THE film Rules Don’t Apply (Cert. 12A) is less about situation ethics than about ignoring social constraints. The plot centres on Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla (Lily Collins), before focusing on the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, also the writer and director).
After winning a talent competition back in Virginia, Marla — “a virgin Baptist” — seeks fame and fortune in Hollywood. Purity, however, is to her advantage as far as Hughes is concerned. Marla, together with a couple of dozen other beauties, is someone he just might make into a star. He imposes strict rules that employees mustn’t have intimate relationships with his protégés.
Frank is Marla’s driver. He, too, has a Christian background, a member, before coming to Hollywood, of Fresno, California’s First Methodist Church. Frank is ambitious but canny, preferring to win Hughes’s confidence, as he climbs the greasy pole to business success.
Neither Marla nor Frank, however, can entirely discard their church upbringings. He tells Marla that his fiancée Sarah “believes that once you’ve been intimate, in the eyes of God you’re committed to that person for the rest of your life.” Marla agrees with that, though it doesn’t stop her developing a sexual relationship with Hughes — partly a matter of sleeping her way to the top, but also one of genuine rapport, as she speaks truth to power. Her Christian outlook helps the paranoiac and reclusive boss distinguish between freedom and licence.
It’s 1964, and La La Land is on the cusp of change. The old hypocrisies that shielded the stars from scandal are breaking down, and the public is beginning to discover their true identities.
The Frank-Marla storyline rather loses its way as we learn and see more of Hughes. Unlike other films about him, he’s meant to be a bit part, “one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two”. But it proves impossible for this legend to be upstaged.
Beatty, in his late seventies, by and large manages to convince us that he’s the 59-year-old being portrayed. I never found Rules Don’t Apply simply a demonstration of how Tinsel Town eats up ingénues for breakfast or that the ethics of their faiths are soon corrupted. On the contrary, both Frank and Marla reveal ways in which Christian goodness permeates sterile institutions.
All analogies break down, of course, but it struck me that the far-from-perfect Hughes simulates the hiddenness of God. He is known only through witnesses who previously saw him. His presence is strongly felt but he isn’t knowable. What Marla and Frank do is break through this and uncover a God-like figure with a human face.
There is also a more puzzling element in this picture: the notion that, for the favoured few, rules don’t apply. When Marla attributes her failure to becoming a star to a lack of large breasts, singing voice, and dancing skills, Frank says that the rules don’t apply to her. Which rules, and who is setting them? I am inclined to think that it’s a further reference to their Christian faith, one that sets us free from the power of the law and all its rules, one capable of transforming despair into love.
On current release.