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Los Angeles Kills Itself: A Cinematic Look at Hollywood as Hell

Written by on March 3, 2016 

Knight of Cups 7

For those many aspiring artists who make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles in hopes of finding their silver screen dreams, the city can take on a magical and enticing air. More often than not, small town beauty queens and football stars hoping for fame shoot for the stars and land among the trash. As beautiful a city as it is, Hollywood is also a place where the strong eagerly use and discard the weak with a frightening frequency. Can’t take the pressure? Don’t fret. There is certainly no shortage of wide-eyed kids waiting to take your place.

In Knight of Cups, the latest film by Terrence Malick, Christian Bale stars as a Hollywood screenwriter drifting through the sights and sounds of contemporary Los Angeles. To mark the occasion, we’ve taken a look back at the finest films portraying the dark side of Hollywood — the broken hearts and crushed dreams. Check out the list below, and use the comments to suggest your own favorites.

Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Barton Fink

Not unlike Contempt‘s protagonist, Barton Fink is also an acclaimed playwright, beckoned to write his first Hollywood script: a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Begrudgingly accepting the invitation, Fink arrives in town, hanging his hat at the Hotel Earle, a moldy dump which seems otherwise unoccupied save for the booming voice of the man in the next room. The voice belongs to Charlie, a traveling insurance salesman whose bluster charms Fink enough that they become pals. Barton, like many Coen brothers characters, is a shameless hypocrite, claiming to be an advocate for “the common man” yet totally oblivious to the one living next door. Even as Barton writes what he believes to be the best work of his career, he’s renounced by the studio, threatened that his work will never see the light of day. After all, the contents of Fink’s head are the property of Capitol Pictures, which returned to the screen in this year’s Hail, Caesar!

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard)


Hilariously billed in its trailer as “the new traditional film by Jean-Luc Godard,” Contempt confirms the director to be an artist utterly intoxicated by cinema. It’s the master’s most emotionally evocative work, a sadly romantic and fractured elegy to a dying relationship. The narrative follows a playwright (Michel Piccoli) working on a film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey that’s directed by the great Fritz Lang. The writer brings his gorgeous wife (Brigitte Bardot) to the set and quickly pawns her to the boorish producer, a curious move which causes a rift in their loving relationship. The middle act is dedicated to the couple’s bickering conversation as they bathe and dress, the seeds of their separation already long since planted. That evening, they attend a screening of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, a more hopeful film about a relationship on the verge of collapse. Unlike that film, Godard’s ends in violent tragedy, a chilling note following the elder Lang’s wise words: “Death is no conclusion.”

Ed Wood (Tim Burton)

Ed Wood Starring Johnny Depp

Tim Burton‘s hilarious film does not portray Ed Wood, legendarily the worst filmmaker of all time, as a bumbling fool. Rather, Wood (Johnny Depp) is shown to be an enthusiastic artist with an open heart, so in love with the process of filmmaking that he cannot help but overlook glaring mistakes. (“You know, in actuality, Lobo would have to struggle with this problem every day.”) Featuring an acerbically clever screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film is a black-and-white celebration of Wood’s creative enthusiasm, which converts even the most cynical of audience members to Team Ed. By the end, we’re rooting for Wood to make yet another terrible movie. In real life, Wood’s story continued long after the film version ends, his life eventually ruined by alcoholism and his career reduced to shooting sub-sleazy nudie films. Wood died penniless in 1978, two years before Michael Medved’s Gold Turkey Awards heralded Plan 9 from Outer Space as the worst film of all time. Just like Vincent Van Gogh, Wood was criminally unappreciated while he was alive.

In a Lonely Place (Nicolas Ray)

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY

In Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, horrible tragedies can bring together love-sick, lonesome people, if only for a brief time. Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter accused of murder, and his only alibi is Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the seductive blond who lives across the courtyard. She clears his name and they soon fall in love. But as the suspicious glares continue, Steele’s violent behavior causes Laurel to question her trust in this unusual man. No matter what he says or does, in her eyes, he is still simply the man she met in a police interrogation room. The real life story of the film’s making is equally melodramatic, as Ray was married to the film’s lead actress, and their relationship ended during the film’s production when Ray discovered Grahame in bed with his thirteen-year old son. In a Lonely Place is a story of two imperfect people who could have loved each other, were they not torn apart by betrayal, anger, and paranoia.

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)

LA Confidential

In Hollywood, even the cops want to be famous. Curtis Hanson‘s adaptation of James Ellroy‘s epic L.A. crime novel depicts the city of angels as a sunny, picturesque Shangri-l, where the movie stars play and the American dream can be found around every corner. Beneath the surface veneer, the city is watched over by a violent and corrupt police department where good cops are the minuscule minority. Officers work hand-in-hand with muck-raking gossip columnists, setting up aspiring actors to land simultaneously behind bars and on the front page. Political manipulation is a daily reality for officers such as Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Bud White (Russell Crowe), who unravel a mystery involving the deaths of nearly a dozen people at a greasy-spoon diner. What does all this have to do with a call-girl service boasting hookers surgically altered to look like movie stars? L.A. Confidential‘s Hollywood is a place where everybody is in on the same scam, “quid pro quo” seemingly the town’s motto. Even Exley, one of the few honest men on the force, admits, almost proudly, “They’re using me, so, for a while, I’m using them.” Indeed, even the cops want to be famous. But you don’t always get to choose why your name is in the newspaper.

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