Summer of ’92: Hollywood Plays Itself

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Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

The ‘Summer of ’92’ has come to an end. This is the last installment of the summer series. I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t a lot of work to do this “summer series”. I enjoyed it a lot, but it proved to be much more stressful than I anticipated. In any case, I do plan to keep the idea of special “summer series” going, just maybe not in this format. I guess you will have to wait until next year to find out what I ultimately decide to do, for now, you can enjoy this last entry, about two movies that talk about movies themselves, or at least certain aspects.

Death Becomes Her and The Player can both be categorized as Hollywood satires. In the case of Death Becomes Her, though, the movie makes fun of a very specific aspect of celebrity: the drive and constant pressure to remain young at all costs. The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, stars Meryl Streep as a famous actress who uses her sex appeal to steal accountant Bruce Willis from her good friend Goldie Hawn soon before they are about to get married. Years later, Streep and Willis’s characters are married, and Goldie Hawn reappears in a rejuvenated body. Streep soon discovers that the secret to eternal youth lies in an expensive potion guarded by some sort of sorceress played by the incredibly sensual Isabella Rossellini.

This wasn’t a very successful movie at the time of its release, and it’s easy to see why. Death Becomes Her is a deeply weird movie. You must know, since you just read my attempt at describing its plot. Its sense of humor is dark and campy to a degree that most hit comedies of the early nineties simply were not. It revels in excess, from something as elemental as the larger-than-life performances of the three leads, to details dressing Isabella Rossellini in as revealing clothes as they can get away with. But just like that last aspect suggests, this wasn’t a crazy throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of production. Zemeckis seems to have been especially cautious of brining a specific story to the screen in the most appropriate way, it just happens that said story is best told in as campy a way as possible. One of the signs that Zemeckis was taking this whole thing seriously, for example, is the constant use of mirrors to represent the characters’ obsession with vanity. It’s almost as if there isn’t a single scene in the movie that doesn’t feature a mirror or some other kind of reflective surface.

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Isabella Rossellini’s breasts are barely covered in ‘Death Becomes Her’.

The thing Death Becomes Her was most notable for back when it debuted was its avant-garde use of visual effects. You must remember that, at this point in time, CGI and computer-generated visual effects were a novelty (Terminator 2 had raised the bar the year before, and the following year would bring Jurassic Parkwhich is still the zenith of CGI). There are two notable visual effects in Death Becomes Her. They both occur once the two female leads discover that they, by drinking Rossellini’s potion, have become immortal. One features Goldie Hawn coming back from the dead sporting a huge hole  in the middle of her stomach after being shot by a shotgun…

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Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep look through the hole in Goldie Hawn’s stomach.

…the other, and certainly the most innovative at the time, has Meryl Streep coming back from the dead, after her character has broken her neck falling down the stairs of her Hollywood mansion. Streep stands up and discovers that her head has gone all the way around her neck. She goes on to have a hysterical discussion with Bruce Willis while looking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Computers were used to green-screen Meryl Streep’s face into the back of her body, and while the effects look a bit dated for today’s standards (Streep’s twisted neck looks a little too computery), it was quite a feat considering the technology of the time. Actually, it is a common assumption that it was this particular effect that won Death Becomes Her the Best Visual Effects Oscar the year it came out.

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Meryl Streep’s head went all the way around in ‘Death Becomes Her’.

First of all let me tell you how refreshing it is to think that there was a time when the movie that was pushing forward visual effects was a dark satire about aging women in Hollywood. No huge robots, or hobbits, or superheroes. That was, simply, another time. Anyway, about Death Becomes Her at the end of a time in which Meryl Streep seemed to have found a new stage for career as a comedienne. This whole period didn’t last long. It began with She-Devil in ’89, peaked with her Oscar-nominated role in Postcards from the Edgeand would end the year after Death Becomes Her was released. Streep’s next project was the adaptation of Chilean novel The House of the Spirits. Needless to say to those who have seen Streep play comedic roles, she is great in Death Becomes Her. Goldie Hawn is also unafraid of going to ridiculous lengths to transmit the dark comedy of the piece, while Bruce Willis is as far from his action-hero persona as possible. In short, everybody committed as much as they needed to, and the result is one fun movie. 

Now, like I said, the main tone of Death Becomes Her is camp, so if you enjoy that can of thing, then you will have a sweet time watching this movie. I had a blast, even though I must admit I was ultimately disappointed in its ending. I was expecting the last act of the movie to move into a deeper level of satire other than “these two ladies are crazy and won’t stop in their search for youth”. The movie doesn’t, and it ends up positioning Willis’s character as some sort of tragic hero trapped between the wills of two women that are far stronger than he is. It works on a plot level, but from a thematic stand-point, the idea that the one man in the movie is the only sane person makes me uncomfortable, especially considering how there are so many societal factors that contribute to women’s obsession with looking as young as possible, especially in an environment as hostile to older women as showbusiness.

But, hey, you know what is not a disappointing movie in any way? Robert Altman’s The Player. Now, this is a much more direct satire of the Hollywood way of life, starring Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a movie executive who is receiving death-threats from a writer he rejected years ago. The only problem is, he doesn’t know which of the many rejected writers is the one sending him the threats. The movie is much more plot-oriented than most of Altman’s work, which tends to be more observational and character-oriented. The Player does feature lots of meandering scenes, especially since it is full of celebrity cameos (some of them so quick you can blink and miss them), but it is undoubtedly the Tim Robbins’s show, and the movie focuses very much on his character.

Robbins is the perfect casting choice for Griffin Mill. He has always been better at playing sleazy and untrustworthy than traditional heroes (He is, for example, one of the things that bothers me the most about The Shawshank Redemption). Griffin starts out as a “cool” guy, some sort of edgy antihero, but we soon realize that he is actually an asshole. Robbins brings a mix of desperation and contempt to the character that make him the ideal protagonist for a tale about how cruel and cynical Hollywood can be. In one particularly good scene, Robbins must go to testify to a detective (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who is investigating a case in which he is a main suspect. Griffin puts on an act, pretending to be outraged by the questions the detective is asking him, but the only result is that everyone at the police station starts laughing at him. This is one of the many metafilmic moments in The Player. Griffin is acting like a character in a movie would, but those kinds of actions don’t work the way they do in the movies.

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Tim Robbins is one of the suspects of a crime in ‘The Player’ (and yes, that is Lyle Lovett)

The Player is metafilmic from its first shot, a very famous eight-minute uninterrupted tracking shot through a Hollywood parking lot, during which we are witness to lots of inside jokes such as a Japanese company buying a Hollywood studio (At the time of The Player’s release, Sony had just bought Columbia), and a executive that won’t shut up about the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil

There is a constant tension in The Player between the real world and the world of movies. Much like the presence of mirrors in Death Becomes Her, Altman dresses the sets of The Player with old movie posters for all kinds of crime and noir movies. The camera constantly close sup on on-the-nose imagery that is designed to know that something bad is going to happen the way it would in an old-timey thriller full of flashing arrows. But at the same time, there are scenes like the one I described above. Scenes that show us that the real world is much crueler, and far more cynical than anything we see in the movies. The dream factory is only a front, and Hollywood is full of hell and darkness. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the movie’s ending, which resorts to incredibly clichéd, Hollywood ideals, ends up being the most tragic and darkest ending possible.

The Player is an amazing movie. It is one of the most inventive and poignant satires I’ve ever seen. It is unafraid of going as dark as possible, while never feeling like it wants to be especially dark. It’s biggest strength is that its darkest moment, like I said, is its ending, which is completely essential to the plot and message of the movie. Film critic Peter Labuza said it best when he said that “every Hollywood satire since The Player has been more or less a riff on The Player”. 

Next Week: Well, like I said, this is the last official installment of this series, but be sure to check the blog in the coming days for some wrap-ups on the movie year 1992 as a whole!

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