New Movies — From the May 2016 issue

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Hail, Caesar!, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, starts and ends with a confession and a slap in the face. The movie covers a day in the life of a production chief at Capitol Pictures, who is played by Josh Brolin. The Coens have named him Eddie Mannix, after a real Hollywood fixer who spent his career cleaning up the messy personal lives of MGM’s stars so that scandal would not hurt the box office. But Mannix’s confessions, which bracket Hail, are not the kind that turned up in the gossip rags of 1951, the year in which the film is set — they take place in an actual confessional.

Mannix’s first order of business, after a predawn visit to his priest, is to rescue a starlet named Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) from a “French postcard situation” before the cops appear and the story leaks to the press. She balks at Mannix’s intervention, and he slaps her to make her listen to the story he has concocted for the police. Gloria is dressed as an Alpine milkmaid, but when the officers arrive to bust up her cheesecake tableau, Mannix explains that “it’s not really her dirndl.” He couldn’t care less about the threat to her virtue; it’s the threat to her virtuous image, and that of the studio she represents, that has him out of bed so early.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

The end of the film reprises the opening, with one important variation. This time Mannix cuffs the star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who, dressed as a Roman centurion, is in the midst of explaining how the studio is a microcosm of the exploitative capitalist economy. He has picked up this line of thinking from a group of Communist screenwriters — modeled on the blacklisted Hollywood Ten — who have been holding him captive in a Malibu beach house. When the hyper-scrupulous Mannix returns to the confessional, a mere twenty-seven hours after his first visit, he admits to striking Whitlock, but not DeLamour. Slapping a leading man is a mortal sin, requiring forgiveness. Slapping a starlet is not worth mentioning.

The recipients of Mannix’s tough love are in costume for a reason: a cast system determines how they dress. Whitlock — the star of Hail, Caesar!, the epic film within a film that is Capitol’s Spartacus — wears his centurion outfit because he was nabbed from the studio’s back lot. The uniform indicates his rank in Hollywood no less than it does in the fictionalized Rome of Hail, Caesar!, and it is the only clothing Clooney wears in the movie. Gloria DeLamour, of lesser importance, is dressed as a peasant because, by Hollywood standards, that’s what she is. Two extras in the film within a film (Wayne Knight and Jeff Lewis) set the kidnapping in motion by spiking Whitlock’s prop chalice with knockout powder. The extras, Hollywood’s lowest of the low, are dressed as Roman slaves. All of the actors are always in costume, and none of them own the clothes they wear.

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