One of the defining features of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! are its blatant parodic references to Hollywood or, specifically, to Hollywood in the 1950s. Its glamorous, classic Hollwood aesthetic and throwbacks to 1950s cornball cinema begs a certain question, is Hail, Caesar! pro or anti-Hollywood? While this is certainly a valid topic of discussion it’s also important to note that Hail, Caesar! isn’t about Hollywood specifically but the American identity itself. The movie is glib in its depiction of communist intellectualism, old west traditionalism and homosexual eroticism, such images provoke a comic sensibility, but also interrogate the very core of the American identity.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t paying tribute to a lost art, it’s underlining the power of the cinema. The subcultures it created, the bigotry it induced, laying the groundwork for the values and ideals that we cherish today—the Coen Brothers know very well the capabilities of the cinema and the magnitude of influence they hold, especially in consumerist 1950s America. Perhaps that’s why the film’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), is a film producer. He represents an industry whose images and words held not only America’s attention, but their admiration.
Eddie Mannix is also a fixer, a position less lucrative than his producer credit but equally, if not more important to the survival of his industry. The film depicts him trying to uphold Hollywood’s good image, browbeating his actors to compliance, blackmailing the press and swindling film directors. It’s an ugly reality that exists to preserve the utopic gloss of Hollywood life, just as movies work to preserve the ideals of the American identity.
The question remains, why was it important for such an image to be upheld? While the threat of nuclear war made the Cold War notorious, the conflict’s most widespread tool was appeal. The American appeal is something that manifested every aspect of 1950s cinema, from biblical epics, to musicals and even old westerns. The films weren’t so much pieces of propaganda, but touchstones of the American image, products of a culture manufactured by Hollywood. But what does Hail, Caesar! say about communism?
The film depicts communism with as much bombast and sensationalism as it does western materialism, but instead of emphasizing on the hierarchical system of producers, directors and actors it instead portrays a fraternity of screenwriters, who feel that their creative pursuits are not recognized, and their services underpaid. It’s easy to see the appeal of communism here, the glorification of the progressive thinkers, the intellectuals and ultimately the demolishment of oppressive hierarchical institutions. Some of the film’s best moments are when the simpleton megastar, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney), is seduced by the progressive sentiments of the communist ideology.
What does Hail, Caesar! say about Hollywood here? The Hollywood-bred, shady communist subculture depicted in the film uncomfortably evokes the McCarthyist witch-hunts, but also seem to inscribe the plight of artists and in this case the screenwriters, whose artistic freedom are often moderated by the studio heads. This is also depicted through film director Laurence Laurentz (played by Ralph Fiennes) and movie star, cowboy-archetype Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich) whose own artistic pursuits are stymied by the studio who have their own preferences.
Funnily enough, the Coen Brothers don’t seem to be blaming the studios either, as we see, Eddie Mannix is certainly no despot, he doesn’t rule the film set with an iron fist, and every creative decision he makes seems to be influenced by an outside factors be it cultural expectations, public relations or politics. Whether its classified as anti-conservative, anti-communist, anti-capitalist or anti-egalitarian, Hail, Caesar! identifies all its commentary, references and symbolism with a single tragic revelation: America is a product, and Hollywood is an advertisement.