The Big Picture (1989)

There are two reasons why Hollywood doesn’t make films about itself. First, the few studio executives with power to greenlight a project assume what goes on behind the scenes is too inside for the average viewer to understand. Second, they assume audiences will not believe what they are seeing — especially if a filmmaker had the courage to do an honest exposé on the inner workings of Hollywood. Then again, audiences would probably be left wondering how, amidst all the lying, oversized egos, and backstabbing, any film ever sees the light of day.

So it’s no surprise the few filmmakers who have turned their camera back on their own industry have offered us such a cynical view of Tinsel Town. In Sunset Boulevard (1950), writer/director Billy Wilder blends elements of film noir and black comedy to capture the world of a Hollywood has been, a delusional silent screen star long abandoned by her public and the studio she once helped build. After being put through hell by a Hollywood studio in the 1970s, director Blake Edwards sought his own brand of revenge with his underrated satire, S.O.B. (1981). Richard Mulligan stars as Edwards’ alter ego, a director on the mend from a nervous breakdown who tries to salvage his career by turning his latest G-rated turkey into an R-rated blockbuster. More recently, Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) paints a dark portrait of an industry fueled by power, greed, and murder, seen through the eyes of an ambitious studio executive.

In a much lighter vein, yet nonetheless revealing, is The Big Picture, a 1989 comedy released this month on DVD. Directed and co-written by Spinal Tap‘s Christopher Guest (who also directed the improvisational mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show), The Big Picture looks at the industry from the perspective of a young, up-and-coming director having his first brush with success. Guest and co-writers Michael Varhol and fellow Spinal Tap-er Michael McKean have penned a hilarious satire on the development process (the time between a writer pitching a story to a studio and the completion of the final shooting script) that successfully captures how mindless studio executives manage to water down even the simplest of ideas.

The film opens at a student film award ceremony, where Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) takes home the coveted prize and is immediately signed by a high-strung agent, Neil Sussman (Martin Short, who is hilarious), and lands a deal with a sleazy studio head, Allen Habel (J.T. Walsh). He also attracts the attention of a TV starlet (Terri Hatcher), who throws herself at him in hope of getting a part in his film. Nick’s sudden success and growing ego puts a strain on his relationship with his sweet girlfriend, Susan (Emily Longstreth), and best friend and collaborator, a struggling cinematographer named Emmett (played by a refreshingly subdued McKean).

The Big Picture approaches the film industry like a 1950s science fiction flick. Going into a studio chief’s office for a meeting is like entering another dimension, where one sits and listens in disbelief to his/her absurd comments and observes his/her equally bizarre, idiosyncratic behavior. As Bacon himself explains to Guest on the DVD’s witty director’s commentary track, his character spends most of his screen time with Habel and Short silently reacting to what’s coming out of their mouths.

At their first meeting, Nick’s fast-talking agent, who never allows his future client to get a word in, gives it to him straight: “I don’t know you, I don’t know your work, but I think you’re very talented.” Then there’s inane suggestions made by Habel and his production staff when they sit down and discuss Nick’s script. In one the film’s funniest moments, a production executive explains to Nick that his film can’t be shot in black and white because theatres are equipped with projectors that can only show color films. Everyone but Nick nods in agreement.

Consequently, our sympathies remain with Nick, even when he abandons his girlfriend and best friend for Hollywood (his stay proves to be short-lived). Unfortunately, like Nick, we are invested more in his career than his relationship with Susan, and the latter is never satisfactorily developed. Instead, Guest and his writers take the easy way out by having the lovers quickly make a mutual decision to split up (without Susan every getting an opportunity to express how she’s feeling about Nick going Hollywood) and then suddenly getting back together again. Ironically, the film’s treatment of their romance seems as superficial as the premise of the film Nick is trying to get made.

The same goes for the series of fantasy sequences sprinkled throughout. The first of these, figments of an active imagination, involves Nick seeing himself in scenes from genre movies (i.e., driving up to the entrance to the awards ceremony is like a WWII movie; his first reunion with Susan is straight out of film noir). But the familiar, Walter Mitty-like device slows down the action and adds little to the plot or Nick’s development.

Far more comical is the device Guest uses to bring Nick’s film to life, as the young director is forced repeatedly to revise its premise. We see it as he envisions it, but whenever he’s interrupted (which is often), his characters stand waiting to take direction from their creator. As Nick repeatedly pitches his idea to Habel, then to the new (and very disinterested) studio head, followed by a sleazy producer, we witness his meaningful project transformed into an exploitation picture, complete with a beach house, horny teenagers, and three stewardesses.

Moments like these, in which Guest demonstrates how Hollywood dumbs down creative talent to increase its market value, are right on target. The same for the plot twist he and his co-writers devise to resurrect Nick’s career, which, without giving anything away, demonstrates that many people working in the film industry speak only to impress and have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

But Guest certainly does, made clear if you listen to the director’s track, in which he talks about his own experiences making the film. In an example of life imitating art, two weeks into shooting The Big Picture, David Puttman, the studio head who green lit the film, was replaced by Dawn Steel. When the film was completed, Guest had his one and only meeting with Steel, who opened the meeting by saying, “I talked to all of his friends and they all hate the movie.” Like Nick, Guest, feeling like a third grader being told nobody likes you, simply sat there in silence. The story is a reminder, albeit a painful one, that, behind all the absurdity, lies truth.