Movies About Movies and Why ‘Argo’ is a Surprise Hit

As far as I can tell, regular folk don’t care for movies about movies or films about filmmaking. They used to, back when Hollywood was a more glamourous and idolized place for Americans. Classics like Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the RainThe Bad and the Beautiful and the 1954 version of A Star is Born were among the top-grossing releases of their time. But 60 years later, it seems the only people really interested in stories of Hollywood, actors, directors, screenwriters, et al. are people involved with the film industry — the self-indulgence being one step below all the awards nonsense — and movie geeks, including film critics and fans.

If you’re reading Film School Rejects, you’re not one of the aforementioned “regular folk,” and you probably get more of a kick out of stuff like Living in Oblivion, Ed Wood, Get Shorty, State and Main, The Hard Way, The Last Tycoon, The Stunt Man, The Big PictureThe PlayerBowfinger, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Argo than those people do. While it is true that The Artist faced the challenge of being a silent film, another major obstacle in the way of box office success must have been its Hollywood setting.

Argo isn’t really literally about filmmaking, though, and that might be working in its favor. Ben Affleck‘s period thriller, which is expected to finally take the top spot at the box office this weekend, is about not making a film, so it should have the opposite result of most movies in which some of the main characters are film producers.

Let’s look back on this group of films about filmmaking, which technically can take us all the way to the beginnings of cinema. When moviegoing was high and celebrity was really celebrated and looked up to rather than merely set apart and looked at, stories of the makings of fame and wealth were popular. An early example is the recently rediscovered 1923 silent film Souls for Sale, and later the Depression allowed even more successes for films showcasing the better life, which included those of movie stars and other entertainers. But it’s worth noting that a film like Sullivan’s Travels, which took some dark turns with its filmmaker protagonist, was not a big hit when it was released in 1941.

A decade later, Americans must have been exhibiting more schadenfreude in their interests with Hollywood stories, especially with Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, the latter of which did much better in 1952 than the more uplifting Singin’ in the Rain. Also interesting is how Hollywood itself viewed the films that presented stars as flawed characters. Some historians see the 1950 Best Picture win for All About Eve over Sunset as being a result of voters preferring to celebrate such flaws in a Broadway setting rather than in the film industry. The Bad and the Beautiful wasn’t even nominated for the top Academy Award (neither was Singin’ in the Rain, however), but both Sunset and Bad did win in screenplay categories.

The early 1960s, while still sometimes focused on fallen celebrities (box office success — but not Best Picture nominee — What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), also brought Fellini‘s 8 1/2, which ought to have been the mic-dropping end to films about filmmakers (I highly recommend Cole and Landon’s recent discussion of the film and its relationship to other self-indulgent movies about movies, including Barton Fink, Adaptation and For Your Consideration). Instead it might have been an influence on every other auteur since to make a least one movie about movies. Truffaut did Day for Night, Woody Allen did Stardust Memories, Clint Eastwood did White Hunter, Black Heart and Wes Craven did New Nightmare. Godard, always ahead of the game, had Contempt only a few months after Fellini’s film.

Not all of those were the result of the Fellini and only one of them was definitely directly inspired, but plenty other filmmakers have certainly tried to make their own 8 1/2 to a degree, because it’s a setting and subject matter they’re familiar with. Occasionally first-time filmmakers and screenwriters attempt to start their career off with a movie about movies, though, and they tend not to be good. Although Lars von Trier‘s second feature, Epidemic, is decent and clever, he probably could do an even better, more interesting film involving filmmaking or screenwriting now — and I mean a fiction film as opposed to a documentary like The Five Obstructions, which would otherwise be proof.

Rather than a reject, Christopher Campbell is a film school dropout. But he has since gotten a master’s degree in cinema studies and has been blogging about movies since 2005. Earlier, he reviewed films for a zine (a what?) that you could buy at Tower Records (a what?). He is married with two children.

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