If we're scouting out trends in movie releases, 2014 could be seen as the year Hollywood's intestines were splayed out for dissection and observation.
Long accepted as an easy source for a satire, the film industry suddenly seems to have become one of screenwriters' top targets -- a notion that goes hand in hand with how much the current cultural conversation is ripping apart the way the media discusses popular culture.
A handful of this year's top films -- most of the low-budget, prestige kind -- have skewered the notion of fame, particularly as it affects aging celebrities. Because imagine that: You spend the bulk of your life as a public figure and then, after being incapable of tamping scrutiny over your professional and personal choices, you feel rejected by the very people who put you on that pedestal. "Sunset Boulevard" famously tackled this concept in 1950, and other films have addressed similar concerns among Broadway stars ("All About Eve," "Being Julia"). But if this year's film-festival fare is any indication, the so-called contemporary culture wars have expanded past Pat Buchanan's screeds and Gawker Media's jeremiads and returned to the place they allegedly began: within culture itself.
The splashiest dismemberment of Hollywood's unkind treatment toward aging hotshots comes in "Birdman." Alejandro González Iñárritu's biting comedy finds Michael Keaton playing Riggan Thomson, an actor who can't escape the titular superhero he portrayed in three movies years earlier. As the movie tells us, Riggan turned down a fourth "Birdman" despite assurances that it would hit $1 billion at the global box office. With that decision, he also inadvertently turned down the chance to find respectable acting work. The public only wanted to see him don an avian bodysuit and prevent worldwide tumult. The meta nature of how this corresponds to Keaton's history with Tim Burton's "Batman" movies (he and Burton turned down making a third, and the genre did nothing but proliferate after their exit) is only a piece of the puzzle that "Birdman" fits together. Even if Keaton's own legacy weren't tied up in the movie's politics, half of Hollywood's would be ensnarled by its narrative.
In order to capture an artistry he's been unable to hold onto after the media branded him little more than a box-office boon, Riggan adapts a Raymond Carver short story for Broadway. He also spars with a bloviating New York Times critic who says she'll rip apart his play because he's nothing more than a "celebrity," an admittedly unrealistic but no less caustic take on the way those who've been granted a byline -- and who hasn't these days? -- sometimes assess fame.
"Birdman" alone might not merit much more than few chunky thinkpieces were it not for the Keaton tie-in, the devotion some grant Iñárritu's movies ("21 Grams," "Babel") and, most important, the fact that "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Maps to the Stars" and "The Congress" all tackle similar themes.
In "Clouds of Sils Maria," a much-lauded underdog of this year's festival circuit that's due out in theaters next year, Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an actress famous for portraying the younger of two women at the center of a well-regarded play. Years after her auspicious debut and the industry's increasing dependence on -- what else? -- superhero movies, she reluctantly agrees to play the elder character, even though she knows she'll take a backseat to the young actress (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) cast opposite her. We watch as Maria struggles to accept her new position in the world of celebrity: haunted by recollections of headlining the same play in which she now plays second fiddle. Popular culture, again, is a cruel mistress to those who produce it. (And the trend could continue into 2015, with Al Pacino playing an aging actor in January's "The Humbling.")
Each movie implies that we as a culture did this to the celebrities, that their identities are man-made constructions about what fame means. And understandably so. It must be addictive, right? To be, at best, beloved or, at least, an object of popular affection?
If any character this year knows that, it's Julianne Moore's in the David Cronenberg movie "Maps to the Stars." Maria Elders offers the intellectual's take on the challenges of fame, but Moore's super-famous but quickly diminishing Havana Segrand is a glimpse of the obsessive's version. Never not anxious about The State of Her Image, Havana is the star who's certain she deserves worship. Her mania is refracted in "The Congress," in which Robin Wright plays herself as an actress so fickle that no one wants to cast her anymore. She recoils when, 20 years after selling her digital image to a studio and promising never to act again, her likeness is used for a new technology in which anyone can turn themselves into her.
In each of these cases, the actor or actress in question detects his or her own creeping irrelevance. We've come to a moment in popular culture where those who've been granted celebrity struggle more than ever to ensure their continued value. We're quick to grant 15 minutes of fame, but even quicker to adjudicate when the clock has finished counting down. "Mr. Turner," Mike Leigh's biopic about 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner, conveys the same notion -- and, despite its 1800s setting, the movie arrives at a particularly trenchant moment. When Turner learns of the invention of the camera, he recognizes that it will inevitably phase out the desire for the landscape images he's devoted his life to painting.
But back to the fictional celebs: Their diminishing worth is just as much as product of their own mindframe as it is cruel Hollywood mechanics. The voice of Birdman taunts Riggan with devil-on-your-shoulder rumblings about his worthlessness. The youthfulness that threatens Maria Enders and Havana Segrand derives from the din inside their own egomaniacal heads as much as it does the chatter of the media and studio execs, who collectively view themselves as gatekeepers of modern fame.
What stands out is how these movies converse with "Mr. Turner" and tell us that, as melodramatic as we know today's stars sometimes are, tying one's self-worth to mainstream consumption has always been a tenuous affair. For a group of privileged individuals who become all too aware of their own positioning within the world, 2014's movies suggest that fame is not only the harbinger of much adulation and a few headaches along the way, but a fickle beast with tentacles that will rip out the entrails of those who let it get the best of them -- that is, until they take off the bodysuit and learn to soar on their own.