HAIL, CAESAR! could be considered the Coen Brothers’ fourth instalment in what George Clooney affectionately terms their trilogy of idiots, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading.
Clooney is indeed a dufus again, with dyed black hair (“It made me feel young and lively”) big teeth and showing quite a bit of suntanned leg. “It was fun to wear a skirt,” he quipped in Berlin where the film opened the city’s film festival.
The Coens — Joel and his younger brother Ethan — were more than happy to have Clooney along in their broadest comedy since 2004’s The Ladykillers. At the Berlin market it was announced that Clooney will direct their 30 year-old script, Suburbicon, a film noir the actor was once intended to appear in, and which now will star Matt Damon. Clearly, though, he had to play the dufus first.
“George is good-looking and smart but we don’t want to show him being smart,” muses Joel Coen. “He’s a comedic actor. Early on we saw he had a sense of humour going untapped, and we discovered he’s a great actor to play someone stupid. It amuses him and it amuses us.”
In their new movie, Clooney’s Hollywood star, Baird Whitlock, is sporting a Roman tunic for the latest Biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!, which prompts Josh Brolin’s fixer to call in representatives of four religions — Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox — to vet the script so there’s no controversy. Then Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of Communists who seem to win him over.
Clooney’s scenes represent only one of the film’s storylines. There’s also a Busby Berkeley-style swimming mermaid fantasy with a scintillating Scarlett Johansson, a singing-cowboy western featuring a breakthrough for Alden Ehrenreich, a sailor boy musical with a tap-dancing Channing Tatum, and a drawing room comedy with its British inflection provided by Ralph Fiennes. All serve to paint a nostalgic, hilarious picture of Hollywood in the early 1950s. “It comes out of our love of movies that came before,” remarks Joel. “To take samples from bygone genres is part of the fun.”
But, in the Coens’ way of things, everything is not as it seems. There are scandals festering beneath the squeaky-clean Hollywood images and Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, based on a real life Hollywood fixer, is there to clean up the mess and to feed competing gossip columnists (sisters, both played by Tilda Swinton) the right information at the right time.
Ironically, the naturally funny Brolin, the star of the Coens’ best recent film, No Country for Old Men, and also True Grit, is the straight man of the piece.
“I don’t see myself as the characters I play for them but they see something in me and it seems to work,” Brolin says. “I was surprised that they thought of me for something like this but they say, ‘Just do what you do and if it’s wrong we will tell you.’ But I may not get a compliment for a month. I’ll finish scenes and look around and they’ll be gone. I’ll be like ‘where did they go?’ They’ll have walked to the next set because they are setting up for the next scene.”
It’s largely through Mannix’s eyes that the various strands unfurl. He has to control Johansson’s aquatic star, the no-bullshit Bronx broad DeeAnna Moran, who is unwed and pregnant and plans to give her infant to an orphanage so she can adopt the child later.
“It’s directly taken from the life of Loretta Young,” Joel admits. “She did arrange to adopt her own child. But the rest is just generic movie star scandal stuff that Mannix is dealing with.”
Except of course for Joel’s own wife Frances McDormand, a projectionist, nearly strangled by her scarf, which was how legendary dancer Isadora Duncan died, albeit in a car. “Everywhere I go, everyone wants to work with Joel and Ethan,” McDormand muses. “Who doesn’t? I do. That’s what I say. ‘You want a job with them? So do I. Get in line!’ I was very excited to have a small role here.”
The film’s showstopper of course is Channing Tatum, as a gay tap-dancing communist.
“Channing hadn’t tap danced before but we knew he was an accomplished dancer,” notes Joel.
Tatum: “They varied the lead slightly when they gave me the script. It was only about three or four sentences and it said that Mannix walks into a dance routine. It was supposed to be on a battleship and then my character does a knee slide up to a buffet. That was it. It was like, ‘Great I can do that.’ Cut to a few meetings later and it’s a six-minute-long song and dance.
“It was nerve-wracking, but I don’t think I would have ever chosen to jump off a cliff blindly with anybody else but the Coens. They’re just so studied. They sent me things, and even if I’d studied dance for a little bit, they sent me things I’d never heard of, or my choreographer has never heard of. So they do their study and they do the things they love and I was just honoured to be a part of it. I learned to tap and I’d never put on a pair of tap shoes in my whole life before this film.”
The Coen Brothers are remarkably easy to work with. They get actors to do things we’d never expect them to do partly because they present it in a non-challenging matter-of-fact manner. They set a good example by never disagreeing with each other in public and always seem to think along the same lines.
“We’ve done so many films we just show up on set and don’t bother to talk to each other that much any more. We’re very much more in tune with each other,” Joel says.
Just as well, because they don’t have a lot of money or time to waste as they remain fiercely independent.
“We don’t develop our scripts at a studio. We present finished scripts with casting to studios and often financing. Sometimes our movies are financed outside of studios.”
They love movies from the era they present in Hail, Caesar! though are happy things have changed.
“We lived through that era, so we can literally be nostalgic about it. The movie is a romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s. There is an aspect of the factory for making movies, the machine for making movies, that was such a beautifully designed thing. There’s an element of affection and admiration for it, but I’m not sure how we would have come through that kind of environment. It’s not what we do.”