Being a behind-the-scenes “fixer” in 1950s Hollywood isn’t an easy job. Studio damage-control can be a stressful, long-hours, uphill slog when you’ve got a cavalcade of beautiful, self-absorbed movie stars to babysit. And for a guy like Eddie Mannix—a fella who runs to confession every few hours out of guilt over sneaking cigarettes and thereby fibbing to his wife—you might think it would be an impossible profession.
But the movie biz is in Eddie’s blood.
Hey, other businesses have sought out Eddie’s skill set. In fact, there’s a lucrative offer on the table right now from Lockheed Aviation. But it’s tough to chuck aside what he knows. He believes in what this madhouse called Hollywood can create. He understands that a movie up on that big screen can impact people. It can make a difference.
And so can Eddie.
For instance, he can assure that the supposedly demure DeeAnna Moran’s, uh, less than demure out-of-wedlock pregnancy is kept under wraps—and thereby keep her lavish aquatic epic on schedule. He can set up stars on highly publicized dates to make sure the public gets a heartthrob thrill … while keeping the press away from more, shall we say, salacious stories.
Right now Eddie is most focused on the famous actor Baird Whitlock. While working on a biblical swords-and-sandals drama, the leading-man lunkhead has gone missing again. But this time it isn’t some drunken tryst. This time it seems to be something closer to … kidnapping!
A group calling itself “The Future” has made a demand of $100,000 for his release. And, unfortunately, its members didn’t wait until Whitlock had filmed the final big scene. So Eddie will have to do whatever it takes; he’ll have to fix things today. Otherwise, several times that ransom amount could be lost in stalled-production fees. Not to mention what might happen if the gossip rags get wind of it!
Oh well, it’s just another roll-up-your-sleeves kind of day in the life of one Eddie Mannix. Looks like he’ll have to go to confession early today.
Eddie’s hard work is worth calling out here. He crosses a few moral lines, of course, in the call of duty. (This is Hollywood we’re talking about here!) But his dedication is impressive and inspirational. We also see that he wants to make the best choices for the sake of his family. And while it’s played for laughs that he goes running to the priest all the time, it’s still a good thing that Eddie feels the guilt of lying to his wife.
Hobie Doyle is a singing cowboy actor who also goes the extra mile in everything he does. And he puts himself in potential harm’s way to help a fellow actor he believes is in danger.
The big-budget picture that Capitol Studios is creating is an epic Cecil B. DeMille-like film called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. We see several sequences from this film within a film, including the crucifixion scene. Its on-set nature is a bit overdramatic, of course. And in one instance, an actor forgetting his line replaces it with profanity.
In an attempt to make sure the script won’t offend anyone, Eddie gathers a number of local religious figures who discuss the film’s subject matter. A priest speaks at length and with great passion about the divinity of God’s Son. A pastor at the meeting agrees with him heartily. A Jewish rabbi balks at the idea of that title being applied to Jesus.
Eddie goes to confession several times within a 48-hour period. His priest suggests that he might be a bit too frequent in his visits but still listens patiently to his parishioner. He also helps Eddie with one particular struggle, stating clearly that God desires that we do what’s right. We see Eddie praying with his rosary beads. The camera studies a crucifix.
DeeAnna Moran wears a tight mermaid suit that sports cleavage. Another actress in a pinup photo shoot wears a sexy milkmaid’s costume.
We’re told of a salacious rumor involving two men caught in the act of sodomy. It’s also stated that Baird Wilkins is known for having afternoon trysts with younger women. In fact, when his wife is questioned about his disappearance, she tells studio officials to go “try one of his chippies.” DeeAnna states that she’s “pretty sure” who the father of her baby is.
A dance scene featuring a room full of soon-to-ship-out sailors winks at the “gayness” of them all dancing together while singing of the “dames” they’ll be leaving behind. Hints of that also pop up in one of the dancer’s personal life.
Eddie literally slaps some sense into two different actors (a man and a woman). Men are “whipped” in the context of a movie scene. During his cowboy pic scenes, Hobie “shoots” several bad guys. And the crucifixion scene shows Jesus’ feet while He hangs on the cross.
One misuse of Jesus’ name. A half-dozen uses of “d–n” and a couple uses each of “a–,” “h—” and “b–ch.”
Nearly everyone lights up cigarettes or a pipe at some point in this 1950s comedy. Baird drinks a martini, and another fellow has a Mai Tai with lunch. An extra mixes a powdered drug into Baird’s drink, causing the actor to stagger and pass out.
Eddie lies to gossip columnists and bribes cops. DeeAnna says the studio “broke up” her two previous marriages because her husbands were deemed “inappropriate.”
As with most of the Coen brothers’ pictures, Hail, Caesar! is a well-crafted affair. Unlike many of them, you could slip into this star-studded pic with a bucket of popcorn and a box of Milk Duds and step back out by credit’s roll with a sense that you had just seen something quirky and eclectic but also light on the language and other content concerns. (Note that light is a relative term here, naturally, since there are still issues to be found, most of which I’ve already walked through.)
An homage of sorts to the 1940s and ’50s Hollywood studio system, the film’s stylish on-set production numbers and nods to icons like Esther Williams, Audie Murphy and Hedda Hopper—and its winks at the behind-the-scenes muscle of yesteryear’s moviemaking biz—are completely entertaining. And watching today’s top talent take on this tap-dancing, rope-twirling, problem-fixing grand satire is grand fun, too.
Of course there’s always more than “surface” to a Coen collaboration—just as there was always more than twinkling smiles and great dance moves behind all those real-world pics from Hollywood’s Golden Age. And in this case, we’re challenged with the underlying message to think about the things of life we have faith in.
From the film’s gaggle of cig-sucking, communist intellectuals to its completely self-absorbed movie stars to its studio fixers to its movie set crucifixion scene to a man’s repeated Catholic confessional visits, there’s a lot of rumination here on the faithful passions that motivate us. There are even questions raised about the passion and faith we moviegoers invest in movies themselves.
The Coens have always liked to ask questions more than they like to answer them. So they sew in a lot of personal leeway here, letting viewers process what they see onscreen in whatever way they may desire. And that means the film’s more spiritually focused scenes, for instance, could well be interpreted by some as something of a comedic slap at Christians. On the other hand, even the most farcical of those moments have a certain balanced poignancy about them—and ultimately deliver bits of solid biblical truth about God and Jesus in some of the most straightforward language you’ve likely ever heard in a (modern) big budget movie.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.