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Hollywood's obsession with fame: Return of the matinee idols

Why bother creating new characters when you can tell the stories of Hollywood greats? Geoffrey MacNab looks at the films cashing in on our obsession with fame

En route to the set of The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock suddenly lurches across the back seat of the car, grabs the breast of his leading actress, Tippi Hedren, and tries to kiss her. The rotund British director, then in his early 60s, moves astonishingly swiftly, like a reptile. Hedren pushes him off and clambers out of the car in a state of distress. This is an early scene from Julian Jarrold's new drama, The Girl, starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller (screening on BBC2 next month.) It's a startling moment shot in pastiche Hitchcock-style, cross-cutting between Hitch and his prey. This isn't just the director goading and teasing the blonde star – it's full-blown attempted sexual assault. Hedren is the only person alive who can say whether the incident actually happened. What it underlines, though, is the growing fascination that film makers and audiences now have for the stories and myths behind their favourite movies.

While Jarrold's focus is on Hitchcock's obsession with Hedren at the time of The Birds and Marnie, another forthcoming film, Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson, tells the story of the making of Psycho. Also nearing completion is television movie Liz & Dick, in which Lindsay Lohan plays Elizabeth Taylor opposite Grant Bowler's Richard Burton. Earlier this year, in My Week with Marilyn, we saw Michelle Williams give a bravura performance as Marilyn Monroe at the time Monroe was shooting The Prince and the Showgirl. We've had films about the making of Citizen Kane (RKO 281) and several dramatising the life of James Dean.

The tendency to look inwards is nothing new. From Sunset Boulevard and The Barefoot Contessa to Barton Fink and The Artist, there have been many films about the narcissism, madness and excess that go hand in hand with film making. Documentaries about Hollywood have always also been made in profusion. The difference now is we're seeing more and more dramatic features about real films and stars.

On the one hand, these films cater to our ever-increasing appetite for celebrity gossip. Where once we had Kenneth Anger chronicling Tinseltown misdeeds in elegant and catty fashion in his Hollywood Babylon books, we now have TMZ and other websites ready to bring us frontline dispatches about the latest celebrity divorces, imprisonments, infidelities and alcohol-induced fits of misbehaviour. For all their patina of nostalgia, the new films aren't slow to expose their subjects' idiosyncrasies: Hitchcock's morbid voyeurism, Monroe's drinking and pill popping, Liz Taylor's conspicuous consumption.

However, these films aren't just exercises in self-reflexive prurience. Hitchcock, Dean, Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe lend themselves to dramatisation. Their life stories and personalities are far more outlandish than those of most fictional characters. Moreover, the very process of film making is dramatic too. Glamorous stars, small armies of technicians, producers and financiers are all thrown together in a collective endeavour whose outcome no one can ever predict. There may be a sense of Chinese boxes about the new fad for the making of films about the making of other films but, as subject matter goes, this territory is as rich as any other.