The end of 2022 offered up a trio of movies by name-brand directors that are about the world of movies: precocious D.I.Y. filmmaking in Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” behind-the-scenes classic Hollywood in Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” and even the work and lives of a movie theatre’s staff in Sam Mendes’s “Empire of Light.” In these films, the story of the greatness of cinema is the story of how the sausage is made and served, and even how the pig was raised. The history of cinema is rich in movies that depict the world of movies—which spotlight the personalities, celebrate the art, look frankly at the business, reveal the off-camera conflicts that fuel and hinder productions, and lay bare the ravenous force of filmmaking’s commercial and emotional demands.
Several of these films are incontrovertible classics, such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and the first two versions of “A Star Is Born.” (The 1937 one is grittier; the 1954 one is Judy Garland’s greatest showcase.) It isn’t only Hollywood that portrays its own fault lines and idiosyncrasies; the world of movies is depicted with vast variety in international films and in independent ones, and what gets dramatized ranges from moviegoing to gatecrashing, from production to projection, from dreams and plans to fame or failure—from the rising passion of young cinephiles and the tenuous glory of professionals to the retrospective celebration of great achievements and the decrepitude of outcasts. They depict the making of fiction, documentary, and animated movies, reflexive films, student films, even imaginary films.
Because movies about movies hold their own methods—their own identity—up to scrutiny, they often bend toward aesthetic radicalism. (Almost any film by Jean-Luc Godard would count, including the one that I put at the top of my Sight and Sound list, “King Lear.”) Many of the great ones are relatively recent, because the self-scrutiny of the art, and the development of new forms in which to do so, is the product of decades of consistent and uncompromising cinematic advance. This list brings together a handful of my favorites in the genre, in chronological order.
1924, Buster Keaton
The loopily sentimental tale—of a projectionist who loses his fiancée over a false accusation and dreams himself into a movie of stunt-filled romantic heroism in order to find the solution to his problem—gives rise to some of Keaton’s most giddily surrealistic and balletically harrowing stunts. It also suggests that popular movies’ hyperbolic action fantasies are merely ego-gratifying delusions.
1928, Josef von Sternberg
Impostor syndrome goes both ways: some people are propelled downward, from aristocratic heights, into the workaday tumult of show business. Sternberg’s drama, based on real events, is of a Russian general, a refugee after the Revolution, who lands in Hollywood to serve as a mere extra and finds that his art is inseparable from his life—and from his not-so-distant glory days.
1928, King Vidor
Hollywood’s eternal conflict between art and a pie in the face gets worked out with aptly caustic and antic results in Vidor’s fictionalized look behind the scenes at an aspiring actress’s pothole-pocked road to stardom—and at the real-life gallery of cinematic luminaries that she aspired to join.
1951, Luchino Visconti
The desperation that impels stage parents to drive stage children mercilessly is embodied, in this grand-scale satirical melodrama, by the grandest dramatic personality of the postwar Italian cinema, Anna Magnani.
1954, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Sometimes it takes distance to gain clarity, and this drama of a Spanish dancer discovered in a rough-edged night club by a fading Hollywood director puts the American way of filmmaking—and the fabulous lives that studio business exalts, fosters, distorts, and thwarts—into sharp and grim perspective.
1962, Vincente Minnelli
Yet more distance, yet more clarity, or, when is a sequel not a sequel: Minnelli follows up on his 1952 inside-Hollywood drama “The Bad and the Beautiful” by treating it as the work of a fictional character in this tale of Hollywood on the edge of a commercial breakdown, set in Italy, amid the shoot of a studio film at Cinecittà, in Rome, and amid a looming generational shift and an accompanying shift in mores. By being alert to the times, Minnelli was ahead of them.
1963, Pier Paolo Pasolini
An oblivious, bombastic director of a film depicting the Crucifixion allows his cast to endure real-life scourges in this fierce mockery of the industry as it runs unquestioned and unconsidered; in a wickedly ironic touch, that director is played by Orson Welles.
1964, Vincente Minnelli
Hollywood’s rampant and unchallenged sexual harassment of women gets a scathing—and comedic—airing in this hectic but incisive gender-switch fantasy of reincarnation and self-recognition.
1966, Satyajit Ray
The grandeur and the fragility, the artistic ambitions and the personal compromises of a famous young actor emerge, in the course of a train ride, through his interview with a journalist and the hauntings of his memories and dreams. The very nature of the cinema is examined, during this fateful journey, in the light of Indian cultural politics and the history of the country’s own film industry.
1982, Kathleen Collins
This drama, one of the first by a Black female director, is centered on a Black philosophy professor who is invited by one of her students to act in his film. It also dramatizes Collins’s own relationship to the overwhelming power of movies, which it defines as “even”: even a nonprofessional actor, even playing a nonspeaking role, even in a student film, has her life transformed on contact with the art of the cinema.
1987, Robert Townsend
This furious satire on the few and frequently demeaning opportunities for Black actors is also a paradoxical burst of enthusiasm for the power of popular movies and a comedic, but fiercely earnest, vision of what Hollywood could be if it included Black filmmakers to tell Black people’s stories—and to expand the industry’s forms and genres in the light of their own experiences.
1989, Youssef Chahine
Chahine plays a director in another film à clef, one that details a fictionalized Egyptian filmmaker’s passion for a young actor who flees him and the subsequent effort to make a film—of “Hamlet”—with a different star. Along the way, the drama details the highs and lows of the filmmaker’s career (complete with musical sequences) and the economic and political crises of the Egyptian cinema, centered on an industry strike and sit-in targeting government control of the arts (based on a real-life event in which Chahine took part).
1990, Clint Eastwood
This film à clef, about John Huston’s swaggering, self-defeating frivolity while making “The African Queen,” is based on a novel by Peter Viertel (Huston’s uncredited on-location script doctor). Eastwood also stars, gleefully and sardonically playing the role of a filmmaker whose directorial ethic is antithetical to his own.
“Jacquot de Nantes”
1991, Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda’s bio-pic about the childhood and adolescence of her husband, the director Jacques Demy, is perhaps the greatest of all films about a primal passion for movies and hands-on love of the craft. (It also may be the most meticulously observed movie about D.I.Y. animation.) Varda intercuts the vigorous and exquisite drama (complete with the politics of the German Occupation during the Second World War) with clips of Demy’s own films, and she also provides the tender voice-over commentary; Demy himself, who was terminally ill during its production, appears on-camera to share his reminiscences, and Varda films him with a loving, tactile intimacy.
1991, Stanley Kwan