15 Movies That Show Us The Darker Side Of Tinseltown

Photo: Courtesy of A24; Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
This month, David Cronenberg — master of movies that make you go "Whuuh?" — releases Maps to the Stars, a film that follows some incredibly messed up folks who live and work in Hollywood. Even if you're not normally into the director's brand of creepiness, it's hard to resist the allure of watching Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and John Cusack playing, well, their own kind.

Turning a gimlet eye on Hollywood is one of moviemakers' favorite things to do. The industry has long been churning out cautionary tales about the price of fame and the dangerous town where nothing is more valuable — just look at A Star Is Born or The Bling Ring. And, why not? Screenwriters write what they know, and you can't find an easier set than an actual studio lot.  

Sure, there are plenty of movies that celebrate the glamour of the business (Singing in the Rain, The Artist). But, we already know it's a town full of beautiful people being beautiful. It's nice to get a glimpse of the dark underbelly that proves Tinseltown is nothing more than a fictional facade. Cleanse your palate from the glitz of awards season and watch these movies to remind yourself why you might want to stay safely on this side of the silver screen.
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A Star Is Born (1937)
This cautionary tale stars Janet Gaynor as an aspiring starlet from North Dakota who gets her big break when she meets a fading alcoholic actor. Things don't go so swimmingly for him. "Don't come to A Star Is Born and expect to find a Cinderella story or a glorification of motion pictures," says the ominous narrator of the trailer. "Instead, you will be shocked by the price that is paid in heartbreak and tears for every moment of triumph in Hollywood." Apparently, Hollywood didn't think they'd warned away enough naive farm girls, so they remade this as a Judy Garland musical in 1954, and as a story about musicians with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.
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Sunset Boulevard (1950)
If you think the movie business sucks for middle aged women now, just imagine what it was like for faded actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder's 1950 noir classic. It's also not too friendly for struggling screenwriter Joe (William Holden), who winds up living with Norma, ostensibly to help her with the script for her big comeback. It's no spoiler that somehow Joe winds up dead in her pool, and Norma's delusion leads to that famous line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
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Barton Fink (1991)
Screenwriters are never very easy on themselves as subjects, are they? In this Coen Brothers movie set in 1941, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a playwright hired by a Hollywood studio and put up in a weirdly empty hotel, where he can't seem to write a word. He can, however, get involved in a gruesome murder and other types of classic Coen Bros. insanity.
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Grand Canyon (1991)
This is one of those ensemble movies with intersecting plotlines that actually works, as it follows the lives of a movie producer (Steve Martin), a tow-truck driver (Danny Glover), a lawyer (Kevin Kline), and his wife (Mary McDonnell) in Los Angeles. Violent events shake up their world views — Martin's character, in particular, rethinks his empty action-movie career. Somehow, taking a vacation away from L.A. manages to clear things up, however.
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The Player (1992)
Oh, pity the poor Hollywood exec (Tim Robbins) who has to reject hundreds of dud pitches a day from writers! Well, when he starts getting death threats from one of those rejects, we do actually start to feel for him, just a tiny bit. This Robert Altman film mocks the system and packs in a ton of celebrity cameos while still casting a dark shadow over their world.
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Ed Wood (1994)
When Tim Burton goes meta-Hollywood, you know he's not going to make a movie about some mainstream director. This black-and-white film stars Johnny Depp as the real-life, cross-dressing, B-movie auteur Ed Wood, who managed to make a film about a transgender woman (Glen or Glenda) in 1953, thanks to his friendship with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), but is still widely recognized as one of the worst directors of all time.
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The Muse (1999)
Does an Albert Brooks comedy really belong amid this list of dark flicks? Think about it: Brooks plays a screenwriter who learns that many of his successful colleagues have been employing the services of a real-life muse (Sharon Stone), who somehow manages to inspire Oscar-worthy material in her clients, as long as they put her up in fancy hotels and buy her jewelry. These very successful grown men (yeah, all men) are desperate enough for an edge in this business that they'll buy into this mythology, at all costs. So, this is actually a parody of how rich Hollywood people spend their money on really stupid things.
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Get Shorty (1995)
The main premise of this flick, based on the Elmore Leonard novel, is that movie producers and gangsters have about the same level of morality. So if a loan shark like Chili Palmer (John Travolta, in the middle of his '90s comeback) wants to change careers, it's as simple as a few death threats. This being a '90s gangster movie, it is as relentlessly charming as it is violent.
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L.A. Confidential (1997)
Guy Pierce, Kevin Spacey, and Russell Crowe are L.A. cops with widely divergent senses of right and wrong, working together to solve a series of murders in this retro-noir film based on the James Ellroy novel. Spacey's Jack Vincennes has the most fun with his work, which includes tipping off a Hollywood tabloid about celebrity arrests and working as a consultant for a TV cop show. Crowe, meanwhile, is in love with a prostitute (Kim Basinger, in the role that won her an Oscar) who's one of several forced to get plastic surgery to look like famous movie stars. Eeep!
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Gods and Monsters (1998)
Ian McKellen is so damn good in this fictional account of the life of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale that he actually makes Brendan Fraser look like a pretty good actor, too. The retired gay director, who's suffered a stroke, forms an unlikely friendship with his gardener, a Korean War vet. Actually, this isn't really a tale of dark Hollywood, but it's another sad look at how little the industry cares for its faded stars, or its closeted ones, for that matter.
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Bowfinger (1999)
Somewhere amid all the terrible movies Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin made in the '90s and ‘00s, they managed to make this legitimately funny parody of Hollywood wheeling and dealing. When megastar Kit Ramsey (Murphy) refuses to star in Bobby Bowfinger's (Martin) alien movie, the producer decides to shoot it with him anyway, by having actors come up to him and read him lines in the street. Then he finds a dorky Kit look-alike (also Murphy), to fill in for the actor. The evil undercurrent in all this? Kit is a member of MindHead, a thinly veiled jab at Scientology, which controls Hollywood and also believes all those movie aliens are real.
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Mulholland Drive (2001)
There are two reasons you might find this nonlinear tale of two women, one an aspiring actress and the other an amnesiac, just a tad bit surreal: It's by David Lynch, and it was meant to be an open-ended TV pilot, not a stand-alone feature film. Still, the weird, unsettling nature of this 2001 movie is not unpleasant. And, there's a Billy Ray Cyrus cameo.
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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Robert Downey Jr. is a small-time crook who accidentally runs into an audition while fleeing the cops. A series of misunderstandings later, and he's paired up with Val Kilmer, a private detective hired to coach Downey for a movie role. Before they can even get that far, the pair wind up framed for the murder of an actor's daughter while investigating the death of an aspiring actress' (Michelle Monaghan) sister. This is how things really happen in L.A., don't you know?
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Hollywoodland (2006)
The real-life death of Superman star George Reeves in 1959 remains something of a mystery — did he shoot himself in the head, or was he murdered? Adrien Brody stars as a detective investigating how the wife (Diane Lane) of a studio exec (Bob Hoskins) may have been involved in Reeves' (Ben Affleck) death. No matter how bad things get in modern times, it seems that Hollywood in the '50s was a nonstop haven of corruption and murder.
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The Bling Ring (2013)
Now this is a story about the kind of corrupt souls who come out of today's Hollywood — where one can be just as famous for being a bad-girl socialite as for being a movie star. Based on the true story of a group of fame-obsessed teens who robbed the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and others, Sofia Coppola inflects this movie with her typical great soundtrack and peppy feel that belies the icky undertone of what's really going on here. Of course, you'll also want to watch this to see Emma Watson do an amazing spoiled brat.
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