The Player (1992)
Sticking with the theme of “Hollywood is a giant monster run by monsters” we move onto Robert Altman’s star-studded black comedy The Player, a film marked the acclaimed directors return to mainstream acceptance, while also acting as a very polite and subtle “fuck you” to the industry that had turned its back on him.
Based on the novel of the same name, The Player follows Griffin Mill a studio executive in Hollywood who is fighting to keep his job from being taken by a younger up and coming executive, while also trying to discern the identity of a disgruntled screenwriter who has started sending him death threats.
In Hollywood, we often celebrate the talents of the actors, writers and directors, as well as those involved in the more technical aspects such as costumes, special effects and so on. No one ever stops to say “my favourite people in the film business are the studio executives”. Why is that you ask? It’s simple, studio executives are the bane of film-makers everywhere, snakes in suits who, devoid of talent, somehow get to decide what films get made while also deciding how they get made.
With The Player, Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkien satirise Hollywood and all its ugly superficial glory and it is vicious at times. Altman once claimed that the film was not intended to upset anyone in the industry, one can’t help but feel that he has a special place in hell reserved for studio executives who he gleefully portrays as greedy soulless cretins who claim to about the quality of a film but really care more about how much money it could make what awards they might win.
This grotesque depiction of the Hollywood executive is personified by Griffin Mills, your archetypal arsehole Hollywood executive played to slimy loathsome perfection by Tim Robbins in a performance he seems to be having way too much fun with.
Robbins exudes that shallow contemptible sleazy aura that one imagines when picturing your stereotypical executive, a man professes to love film and boasting what appears to be a deep knowledge, but he seems more focused on keeping his very well paid job than green-lighting a film that would be worth anything. This loathsome quality that Robbins imbues is only heightened when Dunn tries to figure out who is sending him menacing letters, with the character’s behaviour veering from questionable, sinister to downright illegal as things go on.
I felt genuine contempt for Griffin Dunn as a character and wanted to see him suffer a cruel and especially painful downfall for all he does to those around him. Let’s just say that the genuine hatred that I felt for this character is my way of giving Robbins all the credit in the world for managing to create someone who is arguably even more evil than most genuine movie villains.
While Robbins is undoubtedly the star of the film, with terrific support turns from Greta Sachi and Whoopi Goldberg among others, The Player is perhaps best known for boasting one of the most star-studded casts of cameos ever assembled, with Hollywood’s best and brightest appearing as themselves.
While most are “blink and you’ll miss it” appearances, although that in of itself makes for a fun bit of “oh look it’s (insert name)”, some are afforded much flashier cameos such as Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts appearing in a very trashy film within a film entitled Hapus Corpus or the late great Burt Reynolds summing up Griffin Dunn’s character nicely with a simple “Asshole”. I especially enjoyed a menacing appearance from the awesome Malcolm McDowell who makes it very clear to Dunn (and all of us) that if someone is going to bad mouth him they should really do it to his face.
With this being a film about Hollywood, of course, the film is littered with all kinds of referential dialogue often with some very creative and referential cinematography in a nice bit of subtle bit of meta commentary. Case in point, the film’s incredible opening credits sequence, a breezy seven-minute tracking shot in which the camera glides around a studio car park, introducing us to the various faces that we’ll be seeing more of throughout the film. And then the camera hones in on one particular character who happens to be talking about Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a film famous for its 7-minute long opening tracking shot.
The references also extend to more subtle areas such as the backgrounds with walls being packed with posters to all manner of Hollywood classics, many of them, funnily enough, being film noirs in which loathsome protagonists often found themselves embroiled in a mystery. A bit like The Player.
One particular target of Altman and writer Tolkien is in Hollywood’s eagerness and, in many cases, preference to abandoning “reality” when it comes to creating its stories. Often being willing to sacrifice a powerful story with a downbeat but realistic ending for something entirely fantastical and false where everything works out in the end, a classic “Hollywood Happy Ending”.
Even when Hollywood does agree to tell a serious story that could feature “gas chambers” they will insist that you add a sex scene before the big execution scene to keep things light because as we all a know; sex pulls in the punters. Funnily enough though, that’s exactly what happens with this film as it nears the end, with it even boasting a sex scene thrown in for the third act, before it all comes to a head in a climax which acts as a twisted variation on the classic “Hollywood Happy Ending”.
Boasting a deliciously loathsome performance from Tim Robbins, a sharp script that acts as a nice little dig at Hollywood and boasting superb direction from a master film-maker gleefully taking revenge against an industry that turned its back on him, The Player is a fantastic film that you might want to check out out. Otherwise, I might just have to get into the postcard business.
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