Andy Warhol once remarked that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Now, more than ever. Every hometown idiot wants to be the next Sanjaya, the next dancing partner to John O’Hurley, the next guy in a flak jacket posing in front of a ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign. It doesn’t matter whether the YouTube junky has any talent or accomplishments; this fame-drenched rube just wants to soak the media for all it’s worth. Hence the object of this exercise: Listing films in which the hero throttles the media for fame, fortune, and recognition. Some of the films below reach back over 50 years, but their bitter satirical barbs still hit the bull’s eye along with the bull and are as contemporary as next week’s Lindsay Lohan exclusive, straight from the drunk tank.
1) Nothing Sacred (1937)
Cantankerous director William Wellman helmed this poison-pen letter to phoniness and cultural sanctimony, starring Fredric March as a mercenary reporter for a big city newspaper who latches onto the poor sob-case of Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a woman dying of radium poisoning. Even though she is not really dying of anything — except a desire to bilk New York City and its inhabitants for anything they are willing to give her as the dying media darling — the vultures crying crocodile tears and charting Hazel’s impending doom via newspaper and radio exclusives (‘For good clean fun, there’s nothing like a wake’). March and Lombard squeeze the city fathers until the inevitable specialists arrive to examine Hazel’s condition, then all hell breaks loose.
2) Roxie Hart (1942)
Never one to leave ‘well’ enough alone, William Wellman is back again for another eye-poke to the media. Compared to Roxie Hart, Nothing Sacred looks like The Song of Norway. Instead of Carole Lombard, we now have Ginger Rogers, more brittle and hardboiled than during her Warner Brothers days. She plays Roxie Hart (‘the prettiest woman ever tried for murder in Cook County’), nabbed by the cops for pulling out a gun and shooting her boyfriend point blank. Enter sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), who takes on her case, convincing Roxie that a murder trial will do her showbiz career good, turning Roxie into a media exploitation cutie, pleading self-defense. The public lines up like ducks in a shooting gallery, ready and willing to be duped. Even the judge in her murder trial bounds over the bench to get into a two shot with Roxie on the witness stand as the photographers flash away. If all this sounds familiar, it should, being the basis for the hit Broadway musical and Academy Award-winning film Chicago.
3) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
You know right where this movie is heading when, soon after the credits are over, the voiceover narrator of the film turns out to be a corpse floating dead in a swimming pool. Billy Wilder’s mordant look at how Hollywood illusion rages like a virulent disease. Gloria Swanson nails the clouded mind and walking-corpse grandeur of silent film icon Norma Desmond, ripe in her mind for a comeback; William Holden appropriately hateful and venal as a failed screenwriter turned kept man; and Erich Von Stroheim for once is the most pathetic character in the film as Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s former director/husband and present butler/chauffeur. A collection of Hollywood ‘waxworks’ (H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton, and Hedda Hopper among them) appear in the film as set decoration. Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself. Of course, the press is there at the end to catch Gloria Swanson in complete crackup mode.
4) Ace in the Hole (1951)
Kirk Douglas is at his hardboiled best as unscrupulous rag-newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (‘I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.’) in Billy Wilder’s scathing follow-up to Sunset Boulevard. Douglas is chomping at the bit in the sticks, looking for a fake news to bloat up to bring his byline to the attention of New York editors and he finds the mother lode in the desert — a hapless miner trapped in a sliver mine. Douglas quickly exploits the situation to the hilt, turning the entire desert town into a population of rubbernecking geeks at a media circus. Seeing a good thing when he sees it, Douglas, Master of The Spin, halts the rescue of the miner to wring the last drop of exploitation from the situation. But Douglas isn’t the only sleaze bag, the entire town is in for the take including the miner’s reptilian wife who gets the immortal line, ‘I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.’
5) Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Frank Tashlin, the satirical master at skewering the bloated advertising hyperbole of the ’50s and ’60s, has a field day in his masterpiece Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Tashlin explodes media hype in a style echoing both cartoon slapstick and Bertolt Brecht. Tony Randall is Rock Hunter, an advertising agency flunky, who becomes the target of a media blitz linking him with buxom movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) in order to promote Stay-Put Lipstick (for ‘Oh-So-Kissable Lips.’) Although Hunter at first enjoys the media adulation (‘That’s right, Sweetie. I’m President of Rita Marlowe Productions, Inc. but Miss Marlowe is the titular head.’), he quickly wearies of the attention and ends up on the run when he discovers that he is being packaged and sold just like the products his firm is trying to jam down the throats of consumers.
6) A Face in the Crowd (1957)
‘Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers… they’re mine! I owe ’em. They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am.’ Thus declares media sensation Lonesome Rhodes, played to the hilt by Andy Griffith, in one of the great film performances of our time. Elia Kazan’s in-your-face direction charts the meteoric rise of roving country bum Lonesome Rhodes from destitution in a county jail, to radio and television stardom, to political kingmaker — a true American success story. Rhodes utilizes his country-boy charm to bamboozle the public, who thinks that Lonesome Rhodes is one of them.
7) The Patsy (1964)
Jerry Lewis directed and co-wrote this most cynical take on American stardom. Lewis is Stanley Belt, an inept bellboy, who, despite having no talent, is fashioned into a celebrity by a group of a dead comedians’ retainers, looking to hold on to their glorified lifestyle. Lewis casts the cabal of insincere sycophants with a collection of supporting actors fashioned in hell — Ina Balin, Everett Sloan, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine. When Lewis swings his P.O.V. camera at each of their phony, grinning mugs, it is truly apocalyptic. The film features Lewis at the top of his game as both comic and director, but he saves the best for last. After Ina Balin thinks Stanley has fallen to his death from a balcony, Lewis pops up on the other side of the balcony and explains to Balin that all is well, because they are all on a fake studio set. Lewis then dismisses the film crew (‘Crew. That’s lunch. One hour for the actors and seven days for the technicians.’), the film ending with the production minions walking off the set and going out to eat.
8) The King of Comedy (1983)
Rupert Pupkin (
Robert De Niro) has his moment in the sun (‘It’s better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime’) substituting for talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) on Langford’s talk show. Because Pupkin has no aptitude as either comedian or talk show host, the only way Pupkin can make the grade is to kidnap Langford and cut a deal with Langford’s producer for a guest host spot on the program. Lewis delivers a performance etched in loneliness and De Niro makes Pupkin into an endearingly thickheaded moron (the cue-card reading scene between Lewis and De Niro is pitch perfect). Pupkin is even apologetic to Langford when Pupkin stalks him into the living room of his upstate home: ‘I’m sorry, Jerry. I made a mistake.’ ‘So did Hitler!’ retorts Jerry.
9) Zelig (1983)
Woody Allen explores fame in all of its permutations in this false documentary about Leonard Zelig, in an extreme act of schizophrenia, adapting his physical personality to whomever he is with at the time in order to be accepted. As the portentous narrative intones, ‘The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat.’ Allen, aided by cinematographer Gordon Willis, seamlessly inserts Allen’s Zelig into newsreels, film clips, and photos from the ’20s and ’30s, creating a bitter take on media manipulation and exposure. At the height of Zelig’s popularity, Zelig delivers a speech to a cheering crowd that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the film: ‘This shows exactly what you can do if you’re a total psychotic.’
10) Quiz Show (1994)
Robert Redford’s film about the ’50s quiz show scandals on the program Twenty-One, is perhaps the gentlest film of the bunch. Redford betrays a true fondness for both of his game show contestants — the shrill, embittered Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) and the suave, elegant Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). To increase ratings, the producers of Twenty-One edge the Jewish Stempel off their program and replace him with Van Doren, the king of the WASPs. Feeding contestants correct answers to improve ratings doesn’t seem to bother the producers in the least — as producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) remarks, ‘It’s not like we’re hardened criminals here. We’re in show business.’ Enright was prophetic, for today, the entire world is in show business and the quiz show scandals are a portent of what the media-engulfed world would become. Investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) summed it all up nicely, ‘I thought we were going to get television. The truth is television got us.’