Hail Caesar!

By Tim McEown

Mailed on February 19, 2016

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Dear Donna J. Anderson
Hair Stylist

Dear Donna,

If there’s a crewmember of Hail Caesar! who exemplifies this film’s beating heart, it’s you. In the same way that certain Coen Brother’s films are like a Rube Goldberg device designed by MC Escher—exhausting to even think about—the hairstyles you designed for the film are equally byzantine and endlessly complex. They are elaborate, terraced constructions that capture a paradoxical authenticity; they foster the illusion that you are copying an original that never actually existed.

To watch Hail Caesar! is to fall through a wormhole to an alternate 1950’s Hollywood. Which, to be clear, is a charming place to be. The Coens have created an elaborate confection that is both a parody of itself and still deeply in love with the very thing it is poking fun at.

There are singing cowboys, Roman Centurions, Communist, Dames, a square jawed hero racked by uncertainty and, of course, Seamen everywhere. Nothing is sacred to the Coens—which is demonstrated in a sharply rendered set piece involving a priest, a rabbi, a pastor, and a patriarch walking into a room.

But the hair. My god, the hair in this movie. George Clooney with his Roman bowl cut, Josh Brolin with his magnificently brylcreemed pompadour, Tilda Swinton’s behatted magnificence as well as Alden Ehrenreich’s monumental spit curl, Scarlett Johansson’s hair that never gets wet (despite her turn as a faux Ester Williams) and Channing Tatum’s godlike swoop. All of this in aid of creating a place and time that feels absolutely genuine in its artifice.

Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is the centerpiece of this film. He is a fixer for Capitol studios, spending his days and nights at the center of an endless storm of fuck-uppery: actresses having children out of wedlock; stars being kidnapped by disaffected communist screenwriters; gossip columnists attempting to leverage scandals; and then he also makes sure that the machinery of the moviemaking process remains well oiled, both metaphorically and literally.

There’s even an overt Christ metaphor that shadows Eddie like his ace secretary Natalie (a great performance by Heather Goldenhersh) but I suspect what the Coen’s are actually getting at is something a little more complicated.

If this film is attempting to do anything more than entertain, it seems to be an expression of the inherent ambivalence of the Coens’ relationship with the studios, and Hollywood in general, both past and present. They love what it could have been, or what it might still be, but they are clear-eyed about what it actually is. In the same way that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about how small-minded egomaniacs are nonetheless capable of producing great art, almost by accident, Hail Caesar! is a complicated love letter to the unpleasant but captivating characters who often populate the movie making industry.

While religion is often a screen for some of the most unpleasant of human behavior, the idea behind it still remains appealing, even if it is perverted at every turn—much like Hollywood. And it is in this small valley between the aspirational and the real that Hail Caesar! plants its gaudy flag. And you and your magnificent creations helped to make sure that it is a valley populated by men and women with hair that we can all only dream of, Donna. And for that, I salute you.



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