The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have written and directed some of the best films of the past 31 years (“Miller’s Crossing” is probably my favorite). They have also written and directed several (such as “No Country for Old Men”) that I didn’t like at all.
Their latest film is “Hail, Caesar!” Apparently, it’s an affectionate send up of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” that resolves around the kidnapping of a movie star by a group of communist screenwriters during the early 1950s.
The notion that there ever were communist screenwriters, as opposed to victims of a red scare, may come as a shock to generations weaned on “blacklist” movies. But the premise is true.
Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post interviewed the Coen brothers. They come across as funny, insightful, and unconstrained by political correctness.
I have included only the first half or so of the interview (with some of my favorite passages highlighted), but the whole thing is worth reading:
The Post: You were working on “Hail, Caesar!” a little over a year ago when I tried to reach you for comment about “The Big Lebowski” being selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Belated congratulations.
Joel: We’re not even sure what it means. Seriously, I don’t even know what that means. I mean, I kind of do. The Library of Congress? Does that mean that congressmen can watch the movie?
The Post: It means that “Lebowski” has been judged to be of “cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.” There will be a print stored in some climate-controlled vault somewhere, for all perpetuity.
Joel: I thought it meant that tourists could get it out and watch it. You know, Mitt Romney really likes “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” We’re hoping they’re going to draft him as the Republican presidential candidate.
Ethan: And Dick Cheney liked our “True Grit.”
The Post: I find it fascinating that you know that.
Joel: They all happen to be Republicans, for some reason.
Ethan: That is concerning to us. We need to talk to the other side of the aisle.
Joel: We were invited to the White House to screen “The Hudsucker Proxy” when [Bill] Clinton was president, and we just died there. It did not play well there at all.
Ethan: It’s a very, very tough room.
The Post: Several political issues have surfaced around Hollywood of late: the Oscars So White controversy; the question of gender pay disparity; the lack of women directors. “Hail, Caesar!” satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it also seems to get in a few digs about the Hollywood of today. Were you thinking about any of these current themes when you were writing it?
Ethan: Not in the least. Nobody was thinking about those things back then.
Joel: What they were thinking about was how to get communist content into motion pictures.
The Post: There’s a similar subversiveness to your film, though. Aren’t you biting the hand that feeds you, if ever so gently?
Ethan: That’s some confusion that we don’t suffer from. Like I say, the world then was very different from the real one now, in which we operate.
The Post: Yet there are ways in which the world of “Hail, Caesar!” does touch on the world of today. It’s surely no accident that the group of communist screenwriters who kidnap Clooney’s character call themselves The Future.
Joel: They didn’t turn out to be the future.
The Post: No, but the conflict between art and commerce, which the movie addresses, hasn’t exactly gone away. Arguably, it’s gotten worse.
Joel: Well, yeah, look, if you’re talking about that explicitly, that was actually more of a subtext in our last movie [“Inside Llewyn Davis”]. If you’re talking about the idea of politics in mass entertainment, then, in a very tangential, almost jokey way, there’s that element in “Hail, Caesar!” The commercialization of art was one of the underlying things going on in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” “Hail, Caesar!” is not really about that.
The Post: Your star, George Clooney, recently told Variety that Hollywood was moving in the wrong direction with regard to diversity. He cited four films deserving of nomination — “Creed,” “Concussion,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Straight Outta Compton” — while arguing that the problem was not the fact that these films weren’t nominated. Rather, he suggested, there should be 30 or 40 black films “of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars,” instead of only three or four.
Joel: Oh, I agree with that, yes, that’s very true. The awards are not the problem.
The Post: Clooney’s comments led to a backlash from some quarters. It was noted that his films — and yours, for that matter — aren’t particularly diverse.
Joel: Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, “Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing.” The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.” To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.
Ethan: We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.
Joel: And people accuse us of all kinds of things for making those things specific. You can’t win. You say, “Look at the work.” And then they go, “Well, this character is Jewish and is a bad guy.” Somehow in their minds, that’s implying that in our minds the Jewish characters stand in for all Jews.
Like I say, you can only write what you can write. If the question is whether or not there should be more people involved in the process, with more diverse backgrounds, so that what they write reflects a greater amount of diversity — that the business itself should be more open to people of different backgrounds, so that those stories come in — that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. The other thing is crazy.
The Post: How does one facilitate the change you’re talking about?
Ethan: That will be facilitated when people want to see those movies. But nobody wants to blame the public.
Joel: In this respect, I agree with what Ethan just said. But it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes you don’t know what the public is going to like until you make it available. How you do that, of course, is complicated. As far as movie executives are concerned, the bottom line is just the dollar. I mean, they’ll do anything. They don’t care who you are, what color you are, what gender you are, if you’re making enough money. They’d be perfectly happy if a Martian came in and made a blockbuster.
I’m really looking forward to seeing “Hail, Caesar!”