Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #31, we hit a film by Robert Altman that may boast more celebrity cameos than any other that I know.
The Player (1992)
Directed by: Robert Altman
Griffin Mill, a Hollywood producer, in attempting to sort out anonymous threats coming from a disgruntled script writer, accidentally kills someone, and then spends all his energy attempting to cover it up while also romancing the dad man’s girlfriend.
Amongst the various pressures that Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is enduring is a film in development called Habeus Corpus. The purity of the story, about a white woman who is unjustly sent to death row for political reasons, is zealously guarded by idealistic scriptwriter Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) . The movie will end with the woman dying, and the last second reprieve coming one second too late. Oakley repeatedly insists that his film will have no big stars, no happy endings, just reality.
A year after Griffin has managed to avoid being arrested for his part in the death of script writer David Kahane, Griffin and others sit in a theatre watching an advanced screening of the now complete Habeus Corpus. We catch up with them at the movie’s climax, where we see various spectators to the imminent execution. These include the likes of Peter Falk and Susan Sarandon. Then the camera pans over to show the priest–played by Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian) as a priest reading last rites to the condemned, who of course is played by none other than Julia Roberts.
Then, when the movie can’t sell out any farther, the execution takes place (by gas pellet). The last second reprieve comes, as expected, just a moment too late. But then none other than Bruce Willis shows up, grabs a shotgun, and blows a hole in the gas chamber’s window. He rushes in and pulls the near-dead movie star out at the last possible moment. As he carries her out, she wakes up and says, “What took you so long?” He replies, “Traffic was a bitch.”
When the lights go on, story editor Bonnie Sherow (and Griffin’s ex-girlfriend) confronts Oakley. “What about reality?” she asks. Oakley replies that the test audience didn’t like the original ending, so they reshot it, and now everyone loves it. That’s reality.
The whole movie of The Player highlights the unreality of Hollywood, the triumph of image over truth, and how the whole system pushes everyone towards increasingly shallow values. The fact that Tom Oakley, who is at first the most comically opposed to the Hollywood take on life and art, eventually becomes its ardent supporter, highlights this.
There’s is also a bit of genius visual pacing in the progressive reveal of how diluted the initial message of Habeus Corpus has become. First, there’s the image of Peter Falk and Susan Sarandon in the crowd…if you aren’t very clued in on celebrities you might not notice them. Then there’s the experience of seeing the priest played by Ray Walston, who is one of those guys you’ll probably recognize even if you don’t know his name. Then of course, we see Julia Roberts, who has been talked about all through the movie as the leading star that everyone would have if they could. And finally, there’s the bravado of Bruce Willis bursting in and blasting open the gas chamber with a shotgun, and his final line. The whole thing is absurdly over-the-top, but the cumulative effect of these reveals is hilarious.