A Brief History of Hollywood’s Poison Pen Letters to Himself
H. isollywood loves making films about the film industry. In this genre, the peculiarities of Tinseltown are brought up – from the big egos of the stars to the value of the screenwriters – but the message is that there is no business like show business. “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), for example, mocks its protagonist, a liberal social leader who wants to make serious films; in the end Sullivan (Joel McCrea) realizes that what the infamous people want is not really a dark drama but an escapist comedy – a bit like the one he’s in. idol film that is in danger of career neglect with the advent of sound. What does he do? He creates the musical, of course.
Some films are more clearly hagiographic. “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), a Disney film, aimed to prove how amazing Walt Disney was, with the help of Tom Hanks at his best. The Coen brothers portrayed Hollywood as hell for the titular screenwriter in “Barton Fink” (1991), but when they returned to their fictional studio, Capitol Pictures, for “Hail, Caesar!” in 2016, everything was sweet and light. Even Quentin Tarantino couldn’t help but bring a (if bloody) love letter to his trade with “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (2019).
That does not deny the harsh criticism of the industry that came from within. Perhaps the best example is Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950): William Holden plays a writer whose affair with a former star ends with him face down in a swimming pool. Humphrey Bogart also took on the role of narrator for “In a Lonely Place” (1950). His screenwriter is so over the moon that, when he is suspected of murder, he seems unsure if he is innocent. From the brutal producer Kirk Douglas in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) to the jaded actor Jack Palance in “The Big Knife” (1955), Tinseltown didn’t seem like a shiny place in the mid-20th century. Perhaps it was the gloomy mood of the post-war era, or the communist witch hunts and the prospect of being blacklisted.
“The Beta Test”, a hilarious new satire, lives up to this poison pen tradition. Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in the film, were aware of the legacy of those works as well as “The Player” (1992), which follows a paranoid film operator. “‘Sunset Boulevard’ is such an ugly picture of Hollywood,” Mr. Cummings says. “And ‘The Player’ was just as ugly as our movie and it came out 30 years ago. But for the creators of “The Beta Test”, ugliness was desirable. “We talked about how that world wasn’t pretty. So much of the Hollywood we show is back alleys and chain-link fences,” Mr. Cummings says. “We wanted to de-glamourise it as much as possible. ”
“The Beta Test” tells the story of a Hollywood agent, Jordan (Mr. Cummings), whose life, at first, appears as smart as his teeth. He is getting married in six days and is also planning to close an important deal with a potential client. But things begin to unravel after he accepts a secret invitation to an anonymous sex event. The private duplicity mirrors his public role, Mr Cummings says, with “the constant double-talk, the constant lying”. The film explores “what it’s like to talk to someone you lie to all the time and how that affects your relationship.”
The entertainment landscape has changed irrevocably in the past two decades with the advent of streaming services. As the film was released in Britain, negotiations were being held in Hollywood to avoid a strike by 60,000 workers who were demanding better wages and reasonable hours. These are the changes that Jordan is trying to navigate in the film. His company is trying to carve out a niche for itself in “packaged content” – ie, collecting multiple stars for projects and collecting a fee for the work – which represents a career shift from production to something more like production. (The practice recently led to a long dispute between the Writers Guild of America and major talent agencies.)
Another big change happened with the #MeToo movement, which gained momentum in 2017 after several women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein, a producer, of sexual misconduct. Hollywood’s abusive boss isn’t just fun anymore. Watching Jordan publicly yell at his secretary in “The Beta Test” brings to mind Kitty Green’s 2019 drama “The Assistant”, in which an invisible executive criticizing, abusing and bullying his staff.
In recent years officers known for such hectoring behavior have been dismissed. Does Mr Cummings believe that meaningful change has taken place? “Of course Weinstein is in prison but the support system that got this guy to where he was is still working. They are still at the same companies…so no.” Perhaps Hollywood has never needed self-reflection more than it does today. ■
“The Beta Test” is playing in UK cinemas now and will be released in US cinemas on November 5