How the Sausage Gets Made: Inside the Hollywood Film Industry in Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!

By the time of their fourth film, Barton Fink (1991), the Coens had established themselves as important independent filmmakers, a status that was reinforced when their new film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the highest prize given annually at that festival and one of the most prestigious awards in the entire film industry. By this time, the Coens had also made abundantly clear how thoroughly their films draw on earlier films and film genres in both their style and content. But Barton Fink draws upon film history even more extensively than had the earlier films of the Coens, especially as it is actually set within the Hollywood film industry. This seems a natural choice for the Coens, though, surprisingly, they would not return to the film industry itself as a setting for their films until Hail, Caesar! a quarter of a century later. Hail, Caesar! is a very different sort of film than is Barton Fink, but the films have in common the fact that they are not only set within the film industry but at very specific historical moments within that industry. In addition, both films strongly reinforce the sense that the Coens’ films are set in an alternate reality: the Hollywood portrayed in the two films is clearly not quite the same Hollywood as the one in our own history.

That films set in Hollywood should have a special sense of unreality is not surprising: Los Angeles (and especially Hollywood) has long figured in the American imagination as a sort of unreal city, largely due to the crucial role played by the film industry in the history of the city. After all, Hollywood has long been envisioned (both positively and negatively) as a “dream factory,” producing images that are distanced from American reality. In the sense that they take place in a world mediated by the movies, all of the Coens’ films are set in Hollywood, but the films that are literally set within the Hollywood film industry might be expected to be doubly distanced from reality, as if occurring in an alternate version of an alternate reality. Interestingly, though, the Coens’ other Los Angeles film, The Big Lebowski, also has a particularly unreal quality, despite not being directly about Hollywood. In fact, even No Country for Old Men,which is set in the West but not in California, acknowledges this mythic quality (while at the same time undermining it), suggesting that the special texture of the Coens’ Western settings is related, not just to the role of Hollywood in American culture, but also to the mythic role of the West itself in American history.

Barton Fink: Portrait of an Artist

Still, it is Hollywood in particular that sets the terms for films such as Barton Fink, so perhaps it is not surprising that, of all the Coens’ films, this is probably the one that has caused the most critical commentary on its blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality. In particular, it appears possible that much of the action doesn’t even take place in the world of the film at all, but only in the mind of the title character (played by John Turturro), a successful leftist playwright who has been recruited from the New York stage to come to Hollywood to “write for the pictures.” And many of the scenes that clearly do happen within the “real” world of the film are set inside a single room in the claustrophobic and seedy Hotel Earle, a dilapidated establishment that might be located almost anywhere, including hell. After all, not only does the hotel eventually erupt in hellish, apocalyptic flames, but, when Fink first arrives to check in, we see the front desk clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi) weirdly emerge through a trap door in the floor, as if rising from a lower circle of hell.

We are repeatedly reminded, meanwhile, that Barton is a New York Jew (based to a large extent on the playwright-turned screenwriter Clifford Odets), clearly out of place in Hollywood, which further de-realizes the setting. From this point of view, it is significant that the film actually includes two important screenwriter characters and that the other one is also specifically associated with a geographic location other than California. That other writer would be one W. P. Mayhew, a drawling, hard-drinking, ultra-Southern, once-great novelist (a literary hero of Fink), now writing for Hollywood but with his creative powers seriously in decline. His work, in fact, is now secretly being largely written by his secretary and mistress Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). That Mayhew is played by John Mahoney, a William Faulkner lookalike, is of course no accident, just as it is no accident that the Mayhew-Taylor relationship in many ways recalls Faulkner’s well-known affair, while he worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, with Meta Carpenter, the beautiful script supervisor who also worked for famed director Howard Hawks. Of all regionalized stereotypical figures of the American writer, the lefty New York Jew and the alcoholic Southerner are probably the two most prominent, so the fact that these two figures are both featured in the film calls attention to the question of geography, while also foregrounding the fact that most of the denizens of Hollywood (and Los Angeles in general) come from elsewhere, further contributing to the sense of the insubstantiality of the city. It is not so much a place as a transit point through which various people pass on their way to somewhere else.

In this same vein, when Fink checks into the hotel, he is asked by Chet whether he is a “trans” or a “res,” but is baffled by the question. When Chet explains that these terms are short for “transient” or “resident,” Fink is still unsure how to answer and simply says that he will be staying “indefinitely.” Chet then marks him down as a “res,” suggesting that, here, even the residents are not really permanent inhabitants but merely temporary visitors whose residency has no predefined expiration date. If William Leach’s characterization of America in the late twentieth century as a “vast landscape of the temporary” was already becoming apt by 1941, this description clearly applied even more to California than to the rest of the country.[1]

Perhaps the most classically Californian setting in Barton Fink is the beach that is pictured in the advertisement-like painting that hangs in Fink’s hotel room. But the fact that this setting occurs mostly in a painting, not in the actual world of the film, once again suggests the fundamental fictionality of California. The fact that Fink travels, at the end of the film, to an actual beach and finds the scene from the painting exactly replicated there does not, of course, serve to make the painting “real.” Instead, it does just the opposite by suggesting how like a cheap painting the reality of Los Angeles can be. In addition, this ending is overtly contrived, thus serving as a commentary (though an ambiguous one) on the contrived endings of so many Hollywood films, a feature that syncs up perfectly with the artificiality of Los Angeles as a whole.

Thus, even the most specific foray into the “real” world of Los Angeles in Barton Fink can also be taken as just another engagement with the world of film and as a comment (though not necessarily a negative one) on the artificiality of that world. Indeed, the entire motif of the blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality (a key characteristic of postmodernist art in general) can be taken as a reminder of the way in which even the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age tended to play fast and loose with such boundaries. After all, at the most literal level of categorization, Barton Fink is first and foremost a satire of the Hollywood film industry, even if that satire is so light-hearted (and, in some ways, clichéd) as to read almost like a parody of such satires.

The Hollywood satire of Barton Fink is further complicated by the fact that the Hollywood of the film is so patently not the same Hollywood as the one that exists in our material reality. The film is littered with allusions, direct or indirect, to films or people in the film industry, but these allusions are often just a bit askew, making it clear that we are once again within one of the Coens’ alternate realities. In the world of the film, for example, Fink is assigned to write the script for a “wrestling picture,” which is to star Wallace Beery, but for which he is otherwise given few other parameters. It is clear, however, that such wrestling films are a major Hollywood phenomenon in this world, which was simply never the case in the history of “our” Hollywood. Indeed, various characters in Barton Fink talk about the wrestling subgenre in a way that makes it clear that, in the Hollywood of the film, wrestling films play much the same role that boxing films have played in our reality. Thus, while it is difficult to name a truly important wrestling film at all (Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, from 2008, probably comes closest), boxing films from Rouben Mamoulian’s The Golden Boy (1939), to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) have long been an important subgenre in American film—though they had not really become prominent by 1941.

Indeed, they would gain this prominence only in the era of film noir. Given the importance of film noir to the Coens, it is probably significant that boxing films such as Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), The Set-Up (1949), and The Harder They Fall (1956) formed a particularly important subgenre within film noir. It may be even more important, however, that The Golden Boy, an important forerunner of the cycle of noir boxing films, was based on a play by Odets, making Odets—the chief model for Barton Fink himself—one of the founding fathers of the boxing film subgenre, even though the real Odets, despite a relatively productive career as a screenwriter, would never script a film in the boxing genre.

The presence of Beery in Barton Fink is perhaps significant with regard to this swapping of the boxing film for the wrestling film, given that the real Beery is unique in Hollywood history for having starred, within a one-year period, in both a boxing film (The Champ, 1931) and a wrestling film (Flesh, 1932). Of course, the dates are a bit off, given that these films were developed a decade before Barton is writing his own Beery vehicle, but out-of-kilter dating is also typical of Barton Fink. In point of fact, Beery turned 56 in 1941, and would have surely been too old to star in a film as either a wrestler or a boxer. In fact, while he is described as a reliable star within Barton Fink, Beery’s once highly-successful career as a film actor (he won a Best Actor Oscar for The Champ and was for a time in the early 1930s the highest-paid actor in Hollywood)was significantly in decline by 1941.This skewed timing might have made Beery an appealing choice for the Coen Brothers, producing exactly the kind of alternate reality effect they so favor. Beery, though, was an interesting choice as a motif in Barton Fink in a number of ways, even though he never actually appears on screen within the film. For one thing, Beery’s personal story makes him sound more like a Coen Brothers character than like a real actor. Thus, he was born on April Fools’ Day in 1885, a fact that surely must have appealed to the zany sense of humor that informs so many of the Coens’ choices—as might the fact that Beery began his career in show business as an elephant trainer in the circus.

If Beery’s real-life story seems stranger than fiction, it is also the case that all of the film industry figures Fink encounters in Hollywood are exaggerated and simplified stereotypes, including Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the head of Capitol Pictures, the studio for which Fink is brought to Hollywood to write. Lipnick himself is a Hollywood grotesque; as Ronald Bergan notes, he is a sort of amalgam of real-world larger-than-life studio moguls such as Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner.[2] Feigning a dedication to art, the flamboyant Lipnick initially assures Fink that Capitol Pictures regards the writer as the “king” of the film industry. But then, when Fink finally completes and submits to Lipnick the screenplay for his wrestling film, entitled The Burlyman, Lipnick reacts with scorn and derision. He admits that he knows very little about the actual process of making movies but claims to know a great deal about people. And people, he insists, will not be much interested in Barton’s artsy-fartsy script that treats actual wrestling as a mere metaphor for the ways in which we all wrestle with our personal demons. People go to wrestling films to see wrestling, he insists, not existential angst. Meanwhile, he makes it clear that, far from being the king of Capitol Pictures, Fink and anything he creates are mere commodities owned by the studio, whose real priorities are perhaps signaled by the proximity of its name to “capital.” As Lipnick’s much-abused toady, Lou Breeze (Jon Polito), puts it, “Right now, the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.”

The obviously Jewish Lipnick also seems strangely anti-semitic, freely throwing about the word “kike”—and not in a good way. Some have seen the Coens as doing virtually the same in Barton Fink. Indeed, the negative depiction of both Lipnick and Fink—along with that of vulgar, hyperactive producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub)—triggered considerable criticism of the film. For example, J. Hoberman, in the Village Voice (August 27, 1991), found it irresponsible to set a film in 1941, at the “acme of worldwide anti-Semitism” and then to populate it with characters such as Lipnick and Fink, a time when “America’s two most potent Jewish stereotypes were the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the idealistic New York communist.”[3]Of course, having fun with stereotypes is one of the things the Coens do best—and one could argue that their exaggerated use of stereotypes actually undermines those stereotypes, rather than promulgating them. Moreover, one could argue that the stereotype of the hard-charging capitalistic Jewish studio mogul stands in direct conflict to the stereotype of the effetely intellectual Jewish lefty, suggesting that neither figure can be taken as representative of Jews as a whole and thus simultaneously undermining both as ethnic stereotypes.

In the case of Lipnick, Mottram has quoted Joel Coen to the effect that the Capitol Pictures head is not a stereotype, but a realistic figure. “You have these guys who were from Russia, Jews from the old country, and they used to build synagogues for their parents on the backlots … on the other hand, they wouldn’t admit anything about their own Jewishness and went around calling people kikes.”[4] Fink, of course, is not just a stereotypical Jew, but a stereotypical leftist writer, who serves as a send-up of the arrogance and pretentiousness of the Hollywood screenwriter who would presume to speak for the working class, despite having never done a day’s work in his life. Early in the film, after Fink takes up residence in the hotel, where he plans to do his writing in suitably modest surroundings, he meets one Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an affable and loquacious door-to-door insurance salesman who would appear to be precisely one of the ordinary folk of whom Fink is seeking to write. Explaining his work, Fink tells Charlie, “I write about people like you. The average working stiff.” Seemingly impressed, Charlie proceeds to try to tell Fink about his experiences. Caught up in his own life, Fink ignores this seeming opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about the lives he is presumably seeking to represent. He seems interested in such lives only in theory, not in practice. On the other hand, our sympathy for Meadows is ultimately mediated by the fact that he apparently also lives a second life as serial killer Karl “Madman” Mundt.

John Turturro and John Goodman

Later, feeling triumphant after completing his screenplay for The Burlyman, Fink goes to a dance hall where some soldiers and sailors are trying to have a last night of fun with the local girls before shipping out. When a sailor asks to cut in while Fink is dancing with one of the girls, Fink haughtily refuses, explaining that he is a special person who deserves special privileges, such as dancing with the girl. “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator!” He points to his head, “This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” The sailor punches him out, triggering a brawl between the sailors and the soldiers. The critique of Fink (and of the real-world leftist writers, such as Odets) seems clear.

Numerous critics (including I myself, several years ago) have felt that this criticism, especially coming as a film so filled with reminders of the rise of fascism (however ambiguous those images might be), is wrongheaded and irresponsible, because it tends to make the disengagement from reality of leftist writers like Fink a key reason why fascism was able to become such a force in the modern world. In point of fact, leftist writers were one of the few groups of people who did attempt to warn the American public against the rise of fascism; however, with little support from corporate or political leaders, they were unable to get the public to listen. I thus had some harsh words to say about the Coens and Barton Fink a decade or so ago:

That the Coens would choose to level a charge of irresponsibility against the only group in America that actively sought to oppose the rise of fascism is itself highly irresponsible and shows a complete ignorance of (or perhaps lack of interest in) historical reality.[5]

Over the years, I have come to view Barton Fink a bit more kindly. It still bothers me that the film seems to have no interest in making any real statement about the sensitive political issues to which it nevertheless overtly calls our attention. However, this lack of commitment also means that the film now seems to me less clear (and less weeping) in its condemnation of leftist writers than I once felt it was. For example, the complex (and often contradictory) political intonations of Barton Fink might also include the naming of Mundt, Karl E. Mundt having been a Republican Congressman from South Dakota who, as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) from 1943 to 1948, was active in investigations of possible communist activity in Hollywood. As usual, the years are off, but Fink is precisely the sort of writer who would have been investigated and possibly blacklisted as part of the HUAC hearings, though Odets himself avoided blacklisting by co-operating with HUAC in 1952, subsequently experiencing a resurgence in his screenwriting career (though also drawing considerable contempt from many of his former associates on the Left).[6] If one reads Charlie/Mundt as a figure of HUAC and Fink as a figure of Odets, then it is also certainly possible to read Barton Fink not as a condemnation of leftist screenwriters as a whole but instead as a show of solidarity with the true leftists who were betrayed by finks such as Odets.

Charlie/Mundt is thus a complex figure who introduces a great deal of generic complexity into the film. For one thing, if his status as an insurance salesman suggests a possible connection to film noir, the fact that he is potentially a gruesome serial killer (and also potentially a supernatural figure of either evil or vengeance) introduces important elements of the horror genre. Indeed, despite the many comic moments in the film, there is an air of (possibly supernatural) menace that lingers throughout the film. The late apocalyptic scene in which Charlie/Mundt seemingly arises from the fires of hell to destroy the hotel (just as the U.S. plunges into World War II) merely adds an exclamation point to the series of images (ranging from the peeling, oozing wallpaper to the pivotal moment Barton wakes up with a nude, bloody, and brutally murdered Audrey in his bed) that gradually contribute to a growing sense that something is seriously wrong in the world of the film.

Exactly what is wrong, however, never becomes entirely clear. Barton Fink is a film filled with uncertainties and unsolved mysteries. Who, exactly, killed Audrey? Was it Mundt? Fink himself? What is in the box that Charlie/Mundt leaves with Fink and that Fink totes about with him until the end of the film? All signs point to the fact that it is Audrey’s head, but we never really learn. Perhaps the biggest mystery in Barton Fink involves the question of just what sort of film this really is. This question is partly a generic one, as this film (like almost all of the Coens’ films) participates in a complex combination of different genres. Meanwhile, to the extent that the film is first and foremost a satire of Hollywood, just what are the implications of this satire? The Coens themselves have denied that this film was intended as some sort of revenge for the wrongs that have been done to them by the powers-that-be in Hollywood. Their experience with those powers, they insist, has been pretty good. And, to the extent that Barton Fink engages in dialogue with specific Golden Age predecessors, this dialogue seems far less than bitterly critical. Moreover, among the specific films with which Barton Fink engages in dialogue, at least by implication, is a long line of films that have satirized Hollywood (though with widely varying degrees of rancor), and Barton Fink itself seemed to trigger a resurgence in this genre, via the subsequent appearance of such films as Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), and George Huang’s Swimming with Sharks (1994).

Sunset Boulevard is probably Barton Fink’s most important predecessor among Hollywood satires, partly because it is a film very much in the noir mode, providing a reminder that there are several Hollywood satires in film noir, including such films as Nicholas Ray’s rather vicious Humphrey Bogart vehicle In a Lonely Place (also 1950) and Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955). Meanwhile, in an illustration of the complex and sometimes wacky world of intertextual connections in the work of the Coen Brothers, it is not entirely irrelevant that the most memorable aspect of Sunset Boulevard is the deliciously over-the-top performance by Gloria Swanson as former silent-film star Norma Desmond. Swanson herself was a silent film star, so perhaps she was well prepared for the role. But she was also the ex-wife of Wallace Beery, in one of the strange sorts of connections that frequently seem to pop up in the world of the Coen Brothers.

Barton Fink contains so many obvious echoes of earlier films and genres that viewers are clearly invited to seek such connections. For example, the film indicates that Mayhew is currently working on a film entitled Slave Ship, which was indeed the title of a film based on a story by Faulkner—though the film was released in 1937, not 1941. To make matters even more interesting, the 1937 Slave Ship featured Wallace Beery in a key role (though it was one of the few films in which he appeared for which he did not receive top billing, in what might be taken as an indicator of the beginning of his decline as a film star). Barton Fink’s cinematic sources also extend into the period between 1941 and 1991, including perhaps most importantly Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), a film whose plot is surprisingly similar to that of Barton Fink, even though its central character is a lowly clerk who has no involvement in the film industry. Indeed, James Mottram goes so far as to call Polanski’s film the “template” for Barton Fink.[7] Bergan, meanwhile, notes that additional Polanski films—such as Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Chinatown (1974)—also bear similarities to Barton Fink. Bergan, meanwhile, notes the Coens’ own acknowledgment that Barton Fink is “in the line of Polanski.”[8] Along these lines, it is worth noting that Polanski chaired the jury that awarded the Coens’ film its Palme d’Or.

In addition to its resonance with other specific films and genres, Barton Fink is linked to the world of film in other ways as well. Even the film’s engagement with history is really more involved with the history of film than with political history. By placing the film at the beginning of World War II, the Coens put their film into direct contact with a number of important historical events, to which the film refers several different times, yet it is also clearly the case that, in terms of its implications for the film, the place of 1941 in movie history is far more important than its place in world political history—a fact that speaks volumes about the kind of film that Barton Fink really is. 1941—the year of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, widely regarded as the greatest of American films, is an especially important year in American film history for that reason alone.[9] For the Coens, though, it is probably much more significant that 1941 was the year of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, one of the Golden Age films that has most influenced their work. It is also significant that the conventional timeline of film noir locates 1941—the year of such films as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra—as the beginning point of the noir cycle.

Finally, as is typical of the Coens, the intertextual network that provides a cultural context within which to understand Barton Fink also includes the world of literature. Bergan notes, for example, that (in addition to Faulkner and Odets, who would seem to be the chief literary presences) the film contains reminders of the work of such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in addition to Franz Kafka.[10] Indeed, the stranger and more surreal moments of the film clearly do evoke Kafka, even if the Coens have denied any conscious debt to the Bohemian Jewish writer. Meanwhile, Hammett and Chandler function as tutelary deities almost everywhere in the Coens’ work, while both were among the many established American writers who—like Odets and Faulkner (and Fink)—did stints in Hollywood writing screenplays. These writers also included Fitzgerald, whose novel The Last Tycoon (published, of course, in 1941) is one of the two most important Hollywood satires in all of American literature. The other was West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), which Adams identifies (somewhat questionably) as “the primary source for the story of Barton Fink.[11]

The Day of the Locust is a rather harsh (and surreal) critique of Hollywood that, like Barton Fink,culminates in an apocalyptic fire, this time set off by mob violence that is triggered when a character named “Homer Simpson,” of all things, becomes deranged and murders a child actor at the site of a movie premiere. For the novel’s protagonist, Tod Hackett, a movie studio lot becomes a dumping ground for the detritus of the imagination, a “history of civilization … in the form of a dream dump. … And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath, and paint.”[12] Hollywood, in short, is a dream factory, but the dreams it turns out are garbage. West’s novel and its interesting 1975 film adaptation lack both the occasional zaniness and the ultimate love of movies that mark Barton Fink but the works have many things in common, The Day of the Locust being less the “primary source” for the Coens’ film and something more like its evil, deranged grandparent. As I have noted elsewhere, the critique of modern consumerism that marks West’s novel is both ahead of its time and bitingly effective:

West’s Hollywood is a memorable nightmare realm dominated by images of commodified sex and violence and inhabited by grotesquely dehumanized victims of the American dream factory. All of Los Angeles is, in fact, directly implicated in this characterization, which by extension becomes not a bizarre deviation from the norm of American life but the ultimate expression of it. Indeed, The Day of the Locust depicts Hollywood as the epitome of an American capitalist system that generates desire through the presentation of beautiful images, then drives individuals to violence and despair when they discover that these desires can never be realized.[13]

Within the world of the film itself, the most important literary referent is Faulkner, of course, and many Faulkner fans have reportedly been incensed over the rather harsh depiction of the Faulkner-based Mayhew as a broken-down, alcoholic has-been, so steeped in booze that he is no longer able to write and has to have Audrey write his scripts for him. Of course, the real Faulkner had his troubles with alcohol as well, though Meta Carpenter did not, as far as we know, write his scripts. In fact, while Faulkner himself never achieved the heights as a screenwriter that he had as a novelist, he in fact did have a reasonably productive career in Hollywood, with screenwriting credits that included such Hawks-directed classics as To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), not to mention the extensive work he did for Hawks as an uncredited script doctor.[14] Thus, while Mayhew is transparently based on Faulkner, he is a caricature, not a serious portrayal. Mayhew is the Faulkner of a Coen Brothers alternate universe, and any resemblance to the real Faulkner should be read with a strong dose of irony. The Hollywood of Barton Fink seems to be a refuge not of brilliance and commitment but of decadence and greed. And yet, this Hollywood is not necessarily meant to resemble the real Hollywood, and none of this satire seems bitter or angry. In fact, it seems more like a performance of a critique of Hollywood than a real critique, perhaps more of a nod to all the other Hollywood satires that came before than a real satire in its own right.

One thinks again of Sunset Boulevard (1950), which can at times be quite strident in its depiction of the damage done to individuals by the mismatch between conditions in the real world and those in the world of Hollywood film. Yet the film, described by James Naremore as a “savage critique of modernity,” seems to put at least as much blame on modern reality as on Hollywood for this mismatch.[15] Moreover, Sunset Boulevard also contains genuine expressions of love for film itself. In one important scene, an aspiring young screenwriter comments as she walks down a Potemkin street in the Paramount lot: “Look at this street,” she says. “All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney, all done with mirrors.” She then follows this seeming critique with a final twist: “You know, I like it better than any street in the world.”

Barton Fink can certainly be read as a critique of Hollywood during the studio system years, but—like Sunset Boulevard—it is centrally informed by a love of film itself. Fink’s entire depiction would seem to make clear the Coens’ low opinion of politically-committed cinema, very much in line with the preference for entertainment-based cinema expressed in Sullivan’s Travels, a film that looms time and again as one of the central influences behind the work of the Coen Brothers. Indeed, Barton Fink is really more of a tribute to films such as Sullivan’s Travels than it is a critique of politically-engaged cinema. Even Fink, certainly an unattractive figure in many ways, is treated with a certain amount of sympathy. For one thing, the film focuses almost entirely on his point of view, making it hard not to identify with him to some extent. Meanwhile, Turturro’s impressive performance in the role is delivered with such clear sympathy for the character that it is almost entirely impossible for audiences not to feel some sort of sympathy for him as well. In addition, if Fink seems haughtily indifferent to Charlie’s experiences as a “working stiff,” it is also the case that an insurance salesman is not really a classic proletarian of the kind Fink sees as his constituency, so perhaps Fink has a reason not to want to hear Charlie’s “stories.” And insurance salesmen in general have often been portrayed rather negatively in movies such as Double Indemnity (1944), one of the noir films that has most influenced the Coens. On top of all this, Charlie himself is an annoying and obnoxious personage in his own right—who might be a serial killer. Finally, it is also possible that Charlie/Mundt doesn’t even exist but is simply a figment of Fink’s imagination, conjured up as the writer descends into the hellish depths of his own mind.

In the meantime, the police of the film—who appear in the persons of detectives Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney)—might also be figments. Whatever their existential status, they are represented as overtly anti-semitic in their harassment of Fink, which also wins audience sympathy for the writer. In addition, their blatantly Italian and German surnames combine with their clear disdain for Jews and the 1941 setting to make them potential emblems of fascism, further complicating the swirl of political intonations in the film. Near the end of the film, all hell breaks loose (literally) as the hotel erupts into flames. Here, Charlie/Mundt transforms into a seemingly Satanic figure, at home in the fires of hell. Yet he might also be an avenging Jewish angel, emerging from the fires not of hell, but of Auschwitz, to destroy the two fascist cops, taunting Deutsch by snarling “Heil Hitler” as he prepares to blow his head off.[16]

Hail, Caesar!: Manufacturing Stories

Ominous resonances constantly hover in the margins of Barton Fink. There are such resonances a quarter of a century later in Hail, Caesar!, as well, mostly in the form of reminders of the Cold War era in which it is set, but now they are pushed further into the margins, while comedy is center stage. Set some time in the early 1950s, Hail, Caesar! begins as the central character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), sits in a confession booth, where he confesses that, though he has supposedly quit smoking at the request of his wife Connie, he has recently snuck two or three cigarettes and then kept this transgression from Connie. It seems a pretty minor sin, and we will eventually learn that Mannix is, in fact, an extremely righteous character who commits only the most minor of sins, then feels obligated to confess them immediately—so much so that even his confessor ultimately suggests that perhaps he should confess a bit less often. Mannix is the head of “physical production” for Capitol Pictures, thus returning us to the world of Barton Fink, approximately a decade later. Moreover, we learn very early in the film that the studios of Capitol Pictures now feature a “Wallace Beery Conference Room,” extending the Wallace Beery motif from Barton Fink and virtually ensuring that attentive viewers will link the two films.

Mannix’s righteousness stands in stark contrast to the crass and ruthless behavior of his predecessor Lipnick, though we also learn in Hail, Caesar! that the true head of Capitol Pictures is one Mr. Schenk (pronounced “Skank”), who is headquartered back in New York. This situation closely parallels (but is not quite the same as) the real-world one in which, from 1927 to 1951, Louis B. Mayer ran the MGM studios in Hollywood, but had to report to his corporate boss in New York, one Nicholas Schenck, whom Mayer was fond of calling “Skunk.” Mannix’s name, though, is taken from elsewhere in Hollywood history (and it always helps to know your Hollywood history when viewing the films of the Coens). The original Eddie Mannix had been Mayer’s subordinate at MGM and became widely known as a “fixer” who solved (or at least hid from the public) the personal problems of MGM’s stars. The Mannix of Hail, Caesar! performs a similar functionfor Capitol’s stars. However, the original Mannix was reportedly a rather unsavory character with possible mob connections, again standing in stark contrast to the squeaky clean and genuinely well-meaning Mannix of the Coens’ film.

The second scene of Hail, Caesar! shows us Mannix in his fixer role, as he rushes to a house where he finds one of the studio’s starlets posing in a photograph session with clear potential to evolve into a “French postcard situation.” Mannix breaks up the session, sends the photographer packing, and hustles the starlet, one Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) out of the house, pausing to bribe a couple of cops on the way. One gets the impression, though, that Manning is not just protecting the assets of Capitol Pictures, but that he also genuinely wants to help Gloria. The fact that he slaps her a couple of times in the process of trying to sober her up is a bit problematic, but it also reminds us just how much of his character (like so many things in the Coens’ films) has been filtered through film noir.

The film noir vibe of this scene is strengthened by the fact that it is accompanied by a highly stylized voiceover narration delivered by acclaimed Irish-born British actor Sir Michael Gambon, whose greatest role was probably as the protagonist in Dennis Potter’s noir-inspired BBC mini-series The Singing Detective (1986). Such voiceover narrations, of course, are common in film noir. Meanwhile, this whole scene is highly reminiscent of the one in the classic film noir The Big Sleep (1946), in which Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) rescues young Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from a similarly scandalous photography scene. And the resemblance is probably no accident. That The Big Sleep is based on a novel by Raymond Chandler (who looms so large in the Coens’ work) or that the screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner (who looms so large in Barton Fink) is only typical of the kind of interconnections that run through the films of the Coen Brothers.

Gambon’s voiceover helps to introduce Mannix and his tireless, virtually around-the-clock work for Capitol Pictures. But it also provides commentary that enhances many of the important themes of the film. For example, in his initial description of Mannix, Gambon informs us that “the studio for which he works manufactures stories, each its own day-lit drama or moon-lit dream.” This characterization of the studio calls attention to its status as a capitalist dream-factory but also subtly suggests that there might be something wonderful about these manufactured dreams. At a later point in the film, Gambon’s voiceover makes Capitol Pictures seem even more factory-like, but also casts the studio’s products in an even more positive light. Gambon follows Mannix as he “hurries back to the vastness of Capitol Pictures, whose tireless machinery clanks on, producing this year’s ration of dreams for all the weary peoples of the world.” And, as we are about to attend the premiere of the studio’s latest Western (which bears a 1951 copyright, one of the few specific dates mentioned in the film), Gambon describes the new movie as “another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.”

Soothing balm or not, the production of films must go on, and Mannix is kept more than busy by trying both to ensure that things go smoothly on the sets of the various pictures currently being filmed at the studio and to deal with the considerable off-set difficulties of his stars, while keeping those difficulties out of the press, represented here primarily by the twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played hilariously by Tilda Swinton). The sisters are rather obvious echoes of the real-world rival Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, though (as is always the case with the Coens) they differ from their sources in ways that go beyond the fact of being twins.[17] 

The first film for which we are introduced—and the most important film embedded within Hail, Caesar!—isthe studio’s biggest current “prestige” production, a Biblical epic entitled Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ. This film stars Capitol’s most bankable (and most trouble-prone) star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a charming (but not too bright) rogue with a weakness for the liquor and the ladies (and perhaps the gentlemen as well). In this film-within-a-film, Whitlock plays a Roman centurion who undergoes a change of heart when he encounters Jesus Christ (appearing on film for the first time) and is overcome by his majesty and goodness. It would not do, of course, to have Whitlock involved in a scandal while playing such a role but keeping Whitlock out of trouble (and his scandals out of the newspapers) has long been one of Mannix’s biggest challenges. This film is no exception, though the trouble into which Whitlock is plunged is no fault of his own (though he does eventually exacerbate the situation).

Biblical epics were, of course, one of the key phenomena in Hollywood film of the 1950s (and a particular specialty of MGM), spurred partly by a desire to produce huge, elaborate, Technicolor spectacles that could not be effectively reproduced on the new medium of television, thus giving audiences a reason to leave their homes and go to the theater. Some of the most memorable films of the decade were Biblical epics, of which there were so many that it is impossible to locate just one as a model for Hail, Caesar!*.[18] In reality, the first film to show Jesus Christ’s face on screen was one of the last of the Biblical epics, Nicholas Ray’s MGM-distributed King of Kings (1961), with Jeffrey Hunter as Christ. But the plot of Hail, Caesar!* probably most resembles that of the MGM epic Quo Vadis (1951), while it also contains echoes of MGM’s Ben-Hur (1959), a remake of one of MGM’s first major hits, the silent film of the same title (released in 1925). In addition, it is worth noting that these latter films derived from an 1880 novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, thus sharing a subtitle with Hail, Caesar!*.

Biblical epics were also part of an elaborate publicity program designed to assure the American public that the movies were not the havens for communism and sin that some had made them out to be and that Hollywood was, in fact, just as pious as the rest of America in that God-drenched decade. As usual, however, the Coens avoid any direct commentary on such matters and instead provide, as a commentary on the role of religion in Hollywood, a single comic set piece in which Mannix interviews a panel of religious leaders (a rabbi, a Catholic priest, an Eastern Orthodox priest, and a Protestant minister, all of whom have just read the script) to try to make sure that there is nothing in Capitol’s religious epic to which they might object. The Orthodox minister is concerned that a chariot action scene is unbelievable, but all are impressed that Whitlock is in the picture. When Mannix asks the clerics to stick to religious issues, they begin to quibble among themselves and spout platitudes. Not surprisingly, the Jew gets the funniest lines. When Mannix expresses confusion over the disagreements among the three Christians, the rabbi (played by Robert Picardo) explains that “you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs.” When it becomes clear that the men can’t really agree on anything (but that none seem seriously offended by the movie), Mannix gives up. 1950s America is in the grip of a religious fervor designed to make the U.S. look morally superior to the Soviets, but it is an incoherent enthusiasm informed by little in the way of theological consistency.

Meanwhile, it is clear that, far from hoping to promote religious zeal, Capitol Pictures is interested in producing Hail, Caesar!* because they think it will be a big money-maker, just as were many of the Biblical epics in our own 1950s. Scenes from the film are sprinkled throughout Hail, Caesar!, looking very much like (but not quite exactly like) scenes from a real 1950s religious epic. Indeed, one of the joys of Hail, Caesar! (no doubt for the Coens as well as for us) is that it gives the Coens a chance to shoot a number of reasonably authentic (but slightly askew) scenes from the films being made by Capitol Pictures. Each of these scenes is a little masterpiece, but one of the best of them is an elaborately produced synchronized swimming scene that features Scarlett Johansson playing starlet DeeAna Moran, who herself plays a mermaid in the scene. Moran is clearly based on Esther Williams who rose to fame in the 1940s and 1950s starring in a series of “aquamusicals” and other swimming-based films for MGM, including the 1952 biopic Million Dollar Mermaid, which features synchronized swimming scenes of the sort seen within Hail, Caesar![19] However,Moran’s beauty and grace in the water contrast sharply with her vulgar mouth when off camera, while her behavior off-set causes considerable problems for Mannix, who must deal with the fact that she is pregnant out of wedlock, presenting a “public-relations problem for the studio.” After all, as Mannix tells Moran, “the public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” a suggestion that contrasts sharply with what we see of Moran, who (among other things) has been twice married—once to a gangster and once to a bandleader with a drug problem.

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen Shown: Scarlett Johansson

If anything, Moran’s swimming scene is even more impressive than the scenes in Williams’ real films, even if it is almost too impressive. The same might be said of the brief scene we see early on from a Western featuring singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), whose horseback acrobatics are even more preposterous than those sometimes found in real vintage Westerns. Westerns, of course, were a major force in American film of the 1950s, so it is perhaps surprising that they play such a small role in Hail, Caesar, with only two Western scenes (this one and one comic scene from another film accompanied by Doyle’s singing) appearing in the film.

The reason Doyle’s Westerns are not prominent in Hail, Caesar! is that, early in the film, he is pulled off the Western he is currently shooting to become the leading man in Merrily We Dance, a posh drawing-room drama being directed by fastidious (and possibly gay) British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), something of an amalgam of British maestros such as David Lean, Noel Coward, and Laurence Olivier, with perhaps a dash of the American George Cukor thrown in as well. Doyle is a mere “dust actor,” who is accustomed only to action scenes and is stipulated to be barely able to talk, so he and Laurentz are about as mismatched as it is possible for an actor and a director to be. We actually see very little in the way of scenes from this film because Doyle is so bad at delivering his lines that Laurentz continually has to interrupt him to try to coach him. Indeed, the best parts of this film are not the actual scenes, but the scenes between Doyle and Laurentz as when the latter attempts to teach rough-hewn Doyle to speak in a suavely British style, a moment that clearly recalls the efforts to teach horrible-voiced silent-film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to speak in a more palatable manner so that she can transition to the talkies in the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Among other things, the scenes surrounding Merrily We Dance comment on the dire results that were sometimes obtained in the studio era, when casting was strictly controlled by studio executives, who often assigned contracted actors to roles for which they were not well suited. Doyle is game, though (and “gamey,” according to a frustrated Laurentz), and gives it his all; meanwhile, Ehrenreich’s own performance as the bewildered, fish-out-of-water bumpkin is a highlight of Hail, Caesar! (despite the fact that the then little-known actor was surrounded by so many major stars). Indeed, Ehrenreich himself now seems headed for stardomsoon after the release of Hail, Caesar! he was cast to play the starring role in a Star Wars prequel film about a young Han Solo.

The final film-within-a-film to which we are introduced in Hail, Caesar! recalls Hollywood’s attempts to revive the musical in the 1950s. Here, Channing Tatum stars as Burt Gurney, a gifted and athletic song and dance man clearly modeled after Gene Kelly, except that Gurney seems to have little in common with the actual Kelly other than his talent and the kinds of films in which he stars. The film from which we see a scene is a sailor musical somewhat in the mold of Kelly’s Anchor’s Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949). In this scene, Gurney leads a bar-full of sailors in a rousing musical number that bemoans the fact that they are about to ship out and will be without “dames” for eight months. “Can you beat it,” asks Gurney’s character, ruefully. “You’re gonna hafta beat it,” says the sarcastic, cigar-chomping proprietor of the “Swinging Dinghy,” as the bar is called. Apparently, the Production Code is different in this alternate Hollywood than it was in ours.

The musical number itself, entitled “No Dames,” is brilliantly choreographed and impressively performed, a match for even the best musical numbers from the era of classic Hollywood. Meanwhile, Gurney’s character and his fellow sailors seem blissfully ignorant of the double entendres that lace the song, as when two sailors respond to the warning that they “ain’t gonna see no dames” during their time at sea by suggesting that they might see some “octopuses” or “clams,” both terms suggesting female genitalia in ways that would have almost certainly not passed muster in the classic Hollywood of our world. In addition, the scene riffs on the sometimes-homoerotic implications of dance scenes from classic Hollywood films by having the sailors dance with each other in ways that are blatantly suggestive, especially when accompanied by lyrics reminding us that, while at the sea, that will have no dames but only each other. In a final reminder that the films made in this Hollywood are not quite the same as the ones made in ours, the dancing finally becomes so suggestive that the proprietor has to break it up, yelling, “This ain’t that kind of a place!”

An important subplot of Hail, Caesar! involves the fact that Mannix is being aggressively (but surreptitiously, via secret meetings in a mysterious Chinese restaurant) recruited to leave the movie business and join the Lockheed Corporation as an executive. Not only would Mannix make more money and work saner hours, with fewer intractable problems to deal with at Lockheed, but he would also have a chance to be a part of the “future,” doing serious things in the aerospace industry, as opposed to the “frivolous” work of making movies. How serious is the work done by Lockheed? Deadly serious. Indeed, one bit of evidence of the weighty things being done by Lockheed is the revelation, in one of Mannix’s meetings with their recruiter, Mr. Cuddahy (Ian Blackman), that Lockheed had been heavily involved in the recent testing of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll. Cuddahy is distinctly proud of this participation, but Mannix is not so sure, characterizing the H-bomb as an emblem of Armageddon, clearly seeing the device, not as a harbinger of the future, but possibly as its destroyer.[20]

Ultimately, Mannix opts to stay at Capitol Pictures in what is partly a sign of his personal virtue and partly a statement by the Coens on the importance of the movies. After all, Mannix’s choice of the movie business over the aerospace industry is essentially a reiteration of the choice made by John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels to stick with light comedy rather than socially relevant seriousness in making his own films. Meanwhile, the characterization of Lockheed as the future (and a rather ominous one at that) in this 1950s setting inevitably recalls the famous warnings of President Dwight D. Eisenhower about the growing power of the “military-industrial complex” in American society as he departed office on January 17, 1961. But this characterization of Lockheed is also a key structural feature of Hail, Caesar! that links this subplot with the main plot of the film in important ways.

In this main plot, Whitlock is kidnapped off the set of Hail, Caesar!* by a gang of communist screenwriters, who are working in league with the Soviet Union to try to sneak communist content into Hollywood films and thus further the ultimate transformation of the U.S. into a communist society. For example, one of their films contains a “town hall scene” in which a crooked election is overturned so that “Gus” can become the mayor. The combination of “Gus” and “town hall” is clearly meant to evoke Gus Hall, a leader of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the years after World War II who spent much of the 1950s in Leavenworth Prison for his political activities and who rose to become general secretary of the CPUSA in 1959. The overthrow of the crooked election in the referenced film is clearly meant to symbolize an imagined overthrow of the U.S. government, allowing Hall to accede to the head of the new postrevolutionary government.

Meanwhile, the commie screenwritrs plan to send the ransom garnered from Whitlock’s kidnapping back to the Soviet Union to help the cause there. It is clear, however, that these screenwriters are just as inauthentic as Barton Fink in their devotion to the “little man,” even though they are at least taking political action. After all, as they lecture Whitlock about the ways in which they, as writers, are being exploited by the Hollywood money machine, they are lounging in bourgeois decadence in a ritzy beach house belonging to Burt Gurney (who turns out also to be a communist) while munching on fancy finger sandwiches. Meanwhile, when they try to explain their Marxist vision to Whitlock, they produce what sounds like little more than a string of communist clichés and platitudes, showing themselves to be little more than a leftist version of the panel of clerics earlier convened by Mannix. Actually, almost everything the screenwriters say (such as characterizing Capitol Pictures as an “instrument of capitalism”) is arguably accurate, but the way they seem to think they can actually succeed in their battle against capitalism makes them appear ridiculous. Of course, in this alternate reality, perhaps they can succeed.

Importantly, in their ransom note to Capitol Pictures, the screenwriters simply identify themselves collectively as The Future, thus linking themselves to the Lockheed man and completing a perfect triangle in which capitalism, communism, and religion all turn out to be false solutions for dealing with the problems of the world—though capitalism (linked specifically with nuclear holocaust) emerges as perhaps the most sinister of the three. We should remember, however, that these are alternate reality communists, capitalists, and clerics that cannot necessarily be equated with their counterparts in our reality in any simple way. The communists seem particularly unlike the leftist screenwriters who were known to have worked in Hollywood in our world, even though several of them are based on identifiable sources in our reality. Thus, Matthew Dessem, in an article (“Real-Life”) that attempts to trace the real-world sources of numerous characters in Hail, Caesar!, concludes (correctly, I think) that the portrayal of these screenwriters represents “probably the least fair caricatures” in the film. Among other things, Dessem notes that the leader of the screenwriters is named John Howard Hermann (played by Max Baker), in an apparent reference to real-world screenwriter John Howard Lawson, the unofficial leader of the Hollywood Ten[21] and the one-time leader of the Hollywood section of the CPUSA.[22] Dessem makes this identification based mostly on the name of the character but it is worth pointing out that many of the comments on the film industry made by Hermann in the film resemble the commentary to be found in Lawson’s book Film in the Battle of Ideas. Dessem is also clearly correct to link the film’s elderly Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal) to our world’s Herbert Marcuse, who was a key member of the Marxist Frankfurt School and the author of such important texts as Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964), key inspirations in the rise of the American New Left, as well as favorite texts of many student radicals in the oppositional political movements of the 1960s. The real Marcuse, though, would have been roughly in his mid-fifties during the time of the events of Hail, Caesar!, while the Dr. Marcuse of the film (who has “come down from Stanford” to teach the screenwriters about Marxist theory and whom Whitlock at one point addresses as “Herb”) appears much older. In addition, far from being a Soviet agent who worked to undermine the U.S. government, the real Marcuse was a staunch critic of the Soviet regime—as in his book Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (1958)—who in fact worked for the U.S. government as an intelligence analyst from 1943 to 1950. Moreover, he never worked in the film industry or taught at Stanford and did not live in California until he assumed a position at the University of California, San Diego, in 1965.[23]

The fact that both Gus Hall and John Howard Lawson were sent to prison for their political beliefs (and that most leftist screenwriters had already been blacklisted from working in Hollywood by the time of the events of Hail, Caesar!)suggests just how serious the Red Scare of the 1950s and late-1940s really was. As a result, the most problematic aspect of Hail, Caesar! is that its alternate history turns a very dark episode in our own history into a joke. At the same time, the events of the film would appear to exaggerate the seriousness of the communist presence in Hollywood and suggest that the 1947 hearings held by HUAC (with Karl Mundt as a member) that eventually sent Lawson and other members of the Hollywood Ten to prison, far from being a misguided witchhunt, were in fact quite justified (though these hearings do not appear to have even taken place in the alternate reality of Hail, Caesar!).[24] These alternate reality communists really are a threat to the security of the United States—even though the threat does not appear to be very serious, given that they are also depicted as bumbling incompetents. For example, having successfully collected $100,000 in ransom for Whitlock, they decide to send the money straight to the Comintern via their confederate (none other than Burt Gurney), but (despite the physical dexterity he showed in his earlier dance number) Gurney accidentally drops the money into the ocean as he boards the Soviet submarine that is to take him to Moscow.

The apparently negative depiction of leftist screenwriters in Hail, Caesar! resembles that in Barton Fink. However, as with Barton Fink, there is a possible alternative interpretation of this depiction in Hail, Caesar! For one thing, we should again remember that this is an alternate reality version of Hollywood and that depictions shown in the film are not necessarily implied to resemble anything that has ever occurred in our world. Perhaps more importantly, the depiction of these screenwriters as communist agents is so exaggerated that one is tempted to read it, not as a verification of the paranoid sensibilities of the anticommunists of the HUAC/McCarthy era (who tended to see Soviet-backed communist agents everywhere), but as a parody of those sensibilities. In this distorted, fun-house world, communist screenwriters behave exactly as they behaved in the fantasies of the HUAC investigators who imprisoned the Hollywood Ten and triggered the notorious Hollywood blacklist. They are so insidious, for example, that their captive Baird Whitlock is ultimately won over to their cause, joining the CPUSA—the film even gives us a glimpse of his new CPUSA membership card (#14,162), signed by none other than party president Gus Hall and dated 1951. This card, in fact, is one of the few things in the film that identifies the year of the action as 1951, while other information in the film (such as the fact that the 1954 “Castle Bravo” thermonuclear test has already occurred) clearly indicates that the 1951 of this world is somewhat out of sync with the 1951 of our world. (In addition, the real Gus Hall was never the “president” of the CPUSA and did not rise to its highest office of General Secretary until 1959.)

As Hail, Caesar! ends, Mannix has successfully avoided all of the potential disasters that have been dogging him throughout the film, and business goes on as usual at Capitol Pictures. Whitlock has even returned from his flirtation with communism to complete the filming of Hail, Caesar!*—but only after being slapped around a bit by Mannix, thus replicating Mannix’s man-handling of Gloria DeLamour early in the film. The camera pans up from the studio lot toward the sky, as if to signal that the forces of heaven have, for the nonce, triumphed over the forces of evil. The communists have been thwarted in their attempt to send money to the Comintern, the capitalists of the military industrial complex have been thwarted in their attempt to lure Mannix to their cause, and movies continue to be made. All is right with the world.


[1] Leach, p. 6.

[2] Bergan, p. 128.

[3] Quoted in Levine, p. 101.

[4] Mottram, p. 87.

[5] Booker, Postmodern Hollywood, p. 145.

[6] Along these lines, it is worth noting that Joel Coen has been quoted to the effect that the brothers have considered making a sequel to Barton Fink, set perhaps in 1967: “It’s the summer of love and [Fink is] teaching at Berkeley. He ratted on a lot of his friends to the House Un-American Activities committee” (Rosenberg).

[7] Mottram, p. 77. Mottram also acknowledges the possible importance of other films as sources of inspiration for Barton Fink, including Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the latter of which seems a particularly likely connection, given that it is a horror film about a writer losing his mind while struggling to overcome writer’s block in a haunted hotel, a capsule description that might apply equally well to Barton Fink.

[8] Bergan, p. 136.

[9] Though it seems certain that Fink is based primarily on Odets (and that Fink has little in common with Welles in terms of his talents as an artist), it is worth pointing out that Welles had established quite a reputation for himself on the left-leaning New York stage before being lured to Hollywood to make films.

[10] Bergan, p. 49.

[11] Adams, p. 74.

[12] West, p. 132.

[13] Booker, American Novel, p. 350.

[14] On Faulkner’s experience with Hollywood (including the fact that he first came to Hollywood to work on a Wallace Beery picture), see Meroney.

[15] Naremore, p. 93.

[16] Charlie/Mundt’s ambiguous relationship with fascism also includes the fact that his favorite actor is Jack Oakie, a burly film comedian who was something of a forerunner of John Goodman. Interestingly, in 1940 (just a year before the action of Barton Fink) Oakie had played Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s anti-fascist comic masterpiece The Great Dictator.

[17] In addition, Parsons was associated with the Hearst newspaper syndicate and other Hearst enterprises from 1923 until her retirement in the 1960s, while—in the alternate 1950s of Hail, Caesar!—Thora Thacker is still trying to land a deal to work for Hearst.

[18] For convenience and simplicity, I will henceforth refer to the Biblical epic within the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! as Hail, Caesar!*.

[19] Johansson’s water ballet scenes were actually shot on the same stage at Sony Pictures Studios (called Columbia back in Williams’ day) where Williams shot most of her water scenes (Nathan, p. 167).

[20] Cuddahy characterizes the H-bomb as having been first tested a couple of weeks before his meeting with Mannix. In reality, the first full-scale hydrogen bomb test was performed on November 1, 1952, at the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The largest such device ever tested (and the first hydrogen bomb configuration that could be deployed as a practical weapon), in the “Castle Bravo” test, did occur at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshalls, but in 1954.

[21] The Hollywood Ten were a group of screenwriters, directors, and producers who were called to testify before HUAC in 1947 and who collectively decided to defy the committee and refuse to answer its questions on the grounds that such investigations into the political beliefs of American citizens were unconstitutional. The ten were convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison, while most (including Lawson) were subsequently blacklisted from working in Hollywood, though writer-director Edward Dmytryk avoided the blacklist by cooperating with HUAC in 1951, as did Clifford Odets (who was not a member of the Hollywood Ten) in 1952. On Hollywood and HUAC, see Doherty.

[22] Interestingly, some of Lawson’s important early work was as a playwright working with the Group Theater in New York, which also produced the early work of Clifford Odets.

[23] The Coens appear to be conflating Marcuse with other German Marxist emigrés—such as fellow Frankfurt School thinkers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—who did, in fact, live in the posh Los Angeles coastal area of Pacific Palisades in the 1940s (though not in the 1950s). Adorno and Horkheimer did not work in the film industry and were harsh critics of American “culture industry” in general. However, their Pacific Palisades neighbor (and fellow German exile), the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, did enjoy a brief career as a screenwriter, though he had fled back to communist East Germany in 1947, after testifying before HUAC.

[24] They are slyly referenced, however. A chief tactic of HUAC was to attempt to force witnesses testifying before them to “name names” of the Hollywood figures they knew to have leftist political sentiments. When Whitlock attempts to negotiate with his captors to get a share of his own ransom, he reminds them that he can “name names” once he is released.