Does Scarlett Johansson Play Esther Williams In 'Hail, Caesar'? Their Roles Show A Few Parallels
In 1940, the second World War caused the summer Olympics' cancellation, forever changing the fate of one competitive swimmer in the process. Her name was Esther Williams, and — when she was unable to compete in 1940 — she joined a troupe of synchronized swimmers called Billy Rose's Aquacade. It was there that an MGM scout caught wind of Williams' talent, and the studio proceeded to cast her in small and then increasingly larger film roles. Among her biggest hits were aquatic musicals, much like the Aquacade performances that initially pushed her into the spotlight — and one in particular led to her nickname, the "Million-Dollar Mermaid." Williams rose to acclaim in the same milieu as the new Coen brothers movie, Hail, Caesar!, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a singing, swimming actress in Hollywood's Golden Age. So it might be reasonable to ask: Is Scarlett Johansson's Hail, Caesar! role based on Esther Williams?
It wouldn't be the first or only MGM reference in Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have not gone on record about the inspiration for their character, nor has Johansson, but given the parallels elsewhere in the film, it's reasonable to suggest that Esther Williams inspired Johansson's character and performance. Several of the characters are torn straight from the annals of Hollywood history. From Tilda Swinton's Thora Thacker (a fictionalized Hedda Hopper) to Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, there are more than a few reinterpretations of old Hollywood personalities. But a quick peek at the Hail, Caesar! IMDb page shows that Johansson's character is named DeeAnna Moran, not Esther Williams. Still, it's safe to say that Williams provided some of the inspiration for her twirling, diving character — but till Hail, Caesar! premieres, it's impossible to say exactly how much. But here are a few hints that show the Johansson-Williams parallel can't be too far off-base.
Tilda Swinton Plays Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper
Hedda Hopper recently received a cinematic treatment in Trumbo, in which the conniving gossip columnist who helped propagate the Black List is played by Helen Mirren. She was responsible for many of the communist takedowns in Hollywood at the height of the Red Scare — think Dalton Trumbo, for one, or Charlie Chaplin. As Variety noted, she had a penchant for funny hats (much like Tilda Swinton's Hail, Caesar! interpretation of the writer). Hopper floated around the edges of MGM in the early days of her career. Before she became a conservative columnist, she played small roles in more than 100 MGM films over three decades. This easily encompasses the period during which Hail, Caesar! is set, and could bring her into contact with Esther Williams somewhere on the Hollywood backlot.
Josh Brolin Plays "Fixer" Eddie Mannix
Another Hollywood personality drawn straight from history, Eddie Mannix was a fixer on the MGM payroll who also gets a fictionalized treatment in Hail, Caesar! As Karina Longsworth explains in the You Must Remember This podcast, Mannix was responsible for covering up anything from pregnancies and car wrecks to the biggest scandals of the era. And in Hail, Caesar!, it's Mannix who's charged with bringing home Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the ultra-movie-star kidnapped for ransom. In The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney, co-authors Richard Lertzman and William Birnes explore the web of relationships connecting the schemes of old Hollywood. A lawyer who represented, among others, Esther Williams, was also well-acquainted with Mannix — so there's a clear line between them. Even if fictionalized, Johansson's character clearly channels some aspects of Williams.
Channing Tatum Channels Gene Kelly as Burt Gurney
Gene Kelly starred in Anchors Aweigh, a musical comedy about Navy sailors on leave in Los Angeles in the '40s. And — no surprises here — MGM was the studio that made it all happen. Given early looks at Channing Tatum's Hail, Caesar! scenes, it's likely that Kelly provided some inspiration for his character Burt Gurney. Gurney attempts to defect to the Soviet Union, according to Slash Film, because he admires the communists' uniforms. Though Kelly himself was not affiliated with the party (or, at least, never went so far as to attempt defection), his wife Betsy Blair was blacklisted during the Red Scare. This isn't just an extensive read into the first trailers — when Tatum signed on to Hail, Caesar!, the Hollywood Reporter described his character as "Gene Kelly-like." From the Coens' lips to the Hollywood gods' ears.
None of the Hail, Caesar! characters are precisely faithful adaptations of their namesakes or inspirations. But given that the film plays out at a Hollywood studio — Capitol Pictures, a fictionalized MGM — and the personalities that surround Scarlett Johansson's character, it's far from a stretch to draw a connection between her character and Esther Williams.
Images: Universal Pictures (4)