Unconventional Narrative: ‘The Player’ and its Expose of Hollywood Greed

*Warning: This feature may contain some film spoilers for The Player

No matter what the industry is there will always be hypocrisy, greedy, and backstabbing. No corporation is exempt of this grim reality. Worse, the more financially successful an industry is, the more these characteristics are true. Yet what about the industries that perpetuate the notion that they are devoid of these characteristics, that they speak for the people, are one of the people, and continue to be a voice for the people? That industry is Hollywood. This industry, since its conception, has effectively tried to convey the image that it represents the common and average person through filmmaking artistry. To a degree, that is a very true. However, this true-life representation has become more and more difficult with greed and hypocrisy becoming the dominant traits over morality and truth. In 1992, Robert Altman directed The Player, adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Michael Tolkin. The film, just like its source material, is a damning reflection of the film industry.

The film follows Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a senior vice president of production at a major Hollywood studio. He is arrogant, smug, unlikable, yet the film audience is forced to see him as the “hero” of the film. This immediately separates the audience from conventional filmmaking in which we are thrust into a world of hand-shaking, backdoor deals, greed, and paranoia – yet these are normative characteristics for Griffin Mill. He spends his days listening to pitches from desperate writers, yet he lavishes in the process because it allows for him to interject his perceived superiority over them. The writers themselves realize their low chances at success and are willing to convert any original idea they have, even if it means abandoning their artistic integrity for the sake of money.

Originality is a liability within Hollywood. Why? It is because it doesn’t make money. The Player emphasizes this point continuously throughout its narrative. The most prevalent subplot of the film focuses on a film-within-the-film that was picked up on the premise that it was unconventional in its storytelling, specifically because the screenwriter was demanding no big-name actors within it, zero Hollywood conventions of action or suspense, and also demanding his tragic movie ending be kept intact. The originality of the film was in that it conveyed a specific message with a true-life result. In a hilarious twist of irony, the film-within-the-film ultimately stars Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Peter Falk. The film is immersed in dramatic action with Bruce Willis hysterically rescuing the gorgeous heroine from dying, thus deviating from the original ending. Why does this happen? It happened because test audiences of the film weren’t receptive to the screenwriter’s ideas because they have been continually fed Hollywood garbage, to which that is what they expect. The screenwriter, determined to save his movie from being scrapped, willfully has these changes to his movie made. He willfully sacrifices his artistic integrity for the sake of success and money. In other words, greed prevailed over art.

The Player is remarkable in that regard because even today this stands as the beacon of morality with Hollywood, who will make or produce anything that has the chance of making money and ignores artistry. The big-budget production only goes to films that have the chance of catapulting revenue for the studio. In today’s industry, Hollywood is obsessed with sequels, remakes, and anything that can provide an all-star cast. If any film is successful, studios push for sequels because it is their opportunity to maximize their profits, even if it is at the expense of the original film. Most recently, writer/director Alex Garland had to formally announce his intention to NOT make a sequel for his successful film Ex Machina, which was a massive disappointment for film studios. He has been quoted as saying, “It has become reflexive for people to imagine this movie was made to set up for a sequel and that the plan was built into the structure of the film. But it was not that way, at all.”

What Garland is essentially saying is that big-studios, who initially didn’t want to finance the film due to its contained story and originality, now suddenly desire to make a bigger and more impactful sequel that would not only appease audiences, but also guarantee profits for themselves. Garland’s no-sequel stance is rare and extraordinary considering most debut directors easily cave to their temptations. However, Garland recognized that in order for a film to be made with his vision it needed to be made independently and away from studios who would demand dramatic changes to its structure to enhance its financial possibilities. In the world of The Player, Ex Machina would have starred big-name celebrities, would have had grandiose special effects, and contained a ending that audiences would “like.” Instead, Ex Machina‘s success was primarily because of its independent financing, which encouraged subtlety over grandiose. Its ending, despite its harshness, keeps the film fresh because it differs from the standard conclusion that movie narratives typically possess. Also, in a beautiful display of irony, Ex Machina (a low budget film) won the Oscar for special effects over big-or rather-HUGE budget films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. This is the most recent example of less-is-more prominently succeeding. Now studios are desperately trying to get a sequel to Ex Machina made and Alex Garland has the rightful laugh when he has boldly said to them ‘no.’

Regarding big-name actors, The Player is tremendously effective in this aspect. Robert Altman, who was a excellent ensemble director, was able to employ 65 big-name celebrities to cameo throughout the narrative of The Player. This was an especially brilliant move from Altman, who recognized that with Griffin Mill’s profession, he ought to be immersed in Hollywood celebrity. Yet what is particularly interesting about these cameos are two things: None of these actors were paid and they willingly did their cameos for free (if they had all demanded their standard fees, it would have cost the film roughly $100 million in total), but also, none of them were given ANY direction from Altman other than to react as they would normally in a social situation. What this sole direction revealed within the film narrative was the real-life attitude of A-list celebrities in Hollywood. Whenever they meet Griffin Mills they either are passive or antagonistic, suggesting they are aware of their celebrity and are fed up by being seen as a name that makes money. In the most famous of these cameos, Griffin Mills says hello to Burt Reynolds in a restaurant, who immediately calls Griffin an “asshole” the moment he walks away. Reynolds in later interviews stated that during the filming of that scene, it only took him a matter of seconds to size up Griffin Mills to recognize he was a deplorable human being and would never trust him, hence why he improvised his “asshole” comment, which was true to what he would actually do.

Inadvertently these celebrity cameos are also an indictment of movie-going audiences who actively seek out movies because of certain celebrities. The Player actually advertised the cameos, even making it a game if audiences could successfully see and identify all 65 celebrity cameos in a single sitting of the film. When even looking at the cast construction of the film, The Player’s main cast, with the exception of Whoopi Goldberg, were relatively unknown actors (Tim Robbins was a newcomer at the time). Therefore the marketing was encouraging audiences to see the film in theaters for its cameos. Even today’s audiences cannot help and try to count the amount of familiar celebrity faces they see throughout the film. This is direct indictment of moviegoers who actively seek out big-name celebrities to validate their movie-going experiences. This is additionally why the current super-hero franchise craze never casts unknown actors, but only big-name celebrities who guarantee seats will be filled in the theater. The all-star cast of these movies are of no coincidence. Not only do these individual movies contain huge A-list casts, but studios have even merged franchises together (such as Captain America: Civil War) to maximize this celebrity interaction. It doesn’t matter that the films are utterly devoid of content outside of special effects. Studios recognize that people will be lured in by the big-names or the special effects. They are not off base at all in that regard because these films are remarkably profitable despite how terrible they are.

We as a society are obsessed with celebrity, citing big-names as a means of conversation or even validation. Inadvertently, whenever celebrities use their social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, fans use the words of celebrities as a means to craft their own ideology or thoughts. Today’s celebrities are somewhat aware that their words have tremendous impact on their fans, who will listen and do anything they say. Lady Gaga is one such example, who when she says anything her “little monsters” immediately embark on a mission to spread her message and words to others. Lady Gaga isn’t the only celebrity to have an intense fan base and following, but it emphasizes the point that she is saying the exact same thing as everyone else, but because it comes from Lady Gaga, it has more importance. Celebrity over content. Society’s obsession with celebrity is carefully packaged into The Player, thus the film discreetly functions as an indictment of audiences as well.

The fundamental message that comes from The Player is that morality or emotion are massive liabilities in the industry. If your mind isn’t on money or professional-climbing, this is the wrong industry for one to work in. It is no mystery as to why Tim Robbin’s acting style for Griffin Mills was to have him convey zero emotion throughout the entirety of the film. The cutthroat environment of the industry leaves him with no time to consider morality or emoting over life. He is a blank, hollow person and he enjoys being just that because that personality garners money and “socializing” with celebrities and other executives. He lives for the chase. He claims to hate the paranoia of the industry, but the truth is that he lavishes in it. In contrast, any character who exhibits morality is utterly destroyed personally or professionally. Morality gets in the way of money, therefore such persons who carry these characteristics are expendable. This is a Hollywood attitude that is still prevalent today.

Ironically The Player‘s unconventional narrative and glaring expose of Hollywood is a product of immorality. The main plot of The Player is Griffin Mills being threatened by an anonymous screenwriter he had rejected. In a midst of arrogant rage, Mills locates the screenwriter and murders him…only it was the wrong screenwriter. In a twist of fate, Griffin is now being blackmailed by the real screenwriter, who ultimately has The Player, his screenplay, made into a movie. That is the hilarious touch of this film, that The Player was supposedly made because immorality forced it to be made. The screenwriter had to deviate from the convention of pitching an idea, to blackmailing and threatening to murder a producer into having it made. Of course, the film satirizes Hollywood even more with The Player’s deliberate fairytale ending that is so off-putting, so unconventional, so cookie-cutter, that one realizes the happy ending is the studio influences applied to this script. This actually brings the film full-circle, emphasizing that studios ultimately win and individualism is sacrificed for the sake of money.

The Player was nominated for three Oscars in 1993 for Best Director (Robert Altman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Tolkin), and Film Editing. It didn’t win any. However, The Player did win Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical (Tim Robbins).

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