When Hollywood Turns The Camera On Itself

Two movies about movies — The Artist and Hugo — are up for the 2012 Academy Award for best picture. Hollywood has a unique way of making films that depict life in Tinseltown. Film buff Murray Horwitz discusses Hollywood films that deal with the glitz, glamor and harsh realities of Hollywood.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Roll out the red carpet and queue Billy Crystal. Oscar night is almost upon us. But whoever wins, Hollywood can never accept - expect an acceptance speech more dramatic than the one immortalized by Hollywood itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A STAR IS BORN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) As you know, this program is being broadcast all over the world. Before you sing for us, I know that your millions of fans everywhere are hoping you'll say a few words to them. Won't you?

JUDY GARLAND: (as Vicki Lester) Yes. Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.

CONAN: Judy Garland, of course, "A Star is Born." Two other movies about the movies are up for Best Picture this year - "The Artist" and "Hugo." So let's get your nominee for all-time tops on Tinseltown. What's your favorite movie about Hollywood? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our favorite film buff Murray Horwitz joins us here in Studio 3A. Murray, always good to have you on the program.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: Good to be here as always. Thank you.

CONAN: And there are rules on this...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...as always.

HORWITZ: There are always rules. I'm a tough man. As always, no TV. We're not talking about TV shows or films made for TV. These are...

CONAN: No Broadway.

HORWITZ: No, no, no Broadway. No films about Broadway or about show business. These are - these aren't - or about filmmaking per se. These are specifically about Hollywood whom we celebrate, as you say, and who celebrates itself this weekend. No "Hugo." No Fellini's "8 1/2" or "Nine," for that matter. No "Living in Oblivion." No "Boogie Nights." This is a - and not films about Los Angeles. So, no "Chinatown." No "Devil in a Blue Dress." In a way, there are thousands of films about Hollywood because...

CONAN: Sure.

HORWITZ: ...there all those making-of documentaries that are part of the DVD extras.

CONAN: Yeah. No, they don't count, either.

HORWITZ: OK. But - and here's another one where I'm sure our listeners will have many examples that I've overlooked, because there's a zillion of them...

CONAN: There are a zillion of them.

HORWITZ: ...including some star biography pics like "The George Raft Story." I don't have that on my list.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: But I know that - I know it's out there.

CONAN: There are also - interestingly enough, we're talking about Oscars - no movie about movies has ever won the Oscar.

HORWITZ: Has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture,...

CONAN: No. I don't think so.

HORWITZ: I think you're right about that. But there are a lot that have been nominated and have won Oscars, but not - never Best Picture Oscar. And there may be a reason for that because, as I say, the Oscars are the point at which Hollywood officially celebrates itself. And we don't only tolerate it. We love it. But one thing that interests me is that for all of Hollywood's vaunted self-promotion and celebration, very few of these films celebrate Hollywood. They show the bleak side, the commercialism, the heartlessness, you know, the rapaciousness, the human costs. And interestingly, one of the very first was one of my favorite movies stars, Mabel Normand's "The Extra Girl." It's a Mack Sennett comedy.

CONAN: Oh, let's play an excerpt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: All right. Let's - there it is. Wonderful film.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Hilarious.

HORWITZ: Beautiful, beautiful comedienne.

CONAN: Yes. And beautiful cinematography.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: But it's...

CONAN: But...

HORWITZ: It's true - it's usually about the bleak side, as I say. And so maybe that's why it's never won Best Picture because some of these are really, really rough, you know?

CONAN: And they are. And there are, you know, probably - there's combination noir Hollywood movies.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: There's combination - all singing and all dancing...

HORWITZ: Yep. Yeah.

CONAN: ...all the time. It's, you know, from Busby Berkeley, though most of those were about Broadway.

HORWITZ: Yeah. But some were about Hollywood.

CONAN: Then you go all the way to, as you suggest, well, the darker side.

HORWITZ: Yeah. I mean, "The Bad and the Beautiful," which is one of my favorites with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner and Dick Powell - and a not-inaccurate picture, I think, of Hollywood. The other one which is a comedy that sort of makes fun of it - and there are several movies in this genre that take on the transition from silence to talkies, but the greatest of all is "Singin' in the Rain."

CONAN: Of course. And don't you want to see "The Laughing Cavalier"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: That's right - "The Laughing" - with Don - what's his name? Don and - Lamont. Lamont and somebody or other. But anyway, it's very true that some of the sort of holes in the Hollywood myth are often focused on by these features.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jessica, Jessica with us from Ben Lomond in California.

JESSICA: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

JESSICA: Hi. I just wanted to add from that "Singing in the Rain," Lockwood and Lamont. It's...

CONAN: Lockwood and Lamont.

HORWITZ: Thank you. Don Lockwood, that's it.

JESSICA: But I do love that movie, but I also love "Sunset Boulevard." I don't know if that qualifies as being exactly about the movies, but...

HORWITZ: Absolutely.

CONAN: Absolutely. This is, of course, the great Gloria Swanson, and, well, she plays Norma Desmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SUNSET BOULEVARD")

WILLIAM HOLDEN: (as Joe Gillis) You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.

GLORIA SWANSON: (as Norma Desmond) I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

CONAN: And, of course, the great Erich von Stroheim.

HORWITZ: Erich von Stroheim in one of the most twisted and wonderful roles ever created in Hollywood. No, that's one of the greats. And one of the things to mention is that that's by the great Billy Wilder. And, you know, just as some of the best poems are about poetry - and when I studied English literature at Canyon College, they had a little volume called "The Mirror's Garland." It was all poems about poetry, and some of them are great. Some of the best Hollywood movies are about Hollywood, and Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Vincente Minnelli, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Joseph von Sternberg, I mean the Coen brothers, they've all made movies about Hollywood.

CONAN: Jessica, what about "Sunset Boulevard" particularly strikes your fancy?

JESSICA: Well, the funniest thing is I'm in my 40s and seen it not too long ago. She's 50, you know, and she's...

CONAN: Considered really old.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JESSICA: (Unintelligible) and when I had seen it when I was much younger, I pictured her about 75 or something because, you know, she seems like an old-time Hollywood starlet. But just everything about it - it's got a creepiness and she's so good, and the butler is straight out of sort of "The Munsters." I don't know. I just - I really like that.

CONAN: Didn't do much for the Hollywood pool scene, but other than that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JESSICA: Yes.

HORWITZ: Great opening scene.

JESSICA: It's pretty grim.

HORWITZ: I agree with you, Jessica. You know, I just saw "Hugo," which is a wonderful film by Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Lee is in it, who's darn near 90, and he's looking younger to me every day.

CONAN: And wonderful in that picture.

HORWITZ: Yeah. He really is.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see. We go next to - this is Alex, and Alex with us from Panama, California.

ALEX: Sonoma, California.

CONAN: Sonoma. If anybody could spell it in the other room, we got it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: I love the Sonoma Canal. It's one of my favorites.

ALEX: Right. And I swim in it every day.

CONAN: Hopefully doing the backstroke, but go ahead.

ALEX: Yeah. Yeah. My favorite movie that's very campy was "Mommie Dearest," with Joan - about Joan Crawford and starring Faye Dunaway.

CONAN: And this is - well, it's got to be the hanger sequence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOMMIE DEAREST")

FAYE DUNAWAY: (as Joan Crawford) No wire hangers. What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers ever?

CONAN: And I've gone to wood ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALEX: Yeah. And I think that that was a pertinent scene for the times. That was just the era where child abuse issues came out in the open and things started to change.

HORWITZ: It's very true, and it's a good point to make because at that time this was a big sensation, the book and especially the movie, and Faye Dunaway's performance was, you know, it just sort of galvanizes, it's very over-the-top, but it needed that. And also one of my favorite sort of cameo - well, I guess it's a cameo - Howard da Silva plays Samuel Goldwyn, and he's a power.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Alex. Let's go from child abuse to Joan Crawford abuse at the hands of Bette Davis and "Who's Afraid of Baby Jane?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHAT EVEN HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")

JOAN CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You wouldn't be able to do this awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.

BETTE DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) But you are, Blanche. You are in that chair.

CONAN: Of course I did it because I can.

HORWITZ: That's right. "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" It's a Robert Aldrich picture, and Aldrich directed like four or five pictures about Hollywood. This is another one that, at that time, was a huge sensation. It was Bette Davis - and talk about sort of camp heroines. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, I think, together for the first time, and they were absolute - I mean, the fact that they were making this like kind of twisted horror movie was, I don't know, terror movie, I should say - was big news at that time. And (unintelligible) it was very successful because it delivered.

CONAN: Here's an email from Paul Isam(ph): I love Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels," which start out amazingly similarly to "The Artist," which I also loved.

HORWITZ: That's true, it - come to think of it, it does.

CONAN: It starts in Hollywood, and it goes abroad.

HORWITZ: Yeah, it does. I didn't have it on my list originally, but Paul brings - makes a good point because it is about, you know, the director who's, you know, the Hollywood director who wants to find himself. There are several pictures about, you know, the dilemma between commercialism and art. And you know me, I'm a sucker for, not only for comedy, but for a comic master like Preston Sturges.

CONAN: Here's an email. This from Brandon in St. Louis: My vote goes to "Get Shorty." I love the little mannerisms they give to Danny DeVito. I work with a lot of local celebrities that are similar and they can be difficult to work with, but damn, are they talented. Of course, the 1995 film by Barry Sonnenfeld. Here's depicting a deal gone wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GET SHORTY")

GENE HACKMAN: (as Harry) I'm talking about you, Ray Barboni, owning a piece of a major motion picture. How much of a piece is entirely up to you. What I'm saying is, you could invest part of the 300 grand that Palmer owes you or all of it. It's entirely up to you.

DENNIS FARINA: (as Ray Barboni) Where's Chili Palmer? Where's Leo Devoe? Where's my (bleep) money?

CONAN: And, well, that gets down to the point now, doesn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: It's great, you know, it's - the cast alone - I mean, this is a movie - first of all, it's based on an Elmore Leonard novel. There's Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, John Travolta, Delroy Lindo. It's a wonderful movie about Hollywood and very twisted and very funny.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Andrew. Andrew with us from Sacramento.

ANDREW: Hi. Good morning.

CONAN: Hi. Well, go ahead.

ANDREW: Yeah. My favorite - well, I've two favorite movies about Hollywood. One is Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," and my other would be "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

HORWITZ: Right. And "The Kid Stays" - and thank you for mentioning our first documentary because there are a couple of documentaries about Hollywood that are very, very telling, very revealing. "The Kid Stays in the Picture," based on the memoir by Robert Evans, and which I recommend to anybody who wants to know how Hollywood works, or at least worked...

ANDREW: Amazing, yeah.

HORWITZ: ...in the 1960s and '70s, and also the story behind some of the greatest and most popular films of all time, like "The Godfather." But "The Aviator" from 2004...

CONAN: Was up for a best picture, didn't get it.

HORWITZ: ...was up for the best - yeah. Yep, yep, yep. And another sort of time that Martin Scorsese didn't win the best director award.

CONAN: He may have that experience yet again.

HORWITZ: Right. But it's the Hollywood part of Howard Hughes, impersonated here by Leonardo DiCaprio in a great acting performance. The - it's only a part of Howard Hughes's career, but it's interesting, of course, that famous scene where he crashes in Beverly Hills. And when they pull him out of the wreckage, he says I'm Howard Hughes, the aviator.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the phone call.

ANDREW: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz, our favorite movie buff, as we're approaching Oscar night, Hollywood on Hollywood. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, of course, there are, as you suggested, films celebrating great directors, great performers and then some of not so great, maybe Ed Wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ED WOOD")

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Ed Wood) And they're always trying to cast their buddies. It doesn't even matter if they're right for the part.

VINCENT D'ONOFRIO: (as Orson Welles) Tell me about it. I'm supposed to do a thriller for Universal. But they want Charlton Heston as a Mexican.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: Which didn't work out so bad, you know?

CONAN: It didn't. But he did get an Oscar, but for...

HORWITZ: Orson Welles?

CONAN: Yeah.

HORWITZ: But...

CONAN: No, no, no. I was thinking, the actor that we just...

HORWITZ: Oh, the actor. The actor is Johnny Depp, yes, thank you very much. In this he meets Orson Welles at Musso and Frank's in Hollywood, and it's a wonderful, wonderful scene. This is a great movie. And you're right, it celebrates - this is one of the few that celebrates Hollywood and moviemaking because he did all of his work in Hollywood. And just the sheer joy of it. It's great. My son, who's a filmmaker, loves this movie because even if you make bad movies, there's just something wonderful about making movies.

And there's one other point I want to make, Neal, that this whole area is an example of a big difference between movies and plays. It's almost an axiom of playwriting - I remember the playwright Ruth Getz once said that the audience doesn't give a hoot about the sufferings of the artist. You know, will the boy get the girl, and where's the deed to the ranch? You can write a play about that. But in a film, the struggles of the artist, particularly people who make movies, can be a very, very compelling subject.

CONAN: You mentioned Orson Welles. He, of course, makes a cameo in another movie about movies. It's "The Muppet Movie."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MUPPET")

JIM HENSON: (as Kermit the Frog) Please, sir. My name is Kermit the Frog, and we read your ad, and, well, we've come to be rich and famous.

ORSON WELLES: (as Lew Lord) It's crazy. Prepare the standard rich and famous contract for Kermit the Frog and company.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: This is the first muppet movie, let's remember, and it's a really great satire of a lot of stuff, but particularly of Hollywood there.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. Let's go to Lyn(ph). Lyn with us from Greensboro, North Carolina.

LYN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

LYN: Hi. My favorite movie is Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles."

CONAN: "Blazing Saddles," I think of it as a Western. I mean, there is a set there, but a movie about a movie?

LYN: They build a set. They - at the end, when they are falling into and running into the sets of various movies, when the older white cowboy is holding the head of the older white dancer in his lap, they're talking about problems in the industry, problems with pay, problems with retirement.

CONAN: I'll give you "Silent Movie."

HORWITZ: I was just going to say, where's "Silent Movie" in all of this? That's a Hollywood satire.

CONAN: But in any case, an interesting nomination. But thanks very much for the phone call. Mongo Santamaria...

HORWITZ: Right, right, right. The Count Basie Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: In the meantime, I'm going to - well, we've already mentioned it, but it's got to be, I think, the best Hollywood on Hollywood movie...

HORWITZ: Let's hear it.

CONAN: "Singing in the Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SINGING IN THE RAIN")

MILLARD MITCHELL: Don, believe me. It will be a sensation. Lamont and Lockwood, they talk.

JEAN HAGEN: Well, of course we talk. Don't everybody?

CONAN: Of course, everybody talks.

HORWITZ: The amazing Jean Hagen, who was nominated for that performance. It's hard to get nominated for a comedy performance, and she's a terrific actress. And, yeah, you're right. I agree that's the best, but...

CONAN: But the Murray goes to?

HORWITZ: ...the Murray goes to, you know, rarely does a movie get to actually save lives, Neal. And there is a documentary by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler called "Who Needs Sleep?" And it's - people get killed making movies. People don't realize how hard it is to make movies. And it's about sleep deprivation and the avoidable deaths that happen because of it in Hollywood moviemaking. So I recommend it, "Who Needs Sleep?"

CONAN: Here's an excerpt. Julia Roberts in the documentary "Who Needs Sleep?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHO NEEDS SLEEP?")

JULIA ROBERTS: In business that we're in, there is a great tendency to overwork people. As an actor, I am given a kind of union buffer in that I have to be allowed a certain number of hours between the time I leave work and the time I have to come back to work. I really see that as a great privilege. I'm so glad that somewhere along the line somebody did that for actors, because it really is helpful.

CONAN: Murray, thanks as always.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Neal. Always a pleasure.

CONAN: And look forward to it on Oscar night.

HORWITZ: Yes.

CONAN: Murray would like to thank two people for helping him out on his research for this segment, Alex Horwitz and Sam Wasson. "Who Needs Sleep?" We're going back to "Singing in the Rain." Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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