Every year, when the Academy Awards grace television and computer screens across the world, audiences and critics alike joke about Hollywood tending to reward films about the industry that the awards operate within. While movies have repeatedly tackled the subject of Hollywood every year, documentaries remind audiences about the origins and histories contained within the entertainment industry in the United States. These documentaries offer insight not only into the actors working in them, but also into the societal impacts of movies as a whole. It is impossible to deny the impact of movies on everyday people’s lives, whether it is contemporary times with Marvel, or nickelodeons in the early-1900s.
Whether it was legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin, actress Anna May Wong, or even the great Audrey Hepburn, many of Hollywood’s biggest stars from the Golden Age and earlier made their impact on American society. Hepburn became a fashion icon still seen today on many young women’s walls; Chaplin originated certain characters and archetypes in cinema that are used even today; and Anna May Wong’s filmography, although this fact is unfortunate, originated certain perceptions about Asian Americans. Through documentaries, their impact and legacies are honored, preserved, and shed light on characteristics never considered until now. These are the best documentaries about Hollywood icons.
6/6 Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin
Film critic Richard Schickel was the mastermind behind the documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. The documentary outlines aspects of Chaplin’s personal and private life, weaving how he was as a person in the public versus how he was with his friends and family. Narrated by Sydney Pollack, first- and second-hand sources are interviewed to get the holistic story of who Chaplin was as a person. Not only were Chaplin’s children interviewed, but also Martin Scorsese, notable biographers of Chaplin, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Allen, among others.
5/6 Lucy and Desi
Lucy and Desi came out in 2022 and was directed by comedian Amy Poehler. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were a power couple when they were active in Hollywood, completely changing the trajectory of American television as they collaborated on one of the most pivotal shows of their era: I Love Lucy. However, their path to fame was not easy. Desi was an exiled Cuban immigrant who came to the country with nothing, while Lucille essentially came from nothing and worked her way up to the top. This documentary tracks their relationship and careers, giving more insight into them as individuals and a couple.
4/6 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hedy Lamarr might be one of the greatest actresses of her era, but she also was brilliant. She invented a radio guidance system that prevented jamming during World War II, which is now used for technology like Bluetooth. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shows her early life in Austria, and how she had to depart her home country during World War II because she was Jewish. Bombshell does an excellent job of synthesizing not only her early life and career but her late life and work as an inventor.
Actor Val Kilmer is best known for his appearances in Top Secret!, Real Genius, The Doors, and Top Gun, and, in 2021, Leo Scott and Ting Poo released a documentary about him. Val utilizes footage Kilmer shot throughout his career, and utilizes archival footage in the form of home movies. Kilmer had over eight hundred hours of footage by the time the documentary started to be made, and so there was quite a bit of firsthand accounts about pivotal events in his life. Val is intimate, a rare account in which the famous subject contributes actively to the process.
2/6 Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Only a couple of weeks before Bright Lights came out for the public, both of the subjects of the documentary tragically passed away. It was the final appearance in film for Debbie Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s most notable actresses of her generation, but it seems fitting that it was with her daughter: Carrie Fisher. Bright Lights shows the pair’s tight relationship throughout the years. Through the use of interviews, archival footage, and home movies, it personalizes who they were personally through the lens of their relationship as mother and daughter. It is a love story at its core, and a fitting close to both of their careers.
As seen in the documentary Audrey, despite the massive fame that found Hepburn as an actress and a model, her personal life was very happy. Audrey follows her life from the beginning of her life, when her father left the family, and through World War II in the Netherlands, where food and resources were scarce. Hepburn was never able to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer due to the war but found a new opportunity: acting. Throughout the documentary, it does effective, emotional work with relatives and friends to reveal Hepburn’s loneliness and inner strife later in life, much of which stemmed from the childhood loss of her father.