Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The best movies about movies

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With Argo coming out today, movie blogger Dominic Corry takes in the best movies about movies.

Ben Affleck stars in Argo. Photo / AP
Ben Affleck stars in Argo. Photo / AP

This week sees the New Zealand release of Argo, a thrilling true-life drama about a CIA operation to extract American diplomats from Iran under the guise of scouting locations for a sci-fi fantasy film called 'Argo'.

It's one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that manages to play out with excruciating tension despite history having determined the outcome more than three decades ago.

While Argo features a couple of classic Hollywood characters played amusingly by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, it's less a film about the movie business than a taut espionage thriller with a meticulously crafted '70s aesthetic.

But watching it got me thinking about the best examples of films about the movie business. An industry infamous for navel-gazing, Hollywood has always enjoyed looking inward for dramatic material, which has resulted in some pretty great films.

These are some of my favourite examples.

I was 14 years old when I first saw Robert Altman's The Player, and it felt like the first time the dark heart of Hollywood had been exposed to me.

From the blistering eight-minute opening shot onwards, The Player presents a superlatively cynical (widely heralded as accurate) view of the movie business. Tim Robbins has rarely been better as a slimy studio exec who assumes the worst when he starts getting threatening letters from a rejected screenwriter.

There are innumerable movie star cameos and the film often delights in the ambiguity of whether or not they're playing themselves.

The Stunt Man is a well-regarded Oscar-nominated film from 1980 that many reviews of The Player cited as an antecedent to Robert Altman's film. Steve Railsback, still probably best known for his portrayal of Charles Manson in the acclaimed 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter, plays a fugitive who stumbles onto a film set and is drafted into stunt man duty by the film's flamboyant director, played by Peter O'Toole.

I remember enjoying O'Toole's typically grandiose performance, but The Stunt Man's broad metaphorical stance kept me somewhat at arm's length when I first saw it in my teens. The film's reputation only seems to be growing though, so maybe it's time I re-watched it.

Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist did a magnificent job of evoking old Hollywood glamour, but with its focus on the transition between silent films and talkies, it brought to my mind the 1952 classic Singin' In The Rain.

The peerless Gene Kelly (who bares more than a passing resemblance to The Artist star Jean Dujardin) stars as a silent film star who must recruit showgirl Debbie Reynolds (Carrie Fisher's mum!) when his regular co-star's glass-shattering voice prevents her from joining him in the transition to talking pictures.

The relentlessly watchable Singin' In The Rain is one of the most accessible of Hollywood's Golden Age musicals, and is a perfect entry point into that world.

Like most movies about Hollywood, its portrayal of the movie business is a romanticised one that bares little resemblance to reality. Singing In The Rain's contribution to the silver screen's rose-coloured view of what Hollywood is actually like cannot be overstated.

Another hugely enjoyable film from 1952 that examines the movie business, albeit with a considerably more cynical approach, is The Bad and The Beautiful. An in-his-prime Kirk Douglas plays a producer whose career plays out in flashbacks while three of his past collaborators consider working with him once again.

It's a dark picture notable for how much emphasis it places on the producer's creative role in the filmmaking process, as opposed to the director. There is also much fun to be had matching the figures in the movie with their real-life inspiration.

After he starred in This Is Spinal Tap, but before he began his run of improvised pictures with 1996's Waiting For Guffman, Christopher Guest wrote and directed an underappreciated comedy about Hollywood called The Big Picture. Kevin Bacon stars as an idealistic young film school graduate who faces mountains of compromise when he signs up to make his debut film for a major studio.

The Big Picture trades in pretty well-worn clichés about working in Hollywood, and its legacy has been completely overshadowed by that of The Player, but it's got a great cast and features plenty of witty moments. Worth checking out if you haven't.

One film about movies that doesn't get a lot of love is the notorious 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger folly Last Action Hero, but I maintain a soft spot for the film, which only seems to get better with every passing year. Seriously. And most modern action films pale in comparison.

It's a giant mess to be sure, but I love the knowing nods to action movie cliches and the gently self-aware performance from Arnie. I'm constantly surprised by how much I enjoy seeing Last Action Hero when I watch it every few years. The film of course stole its central conceit of a movie character that comes into the real world from Woody Allen's 1985 hit The Purple Rose of Cairo, which too has aged well.

The Argo characters played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman definitely evoke the producer played by Dustin Hoffman in Wag The Dog, but there's a sense of self-satisfaction that puts me off Barry Levinson's 1997 satire. The same goes for Levinson's more recent Hollywood examination What Just Happened, which also starred Robert De Niro.

Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman created one of the most brutally cynical films about Hollywood when he wrote 2002's Adaptation. The desperation positively seeps out of Nicolas Cage's screenwriter character, and while the film goes down some surreal paths, it has some enduringly pertinent observations to make about filmmaking.

The vast reserves of darkness inherent in the Hollywood myth has lent itself to some of the best film's about showbiz, like David Lynch's chilling Mulholland Drive and the Coen brothers' maddening Barton Fink. And it may be more of a crime picture, but there's nothing nostalgic about LA Confidential's portrayal of Hollywood in the '40s.

A real-life Hollywood feud infused the delectable high camp drama of 1962's Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, which starred aging divas and longtime rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as former stars of the silver screen.

Crawford's adopted daughter Christina's book about her traumatic childhood was adapted into another camp classic, 1982's Mommie Dearest, which for all it's detractors remains a hilarious and entertaining film about Hollywood vacuity. Faye Dunaway will forever be remembered for her over the top performance as Joan Crawford.

While it's never been a particular favourite of mine, no list of the best films about Hollywood would be complete without mentioning Billy Wilder's legendary (and black as night) Sunset Boulevard.

And say what you will about TV's Entourage, one thing it did well was present believable fictional film projects, something most films about Hollywood fail to do. I'd like to see some of that savvy conception of fictional movies flow into films about films.

* Agree? Disagree? What are you favourite movies about movies? Amped for Argo? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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