The most important thing to remember when considering Joel and Ethan Coen’s relationship to Hollywood is this: they’re outsiders. Raised in the Midwest and educated on the east coast, they live in New York, eschewing the Hollywood social scene. They maintain relationships with actors, but rarely with studios; they’ve only worked with a handful of the latter more than once. That distance (and the hesitation it indicates) isn’t hard to sense in 1991’s Barton Fink and this week’s Hail, Caesar!, their two feature-length explorations of the Dream Factory. But comparing the two films says much about how they’ve become a part of that industry, whether they intended to or not.
Both seem to take place within the same alternate Hollywood (a Coen Brothers Cinematic Universe is one I can actually get behind), with the two stories set at Capitol Pictures, roughly a decade apart. (Hail, Caesar! has an early in-joke reference to Barton Fink, with an offhand mention of the “Wallace Beery Conference Room”; Fink’s title character was employed by Capitol to write a wrestling picture for Mr. Beery.) In Caesar, the studio is clearly a stand-in for industry standard-bearer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; head of production Eddie Mannix (sharply played by Josh Brolin) is named after the studio’s “fixer” during the golden age, and he explicitly name-checks one Nichols Schenck, the Loew’s exec in charge of MGM through the mid-‘50s.
The MGM echoes are less clear in Fink, though there’s plenty of Louis B. Mayer in studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Learner), who insists, much as Mayer would, “we do not make ‘B’ pictures at Capitol!” But Fink — the Coens’ fourth feature — is understandably less interested in the machinations of the film industry, and more in the perspective of the outside artist attempting to penetrate it. Like the brothers, Barton Fink (beautifully played by John Turturro at his nebbish-iest) is a New Yorker who finds Hollywood immediately off-putting and alienating; even his hotel is a puzzle, with an empty lobby, a bell whose single ring won’t stop vibrating, and a bellman who emerges from some bizarre compartment beneath the front desk. And if the blustering, powerful movie magnate is inspired by Mayer and his ilk, also keep in mind that while they were making Fink, they were talking to Lethal Weapon super-producer Joel Silver about taking on their next picture, The Hudsucker Proxy. (He would ultimately produce the film for Warner Brothers; it would become the duo’s most notorious flop.)
Yet for all the trappings of its setting, for all of the name-drops and avatars and picture talk, Barton Fink is ultimately a writer’s movie. It features grisly murders and a pre-Seven head in a box and a Nazi setting a hotel ablaze, but the image with the greatest sense of horror is that of a writer sitting in front of a typewriter, certain he’s sold out, dreading a sophomore slump, terrified that he has nothing left to say and no method of saying it – only to discover, after writing “the most important work I’ve ever done,” that his he’ll be punished for his ambition by never seeing it produced.
But their protagonist is no hero. He’s first glimpsed waiting just long enough to take his audience-provoked author bow on opening night; he insists he’s “merely adequate” (and there’s nothing worse than that) as supporters read the rapturous opening night reviews. Yet he’s clearly bought in to his own notices, casually condescending to the seemingly affable insurance salesman in the next hotel room (John Goodman, perfection) by telling him, “I guess I write about people like you — the average working stiff, the common man,” but when that “common man” tries to tell him his stories, Fink cuts him off with an abrupt, “That’s the point!” or “Sure you could!” He claims to speak for him, but he won’t listen to him.
Barton Fink is ultimately, in his own way, no better than the supposed cesspool he’s lowering himself into – but it is indeed a cesspool, a Hollywood where everyone’s a fraud and everyone’s for sale. Hail, Caesar! starts from that assumption and works forward from it; protagonist Mannix is seen as a faithful, even noble warrior, dealing with the moral failings of his tribe (stupidity, gullibility, promiscuity, inadequacy) in service of the greater good. “The picture has worth,” he tells one of them, after a good hard slap or two, “and you have worth as long as you serve it.” Hail, Caesar! is, as many have already noted, one of the Coens’ most religious films — but the religion at its center is as much motion pictures as it is Christianity or Judaism.
And that’s the key shift in the 25 years between these twin snapshots of their industry — back then, the entry point was an outsider, and now their sympathies (such as they are; it’s rather a reductive concept with these two) lie with the consummate Hollywood insider. It doesn’t mean they’ve become that man in the quarter-century since Barton Fink. But now, at the very least, they understand him.