Life through a lens: Spielberg’s latest leads triple-whammy of movies about movies

It’s the subgenre beloved by insiders but often shunned by audiences. Can new films from Sam Mandes, Damien Chazelle and Steven Spielberg satisfy cinemagoers and awards voters?

“Write what you know” is one of the hoariest adages around, and for film-makers it means making movies about a subject of endless fascination and first-hand knowledge for them: the movies. Audiences have never been quite as interested in the internal machinations of film-making as film-makers themselves, but some of these projects have occasionally broken through to awards triumphs and even box-office success: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, La La Land, The Artist and, further back, The Player and The Last Picture Show were all proud members of the the movies-about-movies subgenre.

Now, the subject has sparked the interest of a trio of A-list film-makers, who each have a major film emerging from the autumn festival circuit with serious Oscar aspirations. The Fabelmans, directed by Steven Spielberg, and Empire of Light, by Sam Mendes, are both strong contenders for the Toronto film festival’s People’s Choice award, announced on Saturday and which has long been a key indicator of Oscar success, while Babylon, from La La Land director Damien Chazelle, is due for a high-profile release around the new year.

The story of a Jewish boy growing up in the midwest in the 1960s, The Fabelmans has been hailed as Spielberg’s most autobiographical film yet, and was co-written by Spielberg and Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner. It stars Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as Mitzi and Burt Fabelman – characters inspired by Spielberg’s own parents Leah and Arnold – and Gabriel LaBelle as their film-loving son Sammy, who has to deal with their marriage breakdown. At the film’s premiere in Toronto, Spielberg said that he was motivated to make the film by the spectre of Covid: “As things got worse and worse, I felt that if I was going to leave anything behind … the thing that I really need to resolve and unpack [was] about my mom [and] my dad.”

Empire of Light tells another “love letter to the movies” story, here transferred to a rundown Margate on the English coast during the depression-hit 1980s. Written and directed by Mendes, it stars Olivia Colman as a cinema manager who bonds with a new employee, played by Micheal Ward; it tackles the era’s attitudes towards race and mental illness. A former cinema employee himself, Mendes told Deadline that his first solo script was equally inspired by his time working at the Donmar Warehouse. “My experience of the strange dysfunctional families that grow up around these places [is] drawn from my experiences in the theatre. I liked the little hubs where people would meet: the stage management room, the green room, the locker room.”

These two films, which both feature lengthy scenes set inside cinemas, arrive as streaming and home entertainment increasingly dominates the market. Anna Smith, film critic and host of the podcast Girls On Film, suggests that sentimentality may be playing a part. “It may be a coincidence that we are seeing a rash of more serious, heavyweight awards contenders exploring these subjects,” she says, “or it may be that both film-makers and audiences are nostalgic for the pre-streaming age.”

“And of course period films about the movies allow for ample amounts of beauty and glamour – costume designers can have a field day.”

The latter will certainly be true for Babylon, Chazelle’s new film, which is set in 1920s Hollywood during the transition from silent films to “talkies” – a time when the industry was considered a den of hedonism and licentiousness. Babylon stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, the latter playing the central role of a young Mexican-American actor trying to make it in Hollywood.

You talking to me? … Paul Dano and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans, one of three forthcoming films about films.
You talking to me? … Paul Dano and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans, one of three forthcoming films about films. Photograph: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin

The film is not yet finished but early footage shown at the Toronto film festival revealed scenes of copious drug-taking, wild parties and huge-scale film-making. Chazelle said Babylon “was about capturing the spirit of that time, which I’d say was a lot more wild west … excess, more drugs, more extreme living on all ends of the spectrum.”

Whether or not audiences will take to these films remains to be seen: none have yet been tested at the real-life box office. Smith suggests: “When they are done well, films about films can fascinate audiences – and even be ripe for self-aware comedy, from The Artist to Hail, Caesar! and even the recent Downton Abbey: A New Era. They seem to be most successful when in an accessible, reasonably light-hearted genre – perhaps we like the idea of Hollywood being able to laugh at itself.” At the same time, the more serious-minded elements of the current crop may act as an awards-season magnet, as the pitch for craft guilds, Baftas and Oscars votes starts to hot up in October and November.

The Fabelmans is due for release in the US on 11 November and on 27 January in the UK; Empire of Light in the US on 9 December and on 13 January in the UK; and Babylon on 25 December in the US and 20 January in the UK.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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