Retrospective: Worst Picture/Best Picture – An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn and Shakespeare in Love (1998)
“In short, “Burn Hollywood Burn” represents just about everything that can possibly be bad about a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for film students as a warning of the depths to which the medium can sink.” – shaun98, IMDb.com
“A happy conceit smoothly executed, this is one of those entertaining confections that’s so pleasing to the eye and ear you’d have to be a genuine Scrooge to struggle against it.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
A Comedy and a Tragedy and a Bit with a Dick
I tend to begin so many of these pieces by apologizing for my procrastination. It’s been many months since I made my last entry in this series. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been extremely busy going to countless events and meeting numerous people. But, well, it’s 2020, so I wouldn’t be fooling anyone. So instead, I’ll lie and say the reason I haven’t written in so long is because I’ve had writer’s block and haven’t been able to find my muse. Thankfully, I got hold of a snake bracelet and gave it to someone, and now I can’t stop my quill from moving. With that, let’s talk about the two films we’ll be covering today. I began this series in 2013, and since then I haven’t had to deal with too much controversy since the films were released that would affect the actual content of the film themselves, and I’m sure that won’t be the case today. Produced by Harvey Weinstein, Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Co-starring Harvey Weinstein, An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn is a mockumentary that went on to win the Razzie for Worst Picture. One film is about an artist worried about the pre-production of his work, the other is about an artist worrying about the post-production of his work. And one is filled with countless inside jokes about the Hollywood industry, and the other is filled with countless inside jokes about Shakespearean plays. Seriously, who wants to waste their time hearing about jokes they probably won’t get in the first place? Anyway, relax, pull up an apple box, and let’s hear about a play that was to be and a film that was not to be.
It’s 1593, and William Shakespeare (no relation to our heroic Postman from last year) is in a rut. He hasn’t had a successful play in a long time and the other artists around him seem to be getting all the attention. So of course, Joseph Fiennes, the brother of two time Best Picture winning star Ralph, was perfect for the role. There’s been a plague on some of the houses in London, so most of the theatres have been closed down due to the pandemic, but the people are still yearning for entertainment. Thank god it’s not the 16th century, I don’t know how I would survive if a virus halted all the entertainment and close all the theaters. Luckily, one of the few theatres still in business is The Rose, run by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and he has hired Will to write a new play for him. Back then, the theater owner was basically the equivalent of the film producer. Though Will’s got writer’s block, he’s at least got an idea for a title, Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter. When Geoffrey Rush heard “pirate” he was immediately on board.
It’s 1998, and one Hollywood studio is having some trouble of their own, or at least they will be soon. Hotshot producer James Edmunds (Ryan O’Neal) got hold of a new script Trio and is ready to make it. It’s an action packed buddy-buddy-buddy cop film with Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan attached to star as the title trio, and Edmunds decided to hire newcomer Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) to direct. Of course, this director has the unfortunate burden of that name, since, as many know, the name Alan Smithee is used when a director is so disappointed with the finished work that they take their real name off of the project and use that pseudonym instead. Now, I know what you’re thinking, is this gag good enough to sustain a feature length film? The answer is of course, no, it stopped being funny mid-punchline. Maybe that’s why director Arthur Hiller ended up using the pseudonym himself when this film was finished. But really, what’s in a name? A shit film by any other name would still smell like shit. And after I’m finished writing an essay about this film, I may be tempted to use the pseudonym myself, because nobody can make this wannabe comedy actually funny.
While Trio is getting started, Romeo and Ethel isn’t as lucky. Shakespeare decides to go to a shrink to see if he can get any advice. Since his wife Anne Hathaway ditched him to go hang out with Julie Andrews, Will needed to be trained again in the art of love, so the doc gave his English patient a snake bracelet and told him to go find a muse. Confident that his muse is Rosaline, the wench down the street who’s been banging the rival theatre owner Burbage, Will goes to see her. He gives her the bracelet, pledges his love, gets raunchy with Rosaline, and then begins to write. As Shakespeare’s writing his new play, one of his old plays is being performed for Queen Elizabeth (Dame Judi Dench) and a bunch of aristocrats. While the Queen is bored and coughing, the young Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) is enchanted by every word, she’s a true lover of theatre and is a big fan of the talented Mr. Willy. Unfortunately, women aren’t allowed to perform in theatre, so she only gets to enjoy them from the audience. Even five centuries ago there weren’t enough roles for women.
Back in Hollywood, Trio isn’t go as planned. While the movie had three big leads cast, the script written by Shane Black had Whoopi and Jackie’s characters both dying, and they just wouldn’t go for that. Besides, people don’t like it when the main characters die at the end. So they brought in a dozen screenwriters to do some rewrites, and everything was back on track. And that’s a good thing too, otherwise Whoopi may have left the project and gotten herself to a nunnery for the third time. However, with all these bad changes already taking place, Alan had a feeling it was only the beginning of disasters yet to come. And like our procrastinating poet, Smithee’s wife and kids were also off in Europe somewhere, so he was alone not getting any action. Seeing that Alan wasn’t quite in it anymore, gigolo James the producer decided to pull a Shakespeare and he got the director a Hollywood wench Michelle who could play the role of his muse.
While Alan Smithee had his new muse to deal with, Will’s muse turned out to be a lost cause, he caught Rosaline messing around with Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow), who was basically the Jack Valenti of old England. Crushed, Will rips up his initial draft of the play and goes back to having no clue what to do. He should’ve just gotten a dozen other playwrights to come in and do the new drafts, then it would’ve been completed after the twelfth write. Already acting like a Hollywood producer, Henslowe decides to have casting auditions for Will’s play anyway, even though there isn’t even a story yet. While his buddy Private Ryan is off being saved in France, actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) makes his booming appearance known to the good Will Shakespeare and instantly gets cast. Henslowe does pretty much the rest of the casting, including hiring his stuttering pal for one of the roles. I guess Henslowe’s confident he can cure his friend’s stutter before he has to speak in front of an audience. Unfortunately, they didn’t see anyone who fit the role for Romeo. That is, until Viola in drag shows up. Being told that the name Michael Dorsey is already taken, Viola decides to call herself Thomas Kent, and after she gives an incredible reading, Will is certain he’s found his Romeo. Viola didn’t think this through too much, so she runs away, and Will chases after her, but he Kent catch her in time.
I could say the filming of Trio went smoothly and I’d go into detail about the production of the film, but since they don’t give any information about it in the actual movie, I can thankfully spare you of all that boring info. Instead, I’ll go right into the boring detail of post-production. Apparently, all we’re told is that the producer Edmunds made most of the final calls in the film, and Alan didn’t have any say in the final cut of the film. What fools these producers be. So of course, the movie wasn’t as Alan had planned it to be, and he knew it was a horrible film. And what does a director do when they know their finished film is awful? Why, they steal the master copy of course. The billboards were up, the press was getting ready, and the premiere was set to go, but the brave Sir Alan took the cans of film and went MIA. James Edmunds was so scared he would lose all that money invested in the film, he yelled out “Oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god, oh man!”
While Ryan O’Neal is busy ruining yet another movie, Will Shakespeare is busy making a love story people will actually remember. Though he wasn’t able to find his promising actor Thomas Kent, Will went to a dance to ask around if anyone knew him, but quickly lost interest in that when he got a glimpse of the voluptuous Viola. Move over Rosaline, Will’s got a brand new muse. He starts to dance with her and have a word or two, they obviously hit it off. Unfortunately, the lousy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) butts in, because he plans on marrying her. Firth already had to deal with one pesky Fiennes screwing up his love life, he wasn’t gonna let that happen again. Will gets the hint, so he ditches the party, but later that night he goes to her house to woo the Goop.
Like Shakespeare trying to locate Thomas Kent, James Edmunds was on the hunt for Alan Smithee. He hired investigator Sam Rizzo to solve the case, and of course, the perfect actor to play the private dick is public dick Harvey Weinstein. As the dirty rat Rizzo was looking for Alan, Edmunds was asking around too. He went to fellow producer Robert Evans to see if he knew anything. Of course, Evans was in his sunglasses and robe by the pool and didn’t really care about it all that much, he was too busy fooling around with Alan’s muse Michelle. And I think Robert Evans had more than just a snake bracelet to offer her. If Edmunds and Rizzo were smart, they’d just turn on the TV and see that Alan was on Larry King Live, talking about his dastardly deed.
While Alan was busy talking to the King, Viola was busy talking to the Queen. Because the filthy fiancé Firth wants to marry Viola, the Queen asked to see her and check out if she’s marrying material. The sly Shakespeare dresses up as a servant lady and tags along, because he’s still so smitten with the lady. At the court, Will spots Elizabeth and notices she’s put on a few pounds and looks about 40 years older since he last saw her in the bedroom. The Queen has a talk with Viola, and mentions that she’s seen her in the audience at all the plays. She asks Viola why she comes to all the boring ass plays to which she replies that they’re not boring, that they’re romantic and show true love. The Queen laughs that off, but Viola is convinced that Will’s new play will be a good example, so she convinces the Queen to be the judge of it and makes a bet with her fiancé. Even 500 years ago people were making predictions about upcoming pictures. The play’s the thing, wherein Will will catch the conscience of the Queen.
Just like Will is starting to get an idea of what to do with his story, Alan’s got an idea of what to do with his film. Wandering around LA in his car with the reels in the backseat, he stops at a gas station in South Central and talks to some random guy. After have a bit of a chit chat, Alan’s new friend tells him that he knows the Brothers brothers (Coolio and Chuck D), the famous black filmmakers. So Alan figures, why not, let’s go see them, so he tags along and they head to see Dion and Leon Brothers. Alan initially planned on burning his horrible film, but after hanging out at Lion and Deon’s pad, he and the Brothers quickly hit it off, and the famous filmmakers said they’d help their new honorary brother out.
While Alan’s film is about to burn, Will’s play is on fire. He was happy that he found Thomas Kent to be his Romeo, and even happier when he found out that Thomas Kent was actually Viola in disguise. Well, happy and relieved, because otherwise after that hot mustached guy kissed him, he felt pretty good and the film almost beat Moonlight by about two decades to become the first gay Best Picture winner. Giving a great performance during rehearsals and an even greater performance in the bedroom, Viola was everything Will had hoped for. And the rest of the cast weren’t doing too badly either. Sure, Ben Affleck was a bit disappointed when he found out his role wasn’t the lead in the play, and he was a little more upset when he found out that his character died, but unlike Whoopi and Jackie, Ben doth not protest too much, so just sucked it up and went with it.
With no help from Harvey Weinstein (what else is new?), Edmunds finds out that Alan’s been hanging out with the Brothers brothers. So the producer asks O Coolio, Coolio, wherefore art thou Coolio? The Brothers decide to meet with Edmunds to make a deal. What pissed Alan off the most about the movie was that he didn’t get any say in what was in and what was out of the movie, he felt like he was just a puppet and Edmunds was the puppeteer. So the Brothers said Alan would give Edmunds back the film, as long as he gets to have final cut. After much frustration, Edmunds agreed, and the meeting was over. Little did the brothers know, that after the meeting, Weinstein followed the two directors back to their place, hoping to get Alan. Planning to give him the good news, the Brothers return to the home and Alan was nowhere to be found. But that doesn’t stop the cops from invading the home of the black civilians. Just a reminder, this movie takes place in 1998, not 2020, in case you’re confused. And while all this was happening, Alan was actually off with his reels, taking a trip to the La Brea Tar Pits, where he decided to set the film on fire. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the film itself, there’s still about 30 minutes left.
Back in Old England, the promising play was experiencing some hiccups. First off, some peeping kid squealed and revealed that Thomas Kent was actually a woman. You know how the entertainment industry is when it comes to an actor playing someone of the opposite sex, so Jack Valentilney closed the show. And then Will got into some trouble because in order to save his own hide, he managed to convince that wascally Wessex that he wasn’t Will Shakespeare, but was in fact fellow playwright Philip Marlowe. And so when news came that Marlowe was killed, Will felt he was to blame. On his knees in the night saying prayers in the churchlight, he was feeling awful. And then, Viola discovered that he was in fact married to Anne Hathaway, so of course she got pissed. Basically everyone was feeling miserables.
Meanwhile, James Edmunds wasn’t feeling too good either. Alan had burned Trio, so there’s $200 million down the drain. At least Whoopi had that promising Cheshire Cat role in the works, Jackie had Chris Tucker, and Sylvester had Planet Hollywood, so they didn’t have anything to worry about. Edmunds however, he was gonna lose a lot of money, so he decided to take some action and try to take Alan to court. Of course, when Alan burnt his own film, he became a huge celebrity, making the covers of all the newspapers and magazines and being talked about all through Hollywood. Thanks to his new fame, Alan was able to get the hottest lawyer in the business to represent him: Robert Shapiro. After seeing him win the OJ Simpson trial, Weinstein cast Shapiro in this film, then cast himself in the film as well so that the two would be chums, you know, in case anything was to happen down the line.
As the aftermath of the disaster in Hollywood was taking place, the aftermath of some of the disasters in London were happening as well. It turns out Marlowe wasn’t killed by Wessex, he merely died in a barroom brawl. And Viola remembered Will was younger and hotter than Wessex, so she forgave him for being married. Besides, she just married Wessex, so who’s she to complain? Finally, even though Henslowe’s theatre was shut down, his competitor Burbage came to save the day and offered to let them perform the newly titled Romeo and Juliet at his theatre. After all, with an epidemic taking place, if a theatre has an opportunity to show something, they’ll be willing to take anything they can get. Because Viola was kicked out of the play because she had bubbies, Will stepped in to play Romeo. And as luck would have it, the Juliet actor was hitting puberty right at the moment. But it’s not his fault, after all, if you prick us do we not bleed? If our balls drop, does our voices not crack? Therefore, Viola stepped in to play Juliet, because fuck it, someone had to. Though Trio’s premiere never happened, Romeo and Juliet wasn’t gonna let a postpubescent pipsqueak ruin it.
Well, thanks to the sadistic Shapiro, he made a deal with Edmunds. Alan wasn’t gonna go to trial as long as he was sent to a psychiatric ward. Edmunds agreed, mainly because, even though he lost that big budget cop film, he may have a new hit on his hands. The story of Alan Smithee and his adventures in La La Land was sure to be a smash, so Edmunds wanted to make a movie about it. Unfortunately, the suave Robert Evans always wanted to make the movie, so the two producers approached Alan about the idea, each trying to outbid the other. Eventually, Alan decided to go with Edmunds, as long as his brothers the Brothers could direct, and as long as they got final cut. If you’re thinking that better not be how the movie ends, well, it is. While Romeo and Juliet ends with the two killing themselves, Burn Hollywood Burn has a much more depressing finale.
Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, the acting troop put on the show, and the audience ate it up completely. Everything went smoothly, and after the final soliloquy, there was a brief silence followed by an eruption of applause. And it turns out our sneaky little Queen was hiding in the audience, watching the play the whole time. Having seen it, she agreed with Viola that the play did indeed show the essence of love. After listening to the queen’s speech, Colin Firth had to pay Will a bunch of money because he’d lost the bet. Though you’d think Will would be ecstatic to finally be a writer who got more money than the actors, alas, he was pretty mopey because even though he’d beaten Wessex, Wessex still got Viola, and he planned on moving to America with her. Of course, now that Viola has a hit role she decides to move to the USA, so typical. The two lovers say their goodbyes, and now Will has to find a new muse who will inspire him to right Othello or something.
While both films went complete opposite directions, one story doomed to fail, the other guaranteed to succeed, they both dealt with the hassles of show business. And in the end, both were Oscar friendly films. Shakespeare in Love went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Burn Hollywood Burn was Arthur Hiller’s first film since ending his run as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures. There’s the classic line of life imitating art imitating life. Shakespeare in Love is certainly about art imitating life, Will turning his personal experiences into the story of Romeo and Juliet. But Burn Hollywood Burn is certainly life imitating art, because they made a movie about a movie being a piece of shit, and in the end the actual movie ended up being a piece of shit. I guess what I’m saying is that some films are born awful, some achieve awfulness, and some have awfulness thrust upon them. I think An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn fall into all three categories. However, not all were awful in Burn Hollywood Burn. Let’s listen to our always reliable Roger Ebert’s take on the film: “The film is filled with celebrities playing themselves, and most of them manifestly have no idea who they are. The only celebrity who emerges relatively intact is Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Films, who plays a private eye–but never mind the role, just listen to him. He could find success in voice-over work.” I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly curious to see where Weinstein goes from here.