The Coen brothers delve into Hollywood’s golden age in Hail, Caesar! – and their cast is in on the joke, says Tony Earnshaw.
After signing up to play dimbulb convicts, sex addicts and legal eagles for writer-director duo Joel and Ethan Coen, George Clooney should have learned that these two individuals are not to be trusted.
Thus in Hail, Caesar! – a spottily superb nostalgia trip through studio-era Hollywood replete with the motley denizens that made it tick – he’s a non-too-bright leading man whose star quality is handed to him by the hard-boiled studio chief.
This is less ‘Gorgeous George’ than a channelling of any number of beefcake hunks. Given he’s making with the holy look in a biblical epic curiously reminiscent of The Robe, maybe he’s Victor Mature. Whoever he is, the Coens call him Baird Whitlock. And he’s as dumb as a bag of hammers…
“I’ve done four films now with these guys and every time they send me a script they say, ‘You’re gonna play a knucklehead’ and I’m always willing to do it. But I didn’t really know I was going to be this stupid in a film.
“They sent me Burn After Reading and said, ‘We wrote this part with you in mind!’ – the biggest jackass who’s got a sex toy in the basement. I said, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’” He laughs hard. “Then they say, ‘You’re a willing imbecile who falls in with writers who happen to be Communists.’ So I’ve greatly enjoyed how much fun they make of me along the way.”
Clooney’s never had a problem mocking himself or, more importantly, tinkering with his established persona as handsome movie star. In fact his turn as Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a high point in a string of eclectic performances during the late 90s and early 2000s.
He leads an astonishingly impressive cast in Hail, Caesar! It includes Ralph Fiennes as an assiduous director, Scarlett Johansson as an aquastar in the style of Esther Williams, and Josh Brolin as studio chief Eddie Mannix. The real Mannix was said to have been a ‘fixer’ who protected the stars in his care by staving off negative publicity about their private lives. His reputation fired the Coens’ imagination.
“The original idea for the movie came from us thinking about Eddie Mannix – the actual Eddie Mannix whose character was quite different from the character that Josh plays,” says Joel Coen.
“Eddie Mannix the fixer, Eddie Mannix the man who made the problems go away. So that was interesting to us. There is an aspect to how movies were made [in Hollywood at that time] – a factory for making movies was such a beautifully designed thing that there was a moment of… not nostalgia but affection and admiration for it, I think.”
It’s the Coens’ evident delight in detailing the various travails that affect fictional Capitol Pictures – miscast stars who can’t act (cowboy Alden Ehrenreich playing a toffee-nosed lover), vulture-like gossip columnists hovering around (Tilda Swinton in dual roles as Thora and Thessaly Thacker), and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock – that underlines the movie.
Swinton was sufficiently impressed by her characters that she created a backstory for them. Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor (it was Hollywood, after all) named Burt Gurney could barely wait to sign on the dotted line.
“It was great fun,” says Swinton. “To make this film was at least if not more enjoyable to make than to watch. We all had these fantasies about what else lay beneath. My fantasy about the Thacker twins was that they’d been put on the stage by some incredibly competitive stage mother. They had failed to be movie stars and they were bitter and competitive with one another and so they turned into these genius journalists.”
Clearly the Coens have reached the status of Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg in that they write scripts with specific people in mind, and they land the big fish. Thus Hail, Caesar! is scattered with nifty little cameos, such as Dolph Lundgren playing the commander of a submarine.
Following in Clooney’s footsteps is Josh Brolin who, like 55-year-old Clooney, has previous experience of the Coens and their casting practices. First came 2007’s No Country for Old Men, then 2010’s True Grit. Brolin sees no trace of himself in any of his characters.
“I’ve always personally been a brat [in movies] so to actually turn this around and play a father figure was a lot of fun,” says the 48-year-old. “I was surprised they hired me for something like this, but it was fun.”
He even gets to slap some courage back into a quivering Clooney. Was that fun, too? Brolin smiles. “Oh, always, yes. I think it’s something that everybody has wanted to do at some point in their lives.” Clooney, looking on, shakes his head in mock indignation. Attention turns back to Clooney the actor, producer, sometime director and humanitarian whose cinematic CV is equally littered with commercial smashes and smaller, more personal pictures.
Why doesn’t he do more of the quality work that gave audiences films like Syriana – which garnered him an Oscar – or Good Night, and Good Luck? Clooney accepts the question in the spirit it was asked. “It’s very difficult to make a ‘subject’ film. You have to have the characters and reason to make it. I’ve often struggled with the idea to make a film about the Sudan and Darfur, which is a subject that’s very close to me.
“It’s a tough thing to do. You don’t want to do it badly because you only get one chance. So I appreciate the request and it certainly doesn’t fall on deaf ears at all.”
Hail, Caesar! (12A) is out now.
The Coen brothers’ brilliant career
Joel (born in 1954) and Ethan (born 1957) Coen have been making off-kilter dramas and comedies since their feature debut Blood Simple in 1984.
They are a magnet for established stars eager to test themselves. Among the first to step up was Paul Newman in The Hudsucker Proxy. They have created an unofficial repertory of actors which includes John Turturro and George Clooney.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has shot the majority of their films.
They have shared four Oscar wins and four more nominations for films as varied as Fargo and Bridge of Spies.