It’s awards season once again, when Hollywood celebrates, if not the greatest and most audacious films of the year, at least the best of a certain kind of movie. This year, the academy is likely to honor films about filmmaking: The Artist and Hugo are love letters to silent cinema (and The Artist is nearly a silent film in its own right). The spectacle of the film industry telling the world how great it is always smacks of the Ouroboros, but this year, when the most-lauded movies are themselves paeans to the art of filmmaking, we’re in danger of running out of snake.
So as a preventative measure, here’s my fantasy pick for best picture of 2011: a fantastically entertaining and original movie with a different perspective on the film industry, a movie that presents cinema not as the dream factory of Hugo or The Artist, but, as one of the film’s characters aptly describes it, as “a river of money.” Unfortunately, you can’t see this film in theaters; it wasn’t just snubbed by the academy, or critics, or audiences, but by the studios themselves. It’s a movie that doesn’t exist, because no one made it—though they nearly did. In 2007, Michael Mann and John Logan—yes, the same John Logan who resurrected Georges Méliès in Hugo—collaborated on a screenplay that could have been not only the best thing either of them ever did, but the great film noir, the great Los Angeles movie and the great film about Hollywood itself. And they never shot a frame of it.
It doesn’t even have a name: The title page simply reads “MANN/LOGAN PROJECT.” It might as well read Inexplicably Unproduced Hollywood Noir, because if the film didn’t exist, movie lovers would have to invent it. Think about it: Los Angeles is the ground zero for film noir and the city’s signature industry is the movies. So what are the great noirs about the movie business? You’d think there’d be hundreds, but the list peters out after Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. The greatest Los Angeles noir, Chinatown, is about water rights and city hall, not movies. You can make a case for L.A. Confidential, but Danny DeVito’s gossip columnist and Kevin Spacey’s TV show “technical adviser” take a back seat to conflicts between the LAPD and organized crime. A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker (even when she’s really Lana Turner). Mulholland Dr. is more of a great hallucinogenic nightmare than a classic noir. Hollywoodland, Paul Bernbaum and Allen Coulter’s underrated film about George Reeves, is probably the closest ancestor to Mann/Logan Project, but Bernbaum goes small where Logan goes very, very big.
Mann/Logan Project is set in 1938, the absolute peak of the Hollywood studio system, on the lot of MGM, the epitome of the Hollywood studio. The films made in the fall and winter of 1938 were released in 1939—in the Turner Classic Movies pantheon, Hollywood’s Greatest Year, more important to the town’s mythology than any other point in its history. It’s this historic moment that Logan systematically, gloriously destroys over the course of his screenplay.
Logan’s main character is one Harry Slidell, who, as the introduction informs us, is a historical antecedent of Eddie Mannix. Think of him as MGM’s Michael Clayton: He’s the guy who keeps MGM’s public face clean, whether that means paying off the mob or covering up murder. It wouldn’t be a noir without a femme fatale, and Logan’s created a best-of-breed hybrid in the character of Ruth Ettis, a starlet with Ginger Rogers’ career, Joan Crawford’s scandalous past, and Jean Harlow’s suspiciously dead husband. It’s that dead husband that gets Slidell and the studio publicity machine involved, and that’s Logan’s jumping off point for a whirlwind tour of everything Hollywood wants to forget about the 1930s.
Much of the fun of the script is the wide spectrum of Hollywood scandal and mob sleaze—apocryphal or true—Logan managed to stuff into the plot, clearly operating under the philosophy that more is more. Not just Harlow and Crawford, but Lee Francis. Not just Bugsy Siegel, but Jack Dragna, Johnny Roselli, and Frankie Rio. The bogus story about Clark Gable running over a pedestrian gets retold, this time with a drug-addled Judy Garland behind the wheel. Even William Desmond Taylor gets a throwaway mention—all that’s missing is Ted Healy getting beaten to death by Wallace Beery outside the Trocadero. This stuff is crack to TCM fans, but even if you don’t know the stories behind the stories, it’s a rich tapestry.
And Logan does it justice. It’s a blast to read; not just the dialogue but even the scene descriptions tiptoe right up to the edge of parodying hard-boiled prose without ever quite falling in. (“Peter Nielson was once handsome. Not anymore. Now he’s dead.”) And the historical material is handled exceptionally deftly. The danger with this kind of movie is that the filmmakers will either overplay the historical importance of their characters in ways that no one could have known at the time, or underplay it to the point of ridiculousness. Mann/Logan Project successfully walks that tightrope from the first page to last. The audience knows Vivien Leigh is going to be cast as Scarlett O’Hara, and why it’s going to matter, but to Harry Slidell in 1938, it’s just another piece of studio gossip. Slidell’s investigation comes to a gonzo finale during the shooting of the burning of Atlanta sequence in Gone With the Wind, but to the characters, the most salient fact is that pyrotechnics make it easy to dispose of a body.