Welcome to Hollywood is a 1998 film written and directed by Michael Stern, and starring George Clooney, Jason Alexander, Natalie Weaver, Tom Cleary, Ron Durling, JT Starworth, Kevin Spacey, Chelsea Harkin, Alan Alda, Richard Gere, Morgan Freeman, Barry Obama, Chris Russo, and Madeline McGreary. The film is structued and styled as an homage to noir films, following a cynical attorney (Clooney) through his descent into the Hollywood underworld in the mid-1970's to investigate a corrupt director (Cleary) who is being sued by his film studio.
The film went on to win nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (Weaver), and received universal acclaim. The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in 2001, the fastest a single film has been chosen by the institution as culturally significant. It was also the second-highest grossing film of the year.
The film is set in 1975. Raymond Dominguez (Clooney), an attorney who operates by the name Ray Domino, is a cynical prosecutor who debates giving up the practice after a murderer is given a mistrial in the film's opening act. He resigns from the district attorney's office and is mulling joining a firm when he is approached by Donald Greene (Alda), a studio executive from the fictional California Studios, who asks him to serve as a legal advisor for the studio in a planned lawsuit against a famous director, George Corbit (Cleary) who has allegedly reneged on his contract to shoot a crime film set in the 1930's titled Welcome to Hollywood. Greene believes that the film would have been the financially unstable studio's opus, and is furious that the director has vanished and believes a suit to force the director to come to work is the only way to get the film off the ground.
From here on, the plot largely mirrors the glimpses of the film-within-a-film the audience is treated to. Domino, who has always operated in suburban Los Angeles, buys an apartment in Hollywood to prepare his research for the case. As he descends further into the underworld of the Hollywood scene, his cynicism about the world only increases, as he sees the decadence of the film industry as a microcosm for the flaws of humanity as a whole. He befriends an unemployed actor named Curtis Chessler (Jason Alexander) who serves as his guide. Once introduced to Hollywood's major power brokers, Domino gets pulled into what is essentially a criminal organization. He comes into contact with a gay agent, John Birk (Kevin Spacey) who promises him access to Corbit, and butts heads with a tempestuous producer named Jack Foster (Richard Gere) who is sparring with his drug-abusing star actor, Kenny Jones (JT Starworth) - Jones being the purported star of the shelved project and who is having an affair with Foster's wife, Dolores. The headlining actress for Welcome to Hollywood, Susan Isner (Chelsea Harkin) is a high-maintenance starlet with a doting assistant (Chris Russo), and the other actress is Charlotte van Ackeren (Weaver), a hot-tempered, recovering drug addict. Domino begins an affair with both actresses as he earns the dislike of the film's new director, Henry Harlowe (Morgan Freeman), a black filmmaker frustrated by the reality that he's only around until Corbit can be coerced into coming back onto the project. Domino becomes increasingly entangled in the personal feuds between this group of individuals involved in Welcome to Hollywood
Domino eventually realizes that Corbit is in fact being blackmailed by an LA reporter named Stewart Smalls (Barry Obama) for trying to swindle the studio. Smalls is shortly thereafter discovered dead, and Domino realizes that the studio only hired him to flush Corbit out and is manipulating him - there was no lawsuit, as Domino began to suspect was the case, and Corbit overdoses on drugs under suspicious circumstances. Domino resigns himself to the vicious cycle of Hollywood, despite having evidence with which to incriminate the studio and Foster.
The film is eventually put together, released in 1976 and is hailed as a masterpiece, although Harlowe receives almost none of the credit due to the racism of the studio system. Domino and van Ackeren break up after he discovers her stealing from him to buy drugs, and he is further disillusioned with the culture in Hollywood. He attends a lavish party in Beverly Hills, where he is introduced to yet another young starlet - and in his closing monologue as the camera pans out from them and comes to focus on the Hollywood sign, Domino laments the endless monotony and pointlessness of the hard-partying lifestyle in the celebrity culture, what he describes as "meaningless purpose."
- George Clooney as Raymond Dominguez/Ray Domino, an attorney hired to collect evidence against a flamboyant and corrupt director and who eventually becomes sucked into the Hollywood culture he despises
- Tom Cleary as George Corbit, an eccentric, drug-abusing director described as a "haunted, wasted and misunderstood genius." The character was likely based on Jack Kennedy or Jerry Platt
- Natalie Weaver as Charlotte van Ackeren, a beautiful and talented actress with a severe cocaine and heroin addiction struggling to stay clean. Likely based on Julia Dogherty or Lorraine Love.
- Jason Alexander as Curtis Chessler, a guillible actor in Hollywood struggling to find work and who is manipulated by various characters to serve their own needs
- Morgan Freeman as Henry Harlowe, a solid director brought onto the project in case Corbit cannot be brought back into the fold. Based on Michael Forks.
- Alan Alda as Donald Greene, a scheming studio executive trying to recoup his losses on a film.
- JT Starworth as Kenny Jones, an out-of-control actor headlining the Welcome to Hollywood project. Based on Adam De Vry and the Bad Boys of the 1980's.
- Chelsea Harkin as Susan Isner, a spoiled, hard-partying young starlet completely dependent on her assistant
- Chris Russo as Bobby Bailey, Isner's insecure and spineless personal assistant
- Barry Obama as Stewart Smalls, a reporter trying to blackmail Corbit and California Studios after uncovering an embezzlement scheme
- Kevin Spacey as John Birk, a high-profile Hollywood agent described as the "gateway to Hollywood" due to his influence among the power players in the industry
- Richard Gere as Jack Foster, a short-tempered producer in charge of Welcome to Hollywood's production
- Madeline McGreary as Dolores Foster, Jack Foster's drug-abusing and adulterous wife.
While making Business, Michael Stern became fascinated with the politics of the Hollywood industry, and decided to make a noir set in the most corrupt and wild time in Hollywood history, the mid-1970's shortly after the industry was deregulated by Robert Redford. Stern debated setting it in the 1930's, but felt that audiences wouldn't connect with the characters in the same way and was uncomfortable with the high amounts of Mafia politics that would naturally have to be included to make it appropriate to the period due to the organized crime-centric plot of Business. Stern and screenwriter Chuck Roth debated setting the film in the mid-to-late 1980's, in the so-called "Hollywood hangover," but felt that the negative connotations audiences had with that period would not translate well to film. Roth also knew a similarly focused film, about "Pretty Nick" Johnson, was in production at the time and that Stern's film would be competing directly.
Stern drew up a quick script outline that he was very unhappy with while he was working on the post-production of Business, and let Roth finish it. Both men received writing credit. The final product featured a "happy ending," that Stern was unhappy with, because it completely changed the dark, cynical mood of the film. Roth and Stern eventually compromised - Stern had eventually wanted van Ackeren to kill herself after being dumped by Domino, and both men eventually agreed that that was far too morbid after the sudden death of Corbit near the end and the "shit we put the other characters through."
Roth and Stern pitched their script to Dooley Brothers, who had been impressed with Stern's work on Business and his preceding two films for the studio. Dooley Bros. greenlit the project and after Business dominated the fall 1996 box office and ensuing Academy Awards, handed him an additional 25 million to work with on his promising sequel.
Stern wrote the role of Domino with Mike Myers, whom he had worked together with on Revolt, in mind. Myers, however, was unavailable due to a commitment with other projects. Stern, who had always wanted to work with John Cusack, offered the role to Cusack as well, who turned it down. Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan, and Linden Ashby expressed interest in the role, which was eventually given to George Clooney, who Stern was familiar with from Business although he noted that Clooney's role in Business was about as "polar opposite from Domino as possible." Stern, who had never worked with or met Gere prior to his audition for the role, was so impressed, however, that he gave him the role of Jack Foster.
Stern auditioned Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Sharon Stone, Elisabeth Shue and Natalie Weaver for the role of Charlotte van Ackeren. While he later would say that Julianne Moore "blew him away" and that the studio pressured him to cast Stone, Stern felt that Natalie Weaver's vulnerability in the wake of the John Burwin sex scandal translated to her interpretation of van Ackeren, a quality no other actress auditioning had.
Alan Alda and Tom Cleary were "the only choices for Greene and Corbit," but Stern remarked later that casting the role of Harlowe was extremely difficult. While he had been interested in casting Sam Carter, the aging black acting icon declined due to health reasons. Stern was impressed by Barry Obama's audition, but felt he was too young for the role and chose instead to go with Morgan Freeman, giving Obama the role of Stewart Smalls instead, a role he had written with Carey Elwes in mind.
The most difficult role to cast was that of Susan Isner. Irene Cassidy was considered, but she wound up committing to Clinic, which in turn drove her to fame. A number of young actresses, including Jennifer Aniston and a pre-fame Rochelle Harrison, auditioned for the part, which eventually went to sitcom star Chelsea Harkin with only two weeks left before shooting was scheduled to start.
The soundtrack was carefully compiled using only songs from 1975 or earlier, and included many songs that were popular at the time but were not still well-liked in the 1990's. Two original songs, "Welcome to Hollywood" and "Party Stories," were written especially for the film and composed to emulate the sounds of 70's pop songs.