The Player

The Player

Death of the Happy Ending

Robert Altman presents Hollywood as a metaphor for the real world.

Dan Hobart

Business and art—two seemingly disparate facets of human culture. Many pursue the dream of their successful combination, yet it seems that most actual efforts in this direction require a sliding scale to indicate whether the businessman or the artist dominates. Take movies: artistic merit, creative expression, and honesty rarely make for commercial success. When they do meet—with films such as Gladiator and American Beauty—the Academy rightly stands to attention, and much hearty back-slapping follows.

Is it a coincidence that both of the aforementioned films have “sad” endings? The Player’s Tom Oakley (played by Richard E. Grant) would have you think not, because “that’s what really happens.” In other words: shit. Shit happens, and it happens to people good, bad, and indifferent, people who drive a Mercedes or a mule. Cosmic poop is no respecter of persons.

The thing is . . . we already know that. We don’t need endless reminders. No, far better that the movies in which we immerse ourselves for countless hours be uplifting. As the credits roll we all want to be happy, don’t we? So it is written, so shall it be done—a decree passed by the lords of moviedom: development executives, of which Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is one.

Griffin Mill is undergoing a journey throughout the film—from part-artist/part-businessman to all-businessman, from human being to money-making machine. The message of Robert Altman’s The Player is simple: If you play in Hollywood by Hollywood’s rules, this will happen to you too. Sure you’ll drive a Rolls Royce and maybe become head of a studio, but the price you pay is your humanity. A deal with the devil sounds dangerous, but feelings are for suckers, right? And who believes in devils these days anyway?

The Player hits the “happy ending” meme enough that you soon realize its significance: in this world, one person’s happiness is usually achieved at the expense of another’s. Griffin Mill’s at the expense of David Kahane’s . . . June Gudmundsdottir’s instead of Bonnie Sherow’s . . . and maybe Larry Levy’s instead of Griffin’s—as the possibility of the latter being ousted by the former is the very trigger which causes Griffin to attack Kahane in the car park when provoked. This is essentially the textbook definition of “dog eat dog”—a globally recognized mantra doubly applicable in Tinseltown.

When June asks him why her late boyfriend’s script went unproduced, Griffin explains that “it lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully . . . Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mostly happy endings.” Her reply nicely sums up the theme of the film: “What about reality”?

Her questions come from an honest naiveté, as June herself doesn’t watch films, doesn’t know any movie stars, doesn’t read books . . . and in fact seems almost oblivious to those things with which the rest of society is obsessed. She is drawn as an ice queen to underline the difference between the Real World and the world of business-driven movies—one guarantees a syrupy after-taste, and one does not.

Producers and other executive midwives wield considerable power in bringing a movie kicking and screaming into the world. The Player reminds us of the words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was referring to politics, but with movie stars governing California and whatnot, it seems just as applicable to the fusion of business,  entertainment, and sometimes art that is Hollywood.

In The Player power and corruption enjoy a two-way symbiotic relationship. Who could ask for a better example than Griffin Mill? Griffin’s power increases as his corruption reaches saturation point. It is only by extinguishing his last sliver of humanity that he literally gets away with murder—and figuratively murders his own artistic side—becoming head of the studio to boot, and leaving Bonnie, the film’s only humane character, out of a job and crying in a heap.

Before he gets to that stage, we are shown an interesting discussion between him and Larry Levy, who is repulsed at the seven-figure sums being “wasted” on writers. Griffin wryly questions the wisdom of “eliminating the writer from the creative process,” words spoken by the remaining bit of artist in him—that part which hasn’t completely sold out, which isn’t all about the bottom line. Later Griffin stands at a podium delivering a short speech, and it is his now-dominant inner businessman that speaks this non-truth: “movies are art—now more than ever.”

Altman suggests that the “real” Hollywood is many times more brutal than the one he shows us in The Player. Empirical evidence seems to support this. Every time Hollywood chooses to turn the camera 180 degrees we get a similar message—life’s a bitch, and even more so in La-La-Land. See the recent Adaptation and the slightly less recent State and Main for other examples.

If The Player has anything more to say it’s this: Commercially driven movies bear little or no relevance to reality. But movie-making is a none-too-exaggerated metaphor for real life, in which bad deeds go unpunished (or are even rewarded), humanity and compassion are your biggest weaknesses, and talent and success are at best loosely related.

Not a happy ending. But perhaps true . . . now more than ever. :::

Dan Hobart lives in England. He is an aspiring screenwriter.
posted by editor ::: May 11, 2004 ::: philms :::