“Hail Caesar” is an amusing and sly commentary on Hollywood movie making in the 1950s. The movie and the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, has faced criticism about the “pervasive whiteness” of the film and the brothers’ “failure of imagination.” Do we want tokenism and just what does diversity mean?
“Hail Caesar” is about the studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who has to juggle many problems including a pregnant unmarried star (Scarlett Johansson) of literally splashy musicals, a cowboy star who has been thrust into the lead role in a sophisticated drama under pretentious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and kidnapping of the studio’s hottest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by (Spoiler Alert!) communist screenwriters and their mysterious leader.
In the Salon article “The Coen Brothers’ failure of imagination: What the ‘Hail, Caesar!’ creators really ‘don’t understand’ about making diverse movies” by Peter Birkenhead, Birkenhead asserts that when the Coens “think of a face, the face they likely see is white, unless otherwise specified.” Here Birkenhead acknowledges that the movie does have diversity in the role of the Latina actress Carlotta Valdez (played by Veronica Osorio). He opines that the movie didn’t have Lena Horne or Diahann Carroll or Eartha Kitt. Instead the movie offers its take-off on Esther Williams and Veronica Lake. He wishes for Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. So what he means by diversity is he wants black actors. Black faces equals diversity.
In the Washington Post article “In Hollywood, must ‘white’ always equal ‘universal’?” by Ann Hornaday also comments on “Hail, Caesar!” writing that “its sole character of color a Latin American starlet based on Carmen Miranda (blessedly free of a fruit hat).”
During the 1950s, what exactly was diversity? A man born Issur Danielovitch adopted the name Izzy Demsky and later changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy. A boy born Bernard Schwartz took the name of Tony Curtis when he came to Hollywood at age 23 after serving in the Navy.
Heart throbs Tab Hunter (born Arthur Gellen) and Rock Hudson hid their homosexuality with help from their studios. “Hail, Caesar!” has a thinly veiled references to homosexuality and that should count for diversity, even if the homosexuality doesn’t include black people.
In Los Angeles and elsewhere, there were clubs that discriminated against people on the basis of race, religion, sex and sexual orientation such as the Jonathan Club. The Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959 outlawed arbitrary discrimination of protected classes of people by businesses such as hotels and motels, restaurants, theaters, hospitals, barber and beauty shops, housing accommodations, and retail establishments. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith charged that in 1962 12 country clubs and eight city clubs were Christian only.
Hornaday also treads on unstable ground when she asks, “Would the addition of one African American character have improved or detracted from the verisimilitude of a story set in white, Catholic South Boston?” for the movie “Spotlight.” In an account of a true story, do we want to require casting agents and directors to include a black character in order to pass a diversity color test? Should there be a required token black role?
In the time of the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates” that featured The Dragon Lady and the Chinese man named Connie and the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), it would seem more natural to suggest that the “Hail, Caesar!” cast might have been diversified by enlarging the roles of the Asian restaurant workers and perhaps include one in the group of Communist screenwriters who kidnap Baird.
During the 1950s, Latinos were in Hollywood with Argentine-born Fernando Lamas and Mexican-born Ricardo Montalban becoming leading men. Montalban had already appeared on Life magazine’s cover in 1949. Why not suggest another Latino actor as a balance to the inclusion of the Carmen Miranda-esque character, Carlotta Valdez (played by Venezuelan actress Veronica Osorio). While biracial black-white romances were still controversial in the 1950s, the same isn’t true for a Latin lover with a WASP-ish looking star or an Asian woman. The biracial Nancy Kwan was kissed by William Holden in the 1960 movie “The World of Suzie Wong.”
In 1955, 82 exiled revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro, would reorganize the 26th of July Movement. Spanish-born Jorge Semprun was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay in 1967 and Jorge Semprun in 1969 for “Z.” Why not suggest a Latino screenwriter?
The cast does include Jewish American actors Fisher Stevens and David Krumholtz as Communist screenwriters. There are also the roles of Catholic clergyman (Robert Pike Daniel) and Eastern Orthodox Clergyman (Iranian-born Armenian actor Aramazd Stepanian). Some historians believe that the anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. played a major role in the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith in 1928.
As it is, “Hail, Caesar!” is a charming lightweight parody of the Golden Years of Hollywood filmmaking. It might not be black enough, but that in itself doesn’t mean a movie lacks diversity. Diversity should mean the inclusion of people of all races, ethnicities, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religious and political beliefs. “Hail, Caesar!” is a comedy that includes gay men, Communists, Jewish and Latino characters and has Latino actors and Jewish actors in its cast. Just as white shouldn’t equal universal in Hollywood, black shouldn’t equal diversity.