with."

The film's showstopper, of course, is Tatum, as a gay tap dancing communist. "Channing hadn't tap danced before but we knew he was an accomplished dancer," notes Coen.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

Tatum: "They varied the lead slightly when they gave me the script. It was only about three or four sentences and it said that Mannix walks into a dance routine. It was supposed to be on a battleship and then my character does a knee slide up to a buffet. That was it. It was like, 'Great I can do that.' Cut to a few meetings later and it's a six-minute long song and dance. It was nerve-racking, but I don't think I would have ever chosen to jump off a cliff blindly with anybody else but the Coens.

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied
George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!. Photo / Supplied

"They're just so studied. They sent me things, and even if I'd studied dance for a little bit, they sent me things I'd never heard or my choreographer has never heard of. So they do their study and they do the things they love and I was just honoured to be a part of it. I learned to tap and I'd never put on a pair of tap shoes in my whole life before this film."

Those scenes come from the affection the Coens - who tackled old Hollywood before in 1991's Barton Fink - have for the era in which Hail, Caesar! is set.

"We lived through that era so we can literally be nostalgic about it. The movie is a romanticised version of Hollywood in the 50s. There is an aspect of the factory for making movies, the machine for making movies, that was such a beautifully designed thing.

"There's an element of affection and admiration for it but I'm not sure how we would have come through that kind of environment. It's not what we do."

Director Ethan Coen (L) and Joel Coen. Photo / AP
Director Ethan Coen (L) and Joel Coen. Photo / AP

What: Hail, Caesar! directed by the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel. Starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes.

When: Opens today

- Additional reporting Michele Manelis

- TimeOut

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