I regularly lecture my students on the significance of Audience Reception Theory in the interpretation of each film we watch, though I found myself a student of this very lesson while viewing Hail, Caesar!, with the Joel and Ethan Coen as my (presumably) unwitting professors. This film theory essentially argues that each viewer’s interpretation of art will be affected by their own background and personal experiences. In the plainest sense, this means that viewers of Hail, Caesar! with previous experience watching classics from the golden age of cinema are more likely to appreciate the references to Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Carmen Miranda, and countless others. But the latest Coen brothers film took on additional significance for me, having had the experience of being on set while it was filmed.
On the surface, Hail, Caesar! appears to be short on story, instead full of colorful vignettes that represent the many different productions taking place during an average day at a fictional 1950s movie studio. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is head of property protection at Capitol Pictures, which is just a fancy way of saying that he is the fixer employed to protect the image of the studio and its roster of stars, though on this particular day he is considering leaving the film industry for a lucrative management job in the business world. The film is book-ended by visits that Mannix makes to a confessional at a local church, in an effort to decide what he should spend his life doing. Faith must come into consideration, as there is nothing logical about deciding to stay in frivolity of the film industry. This is quite clearly displayed by the chaos that Mannix handles in a mere 24-hour period.
In the early hours of the morning, Mannix protects the image of a young starlet (Natasha Bassett) doing a scandalous photoshoot which may ruin her innocent persona. He returns to the studio to discover that their adaptation of a Broadway hit must replace the leading star with a Western actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), much to the dismay of British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Meanwhile the star of an aquatic musical, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) announces that she is pregnant with the child of a married film director (Christopher Lambert), and the production of Hail Caesar! is in danger when leading actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters who feel bitterly wronged by the studio system. All of this is in danger of being discovered by twin journalists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). As it happens, the kidnapping is made possible with the help of background actors, who nobody cares about because of how easily replaceable they are.
In the film, Doyle wisely remarks that you can’t trust the extras, because you never know what they are thinking. Allow me to shed some light on the subject. Like many struggling actors, I began my career supplementing income with the occasional background work, leaving it behind when better opportunities arose. Being an extra you are constantly made aware that you are the lowest class of being in the filmmaking kingdom (even lower than the dejected screenwriters), a necessary nuisance often referred to as “props that eat.” And so, as quickly as I was able to find roles with actual spoken lines, I left behind the jobs miming in the background and imagined myself better than those below me; if only because there finally was someone below me. But here’s the tricky thing about the industry: Just because you have reached a certain level of success does not mean that is where your career will remain. This is why the greatest advice that can be given is to treat the people below you as good as those above you, because you never know where you will stand on your next job.
Despite a modest amount of success working as an actor, I soon found myself with a financial need to return to the thankless job of being a living prop. These were jobs that I took out of necessity, but when I heard that they were hiring for the latest Coen brothers film, I longed to be a part of the production more than any of the speaking roles I had auditioned for that year. Originally called in for one of the many Roman soldier extras from the title film within the film, I was disheartened to discover that I was not quite brawny enough to fit into the costume. As I saw my chances of watching my filmmaking idols at work slipping away, I noticed legendary costume designer Mary Zophres discussing my “look” with extras casting director Debbie DeLisi. I had worked with Zophres over a decade earlier on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, though hardly expected that she would remember me. This did not stop me from joyously shaking her hand when it was made clear to me that they thought I would fit into the vision for the film, and I would indeed be used in the production. I grasped her hesitant hand with both of my own, knowing this to be an inappropriate action in casting, but unable to hold in my excitement.
But why was I so excited? I knew that being an extra in even the greatest of masterpieces would do little for my career, but being able to participate in the vision of two filmmakers I had long admired promised to reignite a passion which had been doused by the cynicism of reality. I was the bitter screenwriters. In many ways, I suppose I was also Mannix, looking for a sign from God that this was the correct path for my life. I needed to believe in the magic of filmmaking again, and trusted the Coens were the ones to inspire this belief, as they had done for me so many times as an audience member.
Unfortunately, it is not always as easy as deciding to play your part. Would that it were so simple. My first day on set was far from the revelatory experience I had hopes for. Like Mannix, I did not find an answer to my prayers right away, but was instead met with the chaos of the filmmaking process. I was cast as a member of the film crew in the filming of Merrily We Dance, the Broadway hit that western star Doyle struggled to fit into, and often felt just as out of place as he did. As happens on modern sets as well as those in Hail, Caesar!, not all of the background actors were as grateful to be on set as I was. Positioned near me was a particularly whiny wannabe star, unsatisfied with the slow process of filmmaking and unimpressed with the opportunity to watch legendary filmmakers at work. His attitude and constant complaints wore on me, and by the second day these seeds of doubt had permeated my mind.
Religion and faith play a large role in the Coen’s movie about the film industry, a pairing most might assume to be unlikely. But not me. Like Mannix, I consistently find myself bringing doubts about my career path in the entertainment industry to a higher power, and that second morning of filming was no exception. As I walked onto set before the light of dawn had yet broke, I found myself saying another prayer, asking for guidance which would lead me down the path of most usefulness. But my answer did not come the way it does to Mannix in the film, but rather the way that he delivers it to Baird, with a slap across the face and a speech of tough love. “You’re gonna go out there and you’re gonna finish Hail Caesar!” Mannix might as well have been saying to me, giving me the answer to my inquisition of faith, “You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does what he does, and the writer, and the script girl, and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth! And you have worth if you serve the picture.”
I believed this to be true, so I put aside my doubts and gave myself wholeheartedly to the process. Things turned around for me on that second day of shooting. The obnoxiously negative actor staged near me didn’t show up that second day. Another actor cast to play a tuxedoed day player in Merrily We Dance also decided not to return, and as luck would have it, I shared the same measurements and found myself bumped up to become a more active participant in the production. It was nearly a year before I saw the completed version of the Coen’s film, before I knew for certain that it was a picture that had worth. But it was more than that for me, more than just “Another movie, another portion of balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.” It was (and is) a reminder that sometimes all we can do is play the part we were given, and trust that there is someone or something greater than ourselves with a vision we may not yet be capable of seeing.
Should the Joel and Ethan Coen stumble upon these humble musings, I have no doubt that their first reaction will be “Who is Ryan Izay?” Who, indeed. In this brief criticism I have compared myself to the bitter screenwriters, the clueless Whitlock, the out-of-place Doyle, and the spiritually lost Mannix. Who am I? That’s a question I’m still trying to figure out, and perhaps this is why Hail, Caesar! spoke so directly to me. There is a piece of each of these characters in me, as I am sure they are also in the Coens. They may in all of us, to a certain degree, even those of us with wiser careers than the film industry. Hail, Caesar! was a job for me, a paycheck that was greatly needed. It will also forever be an archive for the memories of my experiences, the wonderful people I did end up meeting and had the pleasure of being able to work with: Adam and Debbie DeLisi in casting, production assistants Hannah Hellekson and Jonathan Avila, costume designer Mary Zophres, and my fellow performers in the film within the film (including Lucas Rollo, who taught me to waltz once I discovered that was one of the tasks which came with the upgrade into a tuxedo, and Nichola Fynn, who was my gracious dance partner; sorry about your toes!). My prayer was answered once during the filming of Hail, Caesar! and a second time when I sat in the darkened theater watching the completed vision of the filmmakers I so admire. The Coen brothers may not be aware of who I am, but I am an actor. I am an actor, and one that is eternally grateful to have been given the opportunity to play my part, to find my worth in service of their picture.
The Blu-ray release of Hail, Caesar! includes four featurettes, two of which focus on the cast while the remaining two discuss the period elements of the production. “Directing
” is a brief featurette with the cast praising the filmmakers and expressing their desire to work with them, whereas “The Stars Align” goes into more detail about this cast and the characters that they play. “An Era of Glamour” is a quick look at the magnificent production design for the film, and “Magic of a Bygone Era” examines specific moments in the film which capture the golden era of Hollywood . All four features are in 1080p high definition, as is the film which was shot on film by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Hollywood
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 9.5/10
Historical Significance: 8/10
Special Features: 7/10