Video Virgil: Antique Self-Portrait
While on the subject of movies about Hollywood, it's worth revisiting one of the great ones: "The Player," directed by Robert Altman and based on the icy-hearted novel by Michael Tolkin.
The plot is simple: an egotistical, unimaginative producer (Tim Robbins) is terrified of losing his job to an even more egotistical, unimaginative producer (Peter Gallagher). Plus he keeps finding threatening postcards in his car, desk, pockets, and home. Someone is stalking him, and since his job consists of sneering at writers' pitches all day, he suspects a disappointed writer. After guessing which one, he tries to buy the guy off, then semi-accidentally murders him.
"The Player" riffs beautifully on the old themes of art and commerce and the ugly side of human nature as revealed in the sort of competition where the prizes don't go to the best but to the most cutthroat. Our producer comes out on top without being redeemed in any way. Indeed, the film cleverly manipulates our ingrained expectation of a happy ending.
It was not a Hollywood mogul but the novelist William Dean Howells who said, "What the American audience really wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." To their credit, screenwriter Tolkin, director Altman, and the many Hollywood luminaries involved in this film stay true to that ironic line.
Two caveats. First, the love interest played by Greta Scacchi is annoyingly opaque. I was ready for her to be the mastermind behind it all, not just one of the prizes. But that would have required a female to be smarter than all the males, NOT a Hollywood trope.
Second, "The Player" came out in 1992, long after the system was taken over by the blockbuster - or to use the term of art, "locomotive": huge, repeatable extravaganzas like "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Terminator," "Indiana Jones," "Die Hard," "Batman," "Harry Potter," "The Fellowship of the Ring," "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "Shrek" ... the list keeps getting longer. In this context, "The Player" feels downright antique. If there is a good blockbuster parody out there, please tell me about it!