Hail, Caesar! Homage to Hollywood Golden Age

Hail, Caesar! is an homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, a valentine to the studio system laced with a lovingly acerbic edge. The film celebrates the dream factory, while cleverly pulling back the curtain to reveal Capitol Pictures’ headliner, Baird Whitlock, wakes up to find himself very kidnapped.

The comedy is set in the early 1950s, a period for the motion picture industry when its glamorous façade was beginning to show visible cracks. The major studios had recently been forced to divest themselves of their theaters and were facing the sudden growth of a new rival: television. They were also beset by changes in the post-World War II political and social landscape, including the hysteria of the Red Scare and the Cold War.

Hollywood responded to these threats, real and imagined, by providing audiences with big, splashy escapist entertainments: wide-screen Biblical epics featuring casts of thousands, bold Technicolor movie musicals and Busby Berkeley-style aquatic spectaculars, as well as a supply of Westerns and sophisticated drawing-room dramas.

The well-oiled machine was run like a fiefdom, with studio bosses exerting tight control over every aspect of their talents’ professional and private lives.  Careers were shaped and manicured. Stars were told what movies they could appear in, how to dress, and who to date. When, inevitably, some of the actors chafed or rebelled, studios employed a fixer to cover up indiscretions and keep them out of the public eye. No cost was too great to maintain the illusion of glamour.

“Today, we’re so used to knowing every little thing about actors and celebrities and digging into the deep dark truths of their lives,” observes Scarlett Johansson, who plays DeeAnna Moran, an aquatic film star loosely patterned on Esther Williams. “Back then, the public wanted to believe that the stars were in fact as otherworldly and ideal as they were being projected. The studios did more to protect their ‘trophies’ back in that system. The stars were like property, under contract forever and could be loaned out at any time. There were good things about that system and bad. On the one hand, they were taken care of, and on the other, it could be rather suffocating.”

Back in the day, stars were protected by the likes of Eddie Mannix, the fi xer for the fi ctitious Capitol Pictures. The character is a composite of the real Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, who performed the same function for MGM. Mannix, a former bouncer, spends his days putting out fires, from sexual peccadilloes to coaxing religious leaders to approve the latest Biblical spectacle.

Explains Ethan Coen: “His job would be to find some movie star down in San Diego drunk, and retrieve him and pay off all the people that he offended along the way, or get somebody who is secretly gay married off.”

The idea for Hail, Caesar! originated more than a decade ago, according to George Clooney, the Oscar- winning actor who appears as the vain and spoiled Baird Whitlock, the star of the Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, which gives this film its name.

Clooney was starring in another Coen brothers’ project when the filmmakers approached him. “At the time,” Clooney recalls, “they asked if I wanted to play this actor who gets kidnapped. They had about three pages of plot written down and a few terrific lines. That’s it. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”

Over the years, when journalists asked Clooney about his upcoming projects, he’d inevitably mention Hail, Caesar! “It even showed up on IMDB,” Clooney laughs. “But here’s the thing. There was no script.”

Joel Coen reaffirms the story: “It’s true. Finally, we got so much grief, that we decided to sit down and write the script. Besides, it was time. If we waited much longer, everyone we wanted for the fi lm would be too old for their roles.”

At the same time as they comically send up the more hypocritical aspects of the studio system, the Coen brothers showed great respect and admiration for the professionalism and craftsmanship that characterized Hollywood’s Golden Age. Through the various movies being shot on the Capitol lot—and on location in and around Los Angeles—we follow the on- and off-screen lives of those whom Mannix protects.

Working Title’s Eric Fellner was pleased to be back on board with the Coens. He reflects: “Tim and I have been so fortunate to work with Joel and Ethan for so many years. This film is not only a culmination of their work, it’s a reflection of their love of the industry. It’s no surprise that so many of their favored performers have returned to be a part of it, and we so appreciate the obvious care for the material and unparalleled craftsmanship they’ve delivered.”