Ancient Rome. Twelve years into the rule of Tiberius, ruler maximus. Rome’s legions are masters of the world, the stomp of its sandals heard from the Iberian peninsula in the west through the halls of the great library of Alexandria in the east. As oppressed people everywhere writhe under the Roman lash, freeman and vassal are united in one compulsory worship. The emperor, Caesar, is Godhead, lord of every man’s body and spirit. For those who will not submit, the galleys, the arenas, even crucifixion await. But there is a new wind, blowing from the east, from the dusty streets of Bethlehem, that will soon challenge the vast house of Caesar, that edifice wrought of brick and blood which now seems so secure!
–Narrator, “Hail, Caesar!”
The 2016 Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! is, like Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice the same year, a somewhat prophetic work sitting on the edge of a vastly changing social and political landscape.
The movie takes place in 1950s Hollywood, during the making of a film about Jesus Christ—or, rather, a film about a Roman centurion who receives a religious “revelation” while encountering Christ. When the actor playing the centurion, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped, square-jawed Capitol Pictures “fixer” Eddie Mannix is put on the case. In other plotlines, an actress/swimmer is about to become an unwed mother, and a cinematic singing cowboy is miscast in a posh comedy of manners.
A good way to start unpacking the deeper meaning of Hail, Caesar! is to start with this:
That’s going to be your cypher for the events that are to follow. That will unpack everything.
Rome around the start of the Christian era was a land of many different religions. Surprisingly, these various belief systems were allowed to exist under the Roman Empire…as long as they paid their taxes and followed Roman laws.
This should have been an ideal set-up…the very definition of the motto, “COEXIST.”
And yet ironically, in some ways more strife was born out of this situation than when people just stuck to their own lands and national religions. Why? a) Because by tolerating these different belief systems, the Empire itself was seen by the most religious to be tantamount to atheistic; and b) the unprecedented existence of “comparison shopping” of available belief systems led the power structures of those religions to get nervous and in need to stir up antagonism against non-believers.
We see a metaphor for this situation early on in Hail, Caesar! when Mannix convenes a group of religious leaders to discuss the upcoming Christ film. Each man differs on their interpretation on what an “ideal” Christ/God should be. The object of the meeting, and the film, is to broadly appeal to people of all religious persuasions—but they end up pleasing nobody. Such was the case with Rome around the time of the birth of Christ.
Now, there are three additional religions represented in Hail, Caesar!—but they are buried deep in metaphor.
The first is the ancient Goddess religion, symbolized by the swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). When we first see her she is in the middle of an elaborate musical number within a body of water. With her crown & water imagery, she is Stella Maris—Our Lady, Star Of The Sea. The goddess from the water, the ocean, Isis, Diana, DeeAnna. An unwed mother, she is the Virgin Mary—but also the archetypal “Scarlet (Scarlett) Woman.”
We are shown how the old goddess religion—the Aeon of Isis—was “swallowed” up by the later patriarchal ones (Aeon of Osiris), as she is swallowed by a whale. And yet she reemerges, triumphant, trident in hand…this will happen when she gets “transmuted” into the Virgin Mary figure through the Christian religion (represented by DeeAnna’s hasty marriage to a Hollywood bondsman, named Joseph and played by Jonah Hill)…and then further, in a pagan revival in the 20th Century.
The next religion is represented by the “Communist Screenwriter Conspirators” who kidnap Whitlock—it is tempting to say that this “religion” is Communism, but it’s actually a type of futurist/hermeticist mystery cult looking forward to a prophesized time where there is no more “God” and human reason will hold sway. They describe themselves literally as, The Future, worshipping the ideas of “Praxis”—action.
Their goal: “The Creation Of The New Man.” Their tactic: as screenwriters, they “encode” their ideas within pop-culture.
This cult would be the cult to end all cults—the “last” cult.
And the third religion is symbolized by the mysterious Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). When we first see him, he is a charming all-American dancer of the Gene Kelly mold. Later, he is revealed to be the mastermind of the entire kidnap plot—the “messiah” character to the group of communist screenwriters, a Soviet master spy.
And yet what I think Gurney represents is neither Communist nor Futurist—but rather, a water-based religion possibly older than even the Goddess one. Like Moran, Gurney is identified with the sea—we first see him in a sailor outfit, and at the end of the film his followers dramatically row him out to meet a giant Russian submarine (an echo of how Moran was “swallowed” by the whale at the start of the film).
Gurney represents the actual cult to end all cults…the incredibly ancient chthonic religion of the Old Ones which will emerge from the depths of the oceans at the end of time to walk the Earth once more. His followers think they are supporting some hip future-based New Society…but they have actually been working for this “demon” this entire time.
Holding his tiny dog, Gurney can also be seen to represent Sirius—the “Dog Star.” The “ancient aliens” route as an alternative for the Old Ones.
In the midst of all this, we have the actual Christ-analogue (not the unknown actor from the Capitol Pictures film whose feet we briefly see dangling from the cross)—Hobie Doyle, an unassuming Innocent who is pulled out of the obscurity of Western Musicals to become the next star of the studio.
Hobie is the “magic child,” attractive but strangely asexual—see his complete lack of chemistry with the actress in the “Laurence Laurentz” sequence, and then his friendly but noticeably chaste date with actress Carlotta Valdez. He reveals to Valdez, pulling out his full dentures, that he has no teeth—further identifying him with the Child, the Babe.
When Mannix has his troubles with the kidnappers, it’s only Hobie who he can trust—Hobie later tracks down Whitlock and “saves” him from the Communists. He is the “fool,” the true Hero—the “second coming” for the studio, who will be torn from his humble beginnings and thrust into the spotlight.
And yet the Studio—like the Roman leaders who would eventually co-opt Christianity—just don’t “get” what it truly was about Hobie that originally made him so popular. It’s actually very simple…but they want to make it complicated, dressing it in pomp and finery. That’s the entire meaning of one of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the entire film, when director Laurentz tries to teach Hobie how to “speak”:
But Hobie’s ascent will, in some ways, be the “end” of the “old Rome”—the same way the new crop of actors from the 1950s (Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, etc.) will spell the “end” of the “studio system.” Movies will become increasingly morally complex, often incorporating current social issues as well. Power will shift from the great Kingmakers of the Golden Age to the Auteurs of the Sixties and especially Seventies (“The Future”: represented by that cadre of screenwriters).
Mannix represents the “Everyman” of an era that was rapidly becoming extinct—when “men were men.” A subplot involves him being offered a job by military supplier Lockheed—the world of jets and bombs are offered as “The Future,” but Mannix refuses to believe it. If the “good old days” of Rome/Hollywood/America is going to be no more, he is willing to die with the ship.
And this brings me to one more curious aspect of Hail, Caesar!—an aspect that, in retrospect of the revelations from Hollywood in late 2016, has not aged particularly well.
It is clear in this movie that Eddie Mannix is the “true” Hero—the one that the Coen Brothers really respect. It is clear in this movie that the directors are sorry to see that world of Old Hollywood go—as much as they parodied it in 1991’s Barton Fink.
What is Mannix’s job? He is a “fixer.” He buries Hollywood scandals—by any means necessary. In one of the first scenes of the movie, he slaps an actress. But that’s okay. Because he’s from a Golden Time when “men were men.” All the other men in this movie—with the exception of Jonah Hill’s “Joseph,” another “real man”—are either portrayed as homosexuals, bisexual, effete, or sort of asexual (in Hobie’s case, toothless).
What type of scandals have been buried—fixed—in real-life Hollywood since the dawn of the motion picture? Rape, pederasty, violence, possibly even murder. Notorious producer Harvey Weinstein had many “fixers.” What we learned in late 2016 is that “fixers” have been a staple of Hollywood up to the present era.
(Mannix is based on real-life “fixer” Eddie Mannix, by the way. Now, the real Mr. Mannix is quite an interesting individual—because it is theorized that he ordered a hit on George Reeves in revenge for an affair the “Superman” star had with his wife.)
We can then look beyond just scandals to consider “Golden Age” Hollywood itself—a place with glamour, charm, wonder, and very little people of color outside of extras. A place where homosexuals have had to hide their true identity. A place where there were very few women of power and little redress for crimes committed against them. This is, then, only the “Golden Age” for a select group of individuals—white, straight males. And it is exactly this type of nostalgia that was partially responsible for getting Trump elected—a highly visible sentiment of “they are taking our world away from us” that has dominated for at least the past 5 years (if not both terms of Obama’s presidency).
And who is taking that “Golden Age” away? The feminists (Stella Maris); the “Commie Eggheads” (intellectuals, technophiles, etc.); the Gays (Burt Gurney is introduced with a very homoerotic dance number and later he is “coded” as homosexual).
How does Mannix—the “true man”—choose to deal with all this Change? Violence. He hits the actress at the beginning. He beats up Whitlock (who, in addition to listening to the Commie Eggheads, was implicated in a gay incident).
Mannix is our “hero”—earlier Coen protagonists like the sensitive Barton Fink and the brave Marge Gunderson sort of pushed to the side. He is the perfect hero to introduce the Era of Trump—rage against progress, change, evolution, diversity.
But at least the directors had enough awareness to recognize/admit that Rome is indeed falling…that the world is changing. And that the Horus-resonating innocent “magical child” Hobie—or, rather, a highly-stylized cinematic and perhaps CGI’d version of himself—is the next Messiah. (actor Alden Ehrenreich’s next role is that of a young Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story)
Would that it twere so simple.