It’s pretty rare that a medium takes off its mask and talks about what it’s like to be itself. The medium of film is one of the few mediums that can pull this off. It’s surprisingly rare when a movie manages to be about making movies, though. It’s like Penn & Teller inviting you backstage to watch while they stuff the rabbits into their suit. Hollywood prefers to work its illusions, and we prefer to see them.
When the film medium does get to talk about itself, it tends to be a fun time for all around. People in the film business do tend towards the vain side, after all. With that said, here are the best 3 examples we could find of this rarest of self-examining mediums caught in the act.
Movies About Movies #3: Bowfinger
Directed by Frank Oz, better known as the voice of Yoda and the director of the previous Steve Martin hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this film was a unique pairing of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy – two comedy stars who added up to more than the sum of their parts. The movie posters even trumpeted this: “Together for the first time!” Martin is Bobby Bowfinger, an indie film director on a shoestring budget (maybe even half a shoestring) who has promised to deliver top star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) in order to get funding. There’s just one snag: Ramsey doesn’t get out of bed for the kind of money Bowfinger is offering, so Bowfinger plans to film Ramsey on the sly.
As a movie about making movies, this works great as a central parody vehicle. Murphy gets to tear up spoiled “prima donna” actor stereotypes, and Martin gets to take a shot at the “auteur” director whose ambitions and pretensions far outweigh his budget. There’s even Heather Graham as studio assistant Daisy, a parody of the Hollywood tramp determined to sleep her way to the top. When Ramsey turns out to belong to a religious cult called “MindHead” which affects his career, it’s such a clear stand-in for Scientology that it’s impossible to miss. A jolly romp all around.
Movies About Movies #2: Entourage
When it comes to movies about making movies, Entourage feels like it got to cheat on the final exam. As the inevitable film to cap off the successful HBO original series which ran eight seasons, it had already said and done so much of its subject matter that this film feels like it has nothing left to do beyond to write “The End.” So the story is just Vincent Chase and his little gang from the series take off on a quest to secure funding from a Texas millionaire so Chase can make his directorial debut. But in reality, the plot is little more than a road-trip framework for everybody’s happy endings.
It’s a good thing, because the whole film is stuffed to groaning capacity with celebrity cameos getting to play themselves. The lineup is transparent stunt-casting; every five minutes it’s saying “Look who we got hold of this time!” Warren Buffett, Pharrell Williams, Mike Tyson, Bob Saget, Andrew Dice Clay, and Mark Cuban, themselves names you’d never think you’d see on the same film stock, and they’re just getting started. The movie is so busy dashing madly from one cameo to the next that it feels more like a David Letterman skit that got out of hand than a cohesive story. Still, this is Entourage we’re talking about, and fans had no right to expect anything less.
Movies About Movies #1: Get Shorty
And now we come to the stylish entry. Get Shorty had a pretty good showing at the box office in its time. It also had the star power of John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, and James Gandolfini, plus being based on a novel by the celebrated author Elmore Leonard. And there’s even many fun cameos by the likes of Penny Marshall and Harvey Keitel. Of all the “making movies about movies” …movies, this one stands out as the most fun to watch, and very obviously was the most fun to make.
It’s also the least about making movies. Instead, the story focuses on the executive level and the complicated chain of schemes behind the scenes to finagle funding for an eventual movie to be made. Being an Elmore Leonard novel, the twisty plot defies description in a mere recap, but it has more to do with gangsters trying to out-gangster each other while vying for control of a creative Hollywood product. One could substitute a drug empire or a casino as the central MacGuffin everybody is fighting over and not change very much. At the end, the resolution all but dismisses one five-second shot of the film actually being made. Along the way, though, there is plenty of satire of Hollywood culture, and several casting stunts which forces the characters to pretend that DeVito makes a good Hollywood tough guy.
What can we conclude from these examples? Hollywood is still shy in front of the microphone when talking about itself. There’s certainly plenty of room to innovate more in this vein, but it’s also rare to make a movie about the film trade and have it really work well.