Whether it's a complex meditation on the nature of creative collaboration or a big ol' piece of corporate propaganda, "Saving Mr. Banks" is upon us and we must reckon with its Oscar-caliber prestige. Having Tom Hanks portray Walt Disney during the tumultuous pre-production on "Mary Poppins" is a stroke of genius as well as a coup for the studio, and has forced us to come to terms with some other depictions of real-life filmmakers.
Believe it or not there haven't been as many as you think, and below you'll find prime samples, whether it's straight biopic, directors playing themselves, directors disguised as other characters, or weird mythmaking riffs on the process itself. This list isn't meant to be comprehensive, but rather to offer a telling survey of how filmdom depicts its greatest creators.
Alfred Hitchcock: 'Hitchcock' (2012)/'The Girl' (2012)
The most recent and obvious example of a moviemaker given the shimmering spotlight were these dueling Alfred Hitchcock biopics from last year, both which center on the making of a specific film from his '60s canon ("Psycho" and "The Birds," respectively). Sacha Gervasi takes the more hagiographical route with "Hitchcock," casting cinema's greatest Nixon, Anthony Hopkins, as the master of suspense and focusing mostly on the trials and tribulations of bringing the stabby Norman Bates to screen. Ultimately the making of "Psycho" reaffirms his genius and love for his wife/creative partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), but "The Girl" takes the tabloid approach by shedding light on Hitch's unhealthy obsession with Tippi Hedron (Sienna Miller), star of "The Birds" and "Marnie." While the director's lecherous advances towards Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) are hinted at in "Hitchcock," in "The Girl" we see him portrayed by Toby Jones as a full-blown control freak with a major woody for his leading lady that goes decidedly unreciprocated. It's interesting how vehemently critics chastised "The Girl" for burning their hero in effigy, while praising "Hitchcock" for essentially upholding the status quo.
Ed Wood: 'Ed Wood' (1994)
Ironically it took Tim Burton, then at the peak of his powers with five monster hits in a row under his belt, to push this black and white biopic of Z-movie icon Edward D. Wood Jr. into production through sheer clout alone. No studio in their right mind would have the stones to burn $19-million on a biopic of such a fringe Hollywood footnote like Wood (indeed Columbia put the movie into turnaround), but luckily Disney wanted to curry favor with the "Batman" helmer. Thus Burton was able to make what stands -and will likely always stand given recent track record- as "the one I'll be remembered for," his undeniable masterpiece. Johnny Depp plays the director of schlock classic "Plan 9 From Outer Space" with such quixotic zeal that you can't help but be inspired and marvel at his output, no matter their seemingly autistic inattention to detail. Pie plates as spaceships? Okay! The Styrofoam tombstone gets knocked over during a take? No problem! Of course the soul of the picture is Martin Landau's heartbreaking turn as Bela Lugosi, and his unlikely friendship with Wood echoes Burton's own idol worship of Vincent Price.
Orson Welles: 'RKO 281' (1999)
It's actually quite perplexing that one of the most celebrated, flamboyant, rocky and downright fascinating film careers of all-time –that of Orson Welles- has never been given a proper big screen treatment, yet there have been two major films about his time in the theater: "Cradle Will Rock" and "Me and Orson Welles". In 1999 HBO released "RKO 281" to tell the story of Welles' bitter battle with publishing titan William Randolph Hearst over the latter's depiction/parody in "Citizen Kane." Like HBO's more recent "The Girl" the dramatic focus is less on the nitty gritty of making the "greatest movie ever made" (for that read Robert L. Carringer's "The Making of 'Citizen Kane'") than on the salacious details of Hearst's relationship with Marion Davies and the very personal game of publicity brinksmanship he and Welles played, with said film ultimately emerging victorious over the corpses of both. Screenwriter John Logan would tackle another larger-than-life Hollywood figure Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," but didn't quite nail it until the next film on our list…
Georges Méliès: 'Hugo' (2011)
Like "Ed Wood" this is a film depicting a science fiction filmmaker who died penniless in near-total obscurity only later to be celebrated. The main difference? Georges Méliès was a genius, an actual one. Though Martin Scorsese's film is ostensibly about a ragamuffin orphan, the B-story involving Méliès selling toys in Paris's Montparnasse train station is doubly touching given the fact that, at the height of the "Hugo" release, you could see actual footage of the man's films (including his immortal "Le voyage dans la lune") unfolding on 1100 screens across America, ensuring that the man will not be forgotten for at least another 100 years or so, if ever. While Scorsese is as perfectly adept telling the charming adventures of a boy, a girl and an automaton as he is depicting Joe Pesci burying bodies in the sands of Nevada, you can see his full heart onscreen during the sections about Méliès silent-era studio and the importance of film preservation.
Federico Fellini: '8½' (1963)/'Intervista' (1987)/'Nine' (2009)
No one has captured the insanity, lust and circus family atmosphere of filmmaking as indelibly as Fellini did with his signature masterpiece "8½," calling upon a cast of hundreds to create a delirious phantasmagoria of lights, camera, action! From the opening sequence where his doppelganger Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) escapes a traffic jam by floating off into the heavens before being pulled back down to earth forcefully like a kite, the movie is lush with metaphor of the excitement and anxiety-induced terror a director feels as he makes 100 course-altering decisions every hour of the day. He looked at the man in the mirror once again for "Intervista," this time playing himself in a mockumentary about his own process while making a film about his first day at Italy's Cinecitta studios. Lastly, Rob Marshall smeared feces over the Fellini legacy by turning "8½" into one of the most boring and misguided musicals of the modern era, miscasting Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido and generally playing only to the skinny tie aesthetics and never to the subtext of the man's work.
Bob Fosse: 'All That Jazz' (1979)
Speaking of musicals, Bob Fosse went out on a high note by eulogizing himself masterfully with this swan song character study of a horndog, pill popping choreographer/film director. Though the filmmaking subplot takes a backseat to the highly erotic dance numbers and childhood flashbacks, the film-within-a-film is clearly modeled after his Dustin Hoffman vehicle "Lenny," in itself a biopic. Headache! Fosse himself had a heart attack while simultaneously making his Lenny Bruce movie and prepping the first production of "Chicago," and the inevitable "life flashing before my eyes" became fodder for a fun, sardonic and self-immolating depiction as Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider). Employing Fellini's longtime DP Giuseppe Rotunno to lens it gives it even more authenticity.
Woody Allen: 'Stardust Memories' (1980)/'Hollywood Ending' (2002)
"Critics thought that the lead character was me, and that I was expressing hostility towards my audience. That was in no way the point of the film. It was about a character who is obviously having a sort of nervous breakdown and, in spite of success, has come to a point in his life where he is having a bad time." Right, Woody. That's Woody Allen defending his movie "Stardust Memories" to Stig Björkman, and he can deny it right up to his deathbed but it's as plain as the spectacles on his face that "Stardust Memories" is the Woodman projecting his allergic reaction to his fanbase. Hordes of oddballs, weirdos and sycophants mob director Sandy Bates (Allen, natch) during a weekend festival celebrating him, often critiquing his left turn into serious filmmaking (as Allen had at the time with "Interiors") and generally making his life hell, all shot in a manner stylistically aping "8½." When an Aspergian autograph seeker blurts out "I was a Cesarean" to Allen's character you can't help but feel the contempt pouring out of his skull onto the screen, but if we were in his shoes we would probably deny it too. Two decades later "Hollywood Ending" gave a self-portrait of a director on the skids of his former glory going through a bout of hysterical blindness and unable to connect with his estranged son (hello Ronan Farrow!) played by Mark Webber, and ironically producing one of -if not THE- worst films in Allen's filmography.
Tom DiCillo: 'Living in Oblivion' (1995)
Jim Jarmusch's one-time cinematographer has had an eclectic directing career over the last two decades ("Box of Moonlight," "Delirious"), but nothing smells like indie spirit quite like making a semi-autobiographical account of your debut feature as your sophomore effort. That's just the kind of gusto DiCillo went for with "Living in Oblivion," which began as a black and white short then expanded into a mostly self-funded two-thirds color feature in three parts, starring Steve Buscemi as "Nick," DiCillo's obvious stand-in. There's been a degree of controversy over the years with people drawing parallels between James LeGros's airhead movie star "Chad" and DiCillo's "Johnny Suede" actor Brad Pitt, and it's not hard to see why. LeGros is all-but channeling Pitt as an affectation-laden egomaniac who only took the role "because I thought you were tight with Quentin Tarantino!" The satire of filmmaking is spot-on, from the crew guy daydreaming about eating a cheeseburger to the angry little person (Peter Dinklage) complaining about what a cliché it is to cast a dwarf in a dream sequence.
Preston Sturges: 'Sullivan's Travels' (1941)
"It's way cooler to entertain motherf**kers than to be all artsy and s**t." That's the cleanest, crispest way to articulate what "Sullivan's Travels" is trying to say, and its message becomes ever more profound once you've been forced to sit through a neverending Tarkovsky or Ozu movie. Sorry Film Studies nerds, a Mickey Mouse short contains far insight into the human condition than a million Goddard films combined! Okay, maybe not, but Preston Sturges more-than-justifies his point by crafting a classic romp about a successful comedy director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea, clearly modeled on Sturges) who yearns to make a socially relevant drama and takes to the road as a tramp to see how the other half lives. Ultimately he hits rock bottom and discovers the healing power of laughter via Pluto the dog cavorting around onscreen inside an impoverished Baptist church. Hallelujah! Decades later in "Grand Canyon" Steve Martin's vain Joel Silver-stand-in would use "Sullivan's Travels" as Exhibit-A in defending his decision to keep making violent action fare. "That's part of your problem: you haven't seen enough movies," he tells Kevin Kline's character. "All of life's riddles are answered in the movies!"
THE HORROR, THE HORROR
Lucio Fulci: 'A Cat in the Brain' (1990)
Fulci is arguably Italy's grand guignol master, the man who had the temerity to let a zombie fight a shark in "Zombi 2" and other acts of gleeful goremaking. Unfortunately in the final decade of his career (which began in the '50s) he went on a steep decline partly due to poor health. One of his final outings was an attempt at self-reflexivity with "A Cat in the Brain" (also known as "Nightmare Concert") in which he plays himself, and none too well. When the aging maestro begins to question his own sadistic cinematic impulses and the effect they're having on his life, he seeks the council of a psychiatrist (David L. Thompson) who promptly hypnotizes him into thinking the prostitutes ol' Doc has been offing are really Fulci's victims. This is deep vault, strictly for-fans-only stuff that provides little insight beyond "making horror movies will f**k you up," and the fact that it's mostly cobbled together from other films plays like leftover Spam.
Wes Craven: 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' (1994)
Want more pre-Charlie Kaufmann meta nonsense? Why not indulge Wes Craven as he tries to class-up the Freddy Krueger franchise to no avail? For the uninitiated this is the seventh entry in the original New Line cycle of "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequels, although instead of going the Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees route of eternally resurrecting their killers, "New Nightmare" takes things in a far more interesting direction. Despite having been taken out in "Freddy's Dead," Robert Englund's fiend has been awakened in the "real world" where they make Freddy movies because he's the summation of a collective archetype of evil… or something like that. Series vets Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and, yes, Wes Craven all appear as themselves being stalked by a much nastier, more id-informed incarnation of the Fredster, culminating in a soundstage-y dreamworld battle ripped straight from the cover of any random Iron Maiden album. It's all a bit hokey and on-the-nose in its satire, but served as an excellent trial run for Craven before he hit meta-horror paydirt on "Scream" two years later.
F.W. Murnau: 'Shadow of the Vampire' (2000)
The production of 1922's silent classic "Nosferatu" was not nearly as much of a scandal as what erupted afterwards, when the heirs of Bram Stoker successfully sued producers for essentially stealing the plot whole cloth from his novel "Dracula." The result was that all but one copy of the film was destroyed, and thus the film and Max Schreck's ghastly rat-like appearance as the vampire have become iconic. But what if Max Schreck was an ACTUAL vampire that Murnau hired, and that "Nosferatu" is less a film than 2/3rds of a documentary on German vampirism? That's the hypothesis of E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire," in which Willem Dafoe plays Schreck as a crazed bloodsucker forced upon the wary production by director F.W. Murnau in order to obtain maximum realism. The plan works out okay, until the dude starts drinking people's blood. The actual Schreck was, of course, not a vampire at all but a gifted character actor who appeared in other films for Murnau and others, and was known for his shyness and solitude.