With two of the best film nominees chronicling the foundation of cinema, we look back at other examples of Hollywood navel-gazing.
24 Feb 2012 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2012 - 2:08 PM

1890-1930: Pioneers, Moguls, Movie Love and Broken Dreams

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, England/USA, 2011)
Not a Hollywood story but it makes the list because its story of fallen fame dominates the film-on-film sub genre. Ebullient and touching, celebratory and warm, Martin Scorsese's marvellous fantasia has a tone very different to so many of the stories here, where bitterness and cynicism dominate. Still, its elevation of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) as a 'film artist' rather than a distinguished cinema pioneer has been criticised by scholars as 'wistful thinking'. True perhaps, but Scorsese, a dedicated film archivist, uses the plot to make a plea for the preservation of cinema's past. And that unlocks a key theme of Hollywood stories – yesteryear's pioneers are today's forgotten men and women.

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, USA, 1924, pictured, top)
Sherlock Jr. explores the tension between fantasy and reality – a key thematic riff in stories about Hollywood and the meaning of film. Directed and starring genius filmmaker Buster Keaton, this silent action comedy landmark has Buster's character actually stepping into a movie screen to become a hero of the movie within a movie.

Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, USA, 1952)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France, 2011)
When sound came to movies it killed the careers of a legion of actors and directors; it also knocked off the language of film, as it was known; the survivors, in a sense, had to start again. These two pictures pay homage to the end of the Silent Era.

In Singin', that history is a romantic comic farce, with music, about a movie star (Gene Kelly) who deals ingeniously with the transition from silent to sound film through a combination of wit, raw talent and likeable wickedness.

It's a movie about satirising the Hollywood in the '50s, too; another moment of upheaval when studios, worried about the impact of TV, fell on gimmicks and hype (and an unholy alliance with celebrity media) to lure people back to the movies.

The movie's love story is, in its way, a tribute to the legions of anonymous and gifted film artists who perform miracles without the rewards of fame: Kelly persuades a talented unknown (Debbie Reynolds) to dub the lead role in a new sound musical, replacing the finger-nails-down-a-blackboard voice of his no-talent regular co-star Jean Hagen.

Michel Hazanavicius' film pays homage to Singin' in the Rain's by using its plot about a silent star struggling to stay 'relevant' in the new sound era. Where Donen and Kelly use silent movie conventions – like slapstick, mime, situation comedy and associative editing – and incorporate them into a sound film, Michel Hazanavicius aimed to make a silent picture in the style of 1927. For some, like critic Armond White, this approach was a folly, since The Artist is not “how silent movies worked” – which, of course, is true, but not quite the point. It's a valentine, not a history lesson.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, USA, 1985)
This Depression-era sad comedy about a waitress called Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is all about the power of the movies to revive sagging spirits. It's one of Woody Allen's sweetest pictures, but it's also harsh, even bitter. The plot steals from Sherlock Jr.; 'ficitional' characters move between the world behind the silver screen, one of endless possibilities and pleasure and fun into the 'real' world of hard-times, poverty and loneliness.

Allen's take on '30s B melodrama, incarnated by Cecilia's love of a movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo, is hilarious as are his satirical jibes at shallow stardom, assembly line filmmaking and socially irresponsible studio bosses. But best of all, the film explores the genuine behind the scenes tussle between cinema's two great creative impulses: the yearning for escapism and commercial acceptance and the desire to make screen stories that tell truths about how and why we live.

1940-1992: Insanity, Megalomania, Failure

Barton Fink (Joel Coen| Ethan Coen, 1991)
Inspired in part by Otto Friedrich's superb portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, City of Nets, the Coen's weird comedy about a self-important screenwriter – John Turturro – with an epic case of writer's block, parodies the biographies of a large cast of real life Hollywood characters in the Brothers' patented high-style including MGM mogul Louis B Mayer, and Harry Warner of the Warner Bros., playwright Clifford Odets and novelist William Faulkner. As history, it's useless, of course; but, according to scholars, the Coen's nail one important cultural fact of Hollywood life of the Studio era: it was no place for a writer.

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950)
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)
The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1952)

In a Lonely Place has Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, a brilliant and tortured screenwriter on a losing streak, cursed with an apocalyptic temper and accused of murder; Gloria Graeme plays his lover and alibi. In this jaundiced view of LA, movie people loyalty is a rumour and everyone, except Dix, is a louse looking to make a score, or else they find solace at the bottom of a bottle; and the movies they make are crap. The plot brilliantly explores the difference between Hollywood's love of sentimentality and convention and the gloomy but more truthful view that in life, happy endings are hard to come by. Dix is not a murderer, but his lover finds out that his soul is dark enough to have done it.

Billy Wilder's brilliant black comedy Sunset Blvd. is possibly the best of all films about the culture of Hollywood. Part horror flick, part film noir, part love letter to the silent days, the story tries and convicts the Hollywood movie business, finding it guilty of a multitude of sins. But most of all, it finds the disrespect for the pioneers who built the movie empire unforgivable. Billy Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett & DM Marshman Jr. knew the plot, which satirises Hollywood's love of youth and itself – about a forgotten silent star's attempt to revive her career – was enough to upset the sense of entitlement that the still powerful Old Studio Bosses had, so the project was known only as A Can of Beans while it was being shot. Featuring cameos from movie legends H.B. Warner, Cecil B. de Mille, Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson, the cast stars two titans of the silent days, Gloria Swanson as the embittered fallen star Norma Desmond, and director Erich von Stroheim. William Holden plays a bottom-feeder, a screenwriter who ends up being Norma's gigolo, kept to make her feel important again, turning a blind eye to her crazy self-delusion: “You used to be big,” he tells her. “I am big!” she exclaims: “It was the pictures that got small.” Everyone in Hollywood knew she was right, which made the line so unbearably poignant for them, and anyone else with an appreciation for movie lore.

Made at the end of the Second Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when the business was deeply concerned about its future, it was a big hit, commercially and critically, but the Princes of the Empire didn't care for it. At its Hollywood premiere, Louis B Mayer, a Father of Hollywood, one of the M's in M.G.M., shook his fist at Wilder and reportedly told him: “You have disgraced the industry that fed you.” Wilder, famous for his one-liners, came up with a zinger in reply: “F**k you,” he said.

Vincente Minelli's sublime The Bad and the Beautiful is the Citizen Kane of Hollywood movies, right down to its multi-narration flashback structure, its mix of tragedy and comedy, and a lonely central character isolated by a power that corrodes all he touches. Kirk Douglas plays a fictional version of a David Selznick type: charming, oily, greedy, a man who ruined all the important relationships he ever had in his rise to the top. Unlike most Hollywood on Hollywood yarns, it's got an epic sweep, plus its portrait of filmmaking as it was in the studio days is gripping.

Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, USA, 1976)
The Artist was hardly unprecedented. Mel Brooks' Silent Movie is, in fact, a silent movie made in the style of the 1920s and stands as a tribute to silent comics; it's an argument for artistic purity, too. Made in the mid-'70s during a time of panic and decline in Hollywood, it mocks the dead hand of corporate influence in what was then left of the Old Studios. Notorious conglomerates like Gulf + Western were buying up old brands like Paramount; Brooks here calls them 'Engulf and Devour'. Brooks, in a delicious irony, mocks bottom line thinking and the corporate love for marketing gimmicks in the film's plot which is about a director (Brooks) who wants to bring the folks back to the cinema by making a silent movie.

The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, USA, 1980)
The Player (Robert Altman, USA, 1992)

The poster for The Stunt Man features a man with horns and a tail, looking through a camera lens; this is a movie about the compromises one makes to survive, and the cost on body and soul. A film within a film about a wanted man on the run who makes a deal with a devilish director in order to hide from his pursuers, it's a maze where sometimes it's not possible to distinguish between what's true and what's bogus. A metaphor for the movie business, perhaps?

There's nothing so high falutin' about Altman's The Player; a movie about Hollywood power brokers made when the high-concept pic hit critical mass, its story mocks their greed, wilful stupidity, and lack of taste… so what else is new? The filmmaking is thrilling, its humour cruel, but the satire doesn't stick, perhaps because this 'Evil' place looks like… well, fun. Between Heaven and Hell, it seems to say, there's Always Hollywood.