It’s true that the tagline at the end of Hail, Caesar! works on its own as a gag. But as so often with the Coen Brothers, it’s a multilayered joke, indeed one that gets to the heart of what the movie is all about. For who is the non-depicted god in the movie? After all, Hail, Caesar! is a movie about the competition of rival deities, with the overlapping but hostile claims of Hollywood, religion, and revolutionary socialism pitted against each other.
A rabbi in the film says, “For we Jews, any visual depiction of the Godhead is most strictly prohibited,” but there is no problem with making a movie about Christ since “the man Jesus Nazarene is not God.” And, although Hail, Caesar! does open with a full-on view of Christ on the cross, the film-within-a-film that the rabbi is discussing accords the Nazarene more respect than Jews thinks necessary, showing Jesus “only fleetingly” and from behind, so as to avoid any view of what Christians regard as the godhead. Meanwhile, the main character in Hail, Caesar! Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer, is both a devout Catholic and something of a Christ figure, bearing the cross of all the hidden sins of Hollywood that it is his job to cover up. Or, the godhead could be Nick Schenk, the studio head who is noticeably off screen but exercises absolute power in telephone conversations in which he explains the ways of the boss to Mannix. But the godhead could also be Soviet communism, famously described as “the God that Failed” in a 1949 volume whose title resonates with the Marxist subplot of Hail, Caesar!. In the film, set in 1951, a gaggle of communist screenwriters worship the Soviet Union from afar; it’s a Worker’s Paradise they can imagine (or fantasize about) but never enter.
When it was first released, Hail, Caesar! met with an indifferent, puzzled response. Critics were lukewarm and audiences stayed away. “Minor Coen Brothers” was the general consensus. In the New Republic, Will Leitch dismissed it as “perhaps the most jagged, disjointed, and ramshackle of all the Coen brothers’ movies” and a “trifle.” While Leitch enjoyed the movie, he hoped that the Coens would “get back to being serious” in their next outing, sounding a bit too much like Maude Lebowski warning that life is not just “fun and games.”
It takes time to get used to the strangeness of a Coen Brothers movie, so the reputation of an individual film often rises with repeated viewings. The Big Lebowski, now a canonical cult classic, faced bafflement when first released. Hail, Caesar! is likely to have a similar trajectory. In fact, far from being a “trifle,” Hail, Caesar! is thematically profound, a heartfelt and rueful tribute to the craft of filmmaking to which the Coens have devoted their lives. The seeming meanderings of the plot converge around an ethics: there is something divine in human creativity, even in a schlocky Hollywood film, so that by losing ourselves in artifice we find our true nature.
Questions of identity get refracted through debates about the duality of Christ, with a spirited discussion as to how Jesus was both God and man taking place between the rabbi, a priest, a Protestant minister, and an orthodox Patriarch (a quartet looking for a joke where they walk into a bar). These debates are oddly salient to the rest of the film, as Christ’s multiple roles mirror those of the actor, who both is a real person and who she pretends to be.
The film’s long pastiche sequences — where we get extended scenes from a biblical sandal epic, a singing cowboy flick, a drawing room drama, a synchronized swimming feature, and a homoerotic musical — aren’t meant to be mere diversions, entertaining though they may be. Each of these vignettes also reveals something about the actor in their off-screen life. Virginal on screen, the swimming starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) disguises her out-of-wedlock birth by marrying another sort of fictional personage, the “professional person” Joe Silverman, a non-entity who assumes legal roles. It’s a story line that allegorizes Mary, Joseph, and their immaculately conceived child. In front of the camera, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a tap dancing sailor; off screen he’s a quick-on-his-feet Soviet agent who flees in a submarine. In his sandal epic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) plays a Roman tribune who comes to have a “grudging respect” for Jesus, “this swell figure from the East.” And when Whitlock is kidnapped, he’s converted by communists, swell figures from the Eastern bloc. Finally, in the best performance in the film, the winning Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has a both filmic and “real world” transformation from a roughneck cowpuncher to a sophisticated suitor, comfortable in tony society.
Actors, then, have at least two identities, and sometimes more, since aside from their film roles they often wear masks to hide their sexual orientation or left politics. As the film scholar N. Megan Kelley persuasively argues in her new book Projections of Passing: Postwar Anxieties and Hollywood Films, 1947-1960, midcentury American cinema was saturated with concerns about passing and identity. From the mythical era of Cold War certainties, midcentury films reflected the vertiginous anxieties of a time when the person next to you could be black-passing-as-white (Pinky), Jewish-passing-as-gentile (Gentleman’s Agreement), gays-passing-as-straight (Rope), subversives-passing-as-patriots (I Married a Communist, retitled The Woman on Pier 13 for wide release), or even aliens-passing-as-humans (I Married a Monster from Outer Space). Fittingly, Hail, Caesar! echoes the shape-shifting worries of the early Cold War, where everyone is pretending to be someone else, in one way or another, even if they aren’t film stars.
The dual or divided nature of all identity is echoed in the very names of the film’s characters, the director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton). This theme helps explain the otherwise inexplicable presence in the film of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The movie Marcuse is rather unfair to the real thinker, who, far from being a Stalinist stooge, was actually acutely hostile to the Soviet version of Marxism. Still, Marcuse’s Hegelian concern for the divided nature of humanity under capitalism is pertinent. “Man is unitary — a simple economic agent,” the film’s Marcuse teaches. “Man’s institutions are split, expressing contradictions that must be worked through.”
Like the other Frankfurt School theorists, Marcuse believed that the cultural industries were capitalism’s most powerful tool, the real method whereby the working class is deflected from revolution. Humanity is divided in capitalism: religion offers to end the division through faith; revolutionary Marxism to end the division through socialism; and Hollywood to end the division through escape into immersive entertainment. For Marcuse, of course, only one of the three solutions, socialist revolution, is real, since the other two only serve to reinforce capitalism while numbing its pains. There’s always the danger that the cultural industries are powerful enough to indefinitely foreclose a revolutionary outcome. Can screenwriters and filmmakers do anything but abet this unholy alliance? Can the Coens?
The Coen Brothers are striking proof of nominative determinism, the idea that one’s name foretells one’s destiny. Coen is a variation of Cohen, which derives from the Hebrew word “kohen,” or priest. The Coens have always been priestly filmmakers making theology-obsessed films, but hitherto, Satan has been more visible than God in their movies. Almost all their films have a devil figure who relentlessly destroys goodness — Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
In Hail, Caesar!, the devil is, perhaps, the Lockheed executive who tries to tempt Eddie Mannix away from Hollywood, dismissed as a childish trade, to join the grown-up world of apocalyptic armaments. Mannix resists this Mephistophelian bargain, losing the world but saving his filmmaking soul. The Lockheed executive also warns of the imminent apocalypse of television, which he prophesizes will destroy the Hollywood Mannix loves. As so often, the Devil speaks the truth: it is the case that the studio system celebrated by Hail, Caesar! collapsed in the face of competition from TV. While movies continued to be made, Hollywood lost its monopolistic hold on the culture. Of course, the danger faced by Mannix continues to threaten the Coens today, in the form of direct-to-streaming cinema. The next movie they made after Hail, Caesar! was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, produced for Netflix, although it received a small theatrical release. The hidden emotional drama of Hail, Caesar! comes from the Coens questioning not only whether it’s possible to make politically committed cinema, but whether it’s possible to make any cinema in an increasingly competitive media landscape.
Mannix’s renewed commitment to working within the studio system is nonetheless an apparently happy ending, distinguishing Hail, Caesar! from the spate of mostly downcast movies that the Coens have made recently, where the characters all seem like they are trapped in Purgatory or Hell: Burn After Reading, True Grit, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis. The absence of God was especially keenly felt in A Serious Man, a retelling of the Book of Job but without any consolation. And in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, almost all the characters come to a bad end, with the final story in the anthology actually involving a journey to the afterlife. Compared to these other films, Hail, Caesar! seems to offer a sliver of hope.
But, as always with the Coens, there’s a twist to ponder. Caesar is traditionally the rival of God: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” And yet, the full title of the movie is Hail, Caesar! — A Tale of the Christ. What are we to make of Mannix’s conviction that he can serve conflicting deities (the Caesar of commerce versus the Christ of spirituality)? Such competitive dualities vex many characters: the Marxist screenwriters are torn between the conflicting demands of pushing political messaging and crafting entertainment. These seeming contradictions can perhaps be answered by the philosophy offered by Mannix’s ideological foe, Marcuse.
In typical Marxist fashion, the Marcuse of the film sees the dialectic as both the engine of change which turns seeming contradictions into transcendental new realities. “We each pursue our own economic interest — we ourselves are not above the laws of history,” he says. “But in pursuing our interest with vigor, we accelerate the dialectic, and hasten the end of history and the creation of the New Man.”
In terms that the film’s Marcuse might endorse, perhaps the true God is nothing less than the Dialectic itself. In the film, neither capitalism nor Hollywood are the true villain or martyr — neither the devil nor the God — but rather agents of conflict out of whose struggle emerges the redeemed world, in the form of art. It’s this redemption that gives comfort to Mannix, and possibly, the Coens themselves.
The voice-over of Hail, Caesar! ends the movie on an uplifting note: “But the story of Eddie Mannix will never end,” we’re told. “For his is a tale written … in light everlasting.” This hallelujah has an element of self-reflexivity, since it doesn’t so much affirm Mannix’s choice to make films as remind us that he is a character in a film (made visible by the “light everlasting”). What’s being affirmed here is not any political or ethical decision of Mannix itself, but rather the beauty of the fictional universe he inhabits, the thrilling artifice of the Coens themselves, the true dualistic deity of this created order. Mannix’s immortality is not that of divine salvation but of being embedded in a work of art, which has now concluded.
Jeet Heer is a cultural critic and co-editor of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) and A Comics Studies Reader (2009).