Reviews: behind the painted smile – the Fade Out
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,
It’s 1948, the final phase of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the last few years of the “studio system”, before anti-trust and monopoly laws opened up the movie business. This is still – just – a time when large studios, run by dictatorial moguls, called all the shots. Not just in terms of what movies were made and screened (they often even owned their own cinema chains too), but in almost every aspect of how those films and their stars are perceived. Think today’s preening celebs with their “personal assistant” try to spin their public image is bad? It’s nothing on this era in Tinsel Town. Teams of PR folk carefully create rags to riches back-stories for all their stars, which the actors have to go along with (even to the extent of arranged dates to be spotted by paparazzi and allegedly even arranging marriages to make them look as the studio thinks they should to the public), their supposedly real lives as orchestrated, mediated and directed as their screen lives, all to craft and maintain that perfect illusion of beauty, success, vitality, of making it against the odds, living the American Dream, selling that dream (jut don’t look at that man behind the curtain and what he’s making that young actress do to get ahead…).
And when the PR fluff to a largely unquestioning media fails, there’s the heavy team of fixers – studio security in this era doesn’t just mean keeping stars and studio safe, it involves paying off people in shady bars to avoid blackmail or scandal leaking out to damage that carefully arranged public persona, ensuring secret abortions, plastic surgery or sometimes it simply means beating someone to a pulp and bribing authorities to make sure hospital and police reports don’t raise questions they don’t want to answer. And the thing is, as anyone who knows their film history knows, all of this is not the fictional part of The Fade Out. This is the actual murky, messy reality behind that glamorous facade of the dream factory – conspiracies, lies, bribery, corruption, the trading of sexual favours by wannabe starlets to try and get their foot in the door. And it’s an illusion most people wanted to buy into. What a terrific setting for Brubaker and Phillips to weave a story…
Charlie Parish wakes up in the bathtub. Not an unusual thing for Charlie, a screen writer – he turns to drink a bit too often since the war. In fact Charlie has more than just drinking problems, he has a major problem for a screen writer – he has lost the writing spark. Like many a classic Noir hero Charlie came back from the war damaged by what he experienced. And then he shopped his former mentor Gil to the authorities now gathering pace on their Communist witch-hunt. Except it turns out he didn’t do that exactly as everyone thinks – in fact Gil told him to do it as he knew they were after him, saw the writing on the wall. So he helps Charlie write scripts in secret and splits the proceeds, that way although black-listed he can still work and support his family and Charlie gets to keep his job. But Gil is becoming a worse drunk than Charlie, and angrier and more bitter. And that’s only going to get worse when Charlie confides what he saw when he woke up in that bathtub…
As Charlie cleans himself up he tries to piece together the wild party of the evening before, out with movie star friend Earl – Charlie knows them all, he’s even friends with Clark Gable, both bonded by their wartime experiences, so he is no stranger to the excessive lifestyle of the Hollywood greats. And as parts of his blacked-out party night come back to him in pieces, the world suddenly comes horribly into focus as he walks through the small cottage the studio keeps for actors to live on during shoots and finds Valeria, the stunning blonde lead actress in their current film, dead on the floor. And he realises she has been strangled. Murdered, while he was so drunk he was passed out just feet away in the bathroom.
Realising how suspicious it might look for him he wipes any trace of his presence then leaves quietly, pretending to be as shocked as the rest of the film crew when told the news that Valeria was found dead. But when the rough Brodsky, head of security, calls him in to talk about that night, Charlie finds out the scene has been stage-managed by Brodsky. Valeria’s body has been hung up by a door frame to make it look like she committed suicide, and that’s the story the press and police buy from Brodksy (with a little bribery to help), a troubled starlet killing herself being less scandalous to the studio than a murder – especially if that murder might involve someone else linked to the studio. Now Charlie is in the horrible situation of knowing they are lying about the dead woman, that she was murdered and the murderer isn’t just going free, they aren’t even suspected because “it was suicide”. And then he confesses to the already unstable, embittered Gil, giving him one more reason to hate the whole system…
This is an absolute masterclass in atmosphere, setting and murky morals. Brubaker takes pieces from many true-life Hollywood figures of the era – in front of and behind the camera, from moguls to dictatorial directors to huge stars living in their own PR-protected bubble – and he plays with it to great effect. Nobody here is clean or noble, even Charlie, although he is better than most, but compromised, and he knows it and it eats him the way his wartime experience eat at him. Phillips adds to this hugely with his always excellent art, delivering those iconic styles of the period – the men in those double-breasted suits, the women in glorious gowns and glamorous costumes (always the glam facade to hide the reality), the lighting and colour changing from the bright lights of the artificial reality of the screen images to the murky browns and dark blues of the night-time world hidden from the movie going public, a world of drink and drug fuelled parties, of sexual license where young actresses are prey to stars and producers.
It absolutely seeps atmosphere from the dialogue to the rich visuals, while the conspiracies clash with the dirty personal secrets everyone – even poor, wants-to-be-noble but oh so compromised Charlie – has and doesn’t want to come out. Everyone has something to lose here, everyone has something to hide. The morality is as dark and twisted as the screen images are bright and clear, the contrasts of the fiction of Hollywood and the seamy reality behind it, all wrapped in a wonderful, absorbing Noir story. We already know from Criminal and Fatale that Brubaker and Phillips are a brilliant team, and with the Fade Out they confirm this once more, with a masterful, engrossing story rich in period details, weaving in enough real historical details and borrowing from actual events and characters of the time to give a lush, richly intoxicating tale. Simply brilliant.
(Incidentally, if you are a fan of that Hollywood period I heartily recommend Karina Longworth’s excellent You Must Remember This Podcast series, which covers the lives of film folk from that era in a lot of detail, including a lot of elements you’ll recognise being worked into The Fade Out in various forms)