Hollywood takes a hesitant step into the hall of mirrors

The film industry may be making movies about itself again, but that does not mean it is about to reveal all its secrets, writes Andrew Gumbel
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SUDDENLY, Hollywood is in love with itself. Not just in a narcissistic way (that has been unceasingly true since the dawn of Tinseltown) but as a subject for the movies. After a seven-year gap since the last remotely memorable film about the industry - Robert Altman's The Player - there is now an unexpected plethora of them.

The most popular comedy in the US last week was Bowfinger, a farce scripted by Steve Martin about a film-maker (Martin) who fails to to get the star of his dreams (Eddie Murphy) to work for him, but tries to use him anyway by shooting him unawares.

This weekend's most hotly anticipated release is another comedy, The Muse, in which Albert Brooks plays a screenwriter down on his luck until he discovers Hollywood's best-kept secret: the industry's most successful writers and directors are consulting one of the nine inspirational daughters of Zeus (Sharon Stone).

And where these films are leading the way, more are following. Sugar Town, Allison Anders's latest release, due in American cinemas next month, is a kaleidoscopic portrait of both the music and film industries in Los Angeles; while Being John Malkovich, due out this autumn, is an oddball comedy satirising the culture of celebrity, in which an entrepreneur offers his customers the chance to enter the mind and body of the celebrated actor.

The trend is surprising, because Hollywood is notoriously cagey about dwelling too explicitly on itself. This is risky territory for writers and directors, particularly if they view the town they reluctantly inhabit with anything approaching a satirical eye. When Louis B Mayer first saw the Billy Wilder classic, Sunset Boulevard, in 1950, he was so incensed by its revelation of Hollywood home truths that he told the director: "You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood." (Wilder had the last laugh: his film triumphed and Mayer's career with MGM ended a few months later.)

From the producer's point of view, a movie about Hollywood can seem too much like inside baseball: Hollywood, after all, is supposed to be a palace of dreams, and who can dream if they are making films about themselves? The late Don Simpson, who pioneered the action-movie-without-brains genre with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, made it a rule to reject anything that dealt with the movie business itself.

Both Martin and Brooks were told constantly in the early stages of development that they were "too inside". Martin got around the problem by modifying his script so that it was less an industry satire and more a broad-based farce. Murphy ends up playing two characters, the petulant film star and the geeky nobody hired to be the star's stand-in.

Brooks suffered the indignity of losing his production deal at Paramount before finally selling his film to USA Films, and even then the marketing department chose to stress the romantic-comedy aspect of his work over the Hollywood content. It's an attitude Brooks, for one, doesn't entirely understand. "If you get any 500 people in a room, they know more about show business than they know about any business except their own," he told one interviewer.

Perhaps the problem is less with the subject matter than with its treatment. After classics such as Sunset Boulevard, The Player or Vincente Minnelli's hilariously camp melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, most modern attempts at the Hollywood movie risk looking tired and unoriginal. For all its savvy writing and sharp performances, there isn't anything about The Muse - its view of Hollywood humiliations, its send-up of people's willingness to believe anything if they think it will advance their careers, its portrayal of petty jealousies - that has not been seen before.

There is also an old Hollywood rule of thumb at work here. That rule says: if it works, copy it like mad; if it doesn't work, avoid it like the plague. The success of Sunset Boulevard led to a flurry of Hollywood- inspired movies in the 1950s before the impetus ran out. Conversely, the abject failure of a Joe Eszterhas-scripted project last year, An Alan Smithee Film, probably led to the reluctance of the producers behind Martin and Brooks.

In many ways, the genre was ripe for rediscovery. Increasingly, films dissect the morality of the media and the cult of celebrity - films such as The Truman Show, or Woody Allen's Celebrity. Hollywood may not like holding a mirror up to itself, but slowly it is being forced to admit that these days it is the subject on everybody's mind.