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Three Easy Pieces

A star is born?

Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts star in Mulholland Drive’s dizzying descent into the madness of Hollywood. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

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Welcome to Three Easy Pieces, where I explore a witheringly specific area of pop culture from its birth to how it exists today. This month, I'm thinking of A Star Is Born. Hollywood likes to remake it roughly once every generation, dating back to the 1937 original. Though the story's about both the rise of a new star, and the fall of an older star, the aspirational dream of making it in showbiz is the engine that powers all of these films. For a different perspective, I've decided to examine some movies that further skewer Hollywood's rags-to-riches narrative, contorting the vision of fame and glory into warped, biting satire. For brevity's sake, I've had to limit my selections to the past 30 years (apologies to the Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain fans; please know that I see you).

BIRTH: Barton Fink (1991)
Honorable mention: The PlayerGet ShortyHollywood Shuffle

So many of these types of movies center around gifted artists being forced to compromise themselves to make it big. Barton Fink gets at something even bleaker: what if this artist, given an opportunity to get his foot in Hollywood's door, actually had nothing to sell out? The Coen brothers' blackly comedic, inscrutable tale follows John Turturro as the title character, a lauded New York playwright in 1941 who's been flown out to L.A. to write movies.

Fink epitomizes the cliché of the self-aggrandizing, intellectually hollow writer, patently disgusted by the notion of having to dumb down his material for the unwashed masses, while blissfully unaware of how trite and meaningless his work has been. Ultimately, though, Barton Fink has hell on its mind, more than Los Angeles, painting the city as a sweltering nightmare teetering on the edge of apocalypse. Fink's delusions of artistic integrity pale in comparison to the hallucinogenic, creeping dread of his surroundings -- a ghoulish purgatory of a hotel, its wallpaper melting out of place. The ending is an all-time stunner.

DEVELOPMENT: Mulholland Drive (2001)
Honorable mention: Adaptation, Bowfinger, State and Main

I almost have to force myself to remember that David Lynch's hypnotic Mulholland Drive begins with a fresh-faced young actress (Naomi Watts) arriving in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star. Soon, she meets an amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring), and everything goes sideways. What follows is terrifying, baffling, strikingly emotional, and oddly funny, walking that tightrope like only Lynch can. Mulholland Drive functions on a sort of dream logic, floating from one storyline to another, swapping around main characters, and generally leaving the audience loopy with a punch-drunk delight.

While it's easy to get lost in the surreal unease of it all, Mulholland Drive remains, at its core, a dive into the deep, dangerous waters of being an ambitious starlet on the rise. Watts' character's experiences of being used up and cast aside by the mysterious Hollywood machine establish some of the most powerful material in a movie that's almost novelistic in its scope. Keeping in mind that this movie features multiple murder mysteries, an evil puzzle box, psycho-sexual relationships, and at least one horrifying monster -- that its Hollywood satire still resonates is a hell of an accomplishment.

TODAY: Birdman (2014)
Honorable mention: La La LandTropic ThunderHail Caesar!

Though Birdman doesn't take place in L.A., its plot is hinged on one man's career being torn asunder by the ravenous jaws of Tinseltown. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose credibility has been tarnished by years of being the lead in a superhero franchise. In an effort to regain relevance and -- there it is again -- artistic integrity, Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Along the way to opening night, Riggan must deal with his obnoxious, method actor costar (Edward Norton), a daughter who hates him (Emma Stone), and a cold-blooded critic who promises to give his play a bad review.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu dazzlingly frames the movie as if it were all in one, continuous take, though splices are hidden here and there. Keaton is a force of nature, channeling decades of fire and pent-up energy into the role of a lifetime. After Birdman won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it suffered the requisite backlash, with detractors calling it showy and pretentious. Respectfully, if you think that, you're wrong.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: A Very Dark Holiday.

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