Mike at the Movies: Hollywood Loves Making Movies about Hollywood


Often the movies that moviemakers love to make about themselves end up competing for those little gold statues that they like to give themselves for making movies. 

In the past few years alone, The Artist, Argo, Birdman, La La Land and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have been among the most hyped and honored movies of their respective years. This year is no exception. Even horror (X, Nope and the latest reboot of Scream) has gotten into the action by making horror movies about movies a thing.

Three recent releases – two in theaters and one streaming on Netflix – have serious Oscar ambitions baked into their marketing campaigns: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (R – make that a very hard R), Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (PG-13), and Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (NC-17). 

In keeping with this new subgenre of Hollywood self-valorization, each of these movies is long, with Spielberg’s film at 151 minutes being the most succinct, compared to Blonde at 166 minutes and Babylon at an eyeball-glazing 189 minutes. In Hollywood, nothing exceeds like excess.

Let’s consider them in order of release.

Blonde, which made its debut in mid-September, is a “fictionalized” biography of Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most iconic actress ever to step in front of a camera. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, this adaptation written and directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik (who scored a critical success in 2007 with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) gets an award-worthy performance from Ana de Armas. She doesn’t really look like Monroe (de Armas’ beauty is more fluctuating and fragile), but she certainly channels her, right down to the breathy voice and nervous demeanor.

The film introduces us to Monroe as a timid youngster named Norma Jean, whose mother, played by Julianne Nicholson, is a train wreck. She blames her daughter for every mistake that she herself has ever made, including a dalliance with a rakish actor who gave her Norma Jean. A publicity still hangs on the bedroom wall like a shrine, igniting the girl’s fantasy of someday finding her daddy in the studio back lots of Burbank.

What Norma Jean finds instead are a lot of abusive men, including future husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who beats her with a belt for every rumored flirtation; and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), who treats her as though she’s a neurotic patient under his care. There’s a lot of nudity and steamy sex, of course, as Monroe finds herself passed around like a cocktail napkin from one wolf to another until she’s finally servicing President Kennedy while he’s in bed and on the phone. 

I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony that what Dominik ends up doing to his lead actress de Armas is what he accuses so many men of doing to Monroe: objectifying her to the point of exploitation. Despite some impressive technical flourishes, Blonde is just another sleazy peep show.

The Fabelmans took its bow in mid-November. Steven Spielberg’s newest film has been called his most personal because the script that he wrote with West Side Story collaborator Tony Kushner uses material from his own biography in telling the story of young Sammy Fabelman (relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle): a boy so smitten with the magic of movies that he devotes himself almost exclusively to making his own.

Sammy’s parents and siblings aren’t quite the all-American family that Sammy might want them to be in the home movies he makes. His father, Burt (Paul Dano), is an engineering wonk who’s so absorbed in his own career that he blithely ignores the manic-depressive struggles of his wife, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who seems to be involved with Burt’s best friend and workmate, Bennie (Seth Rogen). 

Bennie has insinuated himself so deeply into the family that the kids call him “Uncle,” and the Fabelmans can’t travel anywhere without taking him along. That makes for a rather unusual family dynamic, which gives the film whatever dramatic tension it’s able to create and sustain.

This might be the most episodic and loosely plotted film Spielberg will ever make, which frees him to cultivate some of the best acting performances he’s ever directed. Both Dano and Williams have never been better, and even Rogen takes a break from mugging to make Bennie a recognizable human being. And LaBelle, whose résumé is pretty slight, captures the essence of how we (and Spielberg?) might have imagined the world’s most famous director to be as a teenager: cocky, irreverent and moody, to be sure, but with a firm vision of the world he wants to create through his camera lens. 

The Fabelmans looks like a safe bet for numerous Oscar nominations, including Spielberg’s eighth for directing (he’s won twice). The film will likely stream on Peacock sometime in late January.

Babylon burst into movie theaters just before Christmas, much like the elephant that interrupts a vintage roaring-twenties drunken orgy at a studio exec’s mansion outside L.A. in the scene that begins the film. This is supposedly Hollywood during its “silent era,” when the only thing that was quiet was the movies. Everything else was a scream until The Jazz Singer shut everyone up.

Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar for La La Land, tells the story of three people caught in the transition: aging matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), ingenue Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and Mexican American go-fer Manny Torres (Diego Calva). The story follows their numerous intersections and sexual entanglements as they travel the roads to fortune and fame, then oblivion and despair.

Chazelle knows how to competently stage chaotic action involving hundreds of extras on set, but he has questionable taste and no restraint. The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain covered the same ground as Babylon, but at half the running time and without an elephant defecating on a hapless roadie or a geek eating live rats in the sewers. Yuck.

Babylon is only in theaters now but will probably stream on Paramount+ sometime in mid-February.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.