All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

All About Eve – 1950

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders

It’s rare that a film, good or bad, can be boiled down to a single sentence.  All the complexities and nuance that goes into the crafting of the story, the acting, the production value, or in the case of some films that just get it all wrong, the lack of these things, makes a film a difficult thing to summarize.  Harder still, is boiling down the power of these works still further to describe it in terms of only one word.  Though it doesn’t give any detail about the plot, or characterization, it speaks volumes of the impact these raw elements have had on the final product.  So how, you ask, does this film boil down? In the case of, All About Eve, all I can say is…wow.

Despite this being more than a decade after the revelation of film architecture that was Citizen Kane, Eve borrows to great effect the re-arranged timeline, dramatically changing how we see the three main characters at the beginning as compared to how we see them at the end.  Though the central part of the movie plays out in a very linear fashion, the film is bookended by a scene that gains vast amounts of context from when it opens the film to when it closes it.  The middle portion of the narrative periodically skips and jumps forward to flesh out the characters fully and fill in the questions asked at the beginning. Not only do we see the characters evolve, and grow, but we the audience steadily gain an awareness of each of them, their motivations, and their back-stories.  With each turn of the corner, more of the plot is revealed.  We come to find that what we thought we knew, was wrong, and that the truth can be far more dismal and malicious than the fiction we had been invested in.

The most contentious of these characters, played by Anne Baxter, is the titular Eve Harrington.  A rather meek, yet still rather suspicious woman, she is obsessed to the point of stalking with a well-respected and seasoned theater actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Eve spends so much of her free time idolizing, and brown-nosing Channing, that Margo, eventually begins to buy into the hype so much so that she hires on the young sycophant as her personal assistant.  At first her actions and motivations seem innocent enough, but as the film progresses her agenda seems increasingly dubious.

The tide really turns when the smarmy theater critic (also the occasional narrator) begins trying to manipulate the situation in an effort to exercise some control over both Margo and Eve.  The relationship becomes strained to such a degree, as it does with all of her important relationships, that Margo is nearly ready to cave.

Our second character, Addison DeWitt is the aforementioned culture critic for the newspaper and also functions as our narrator for the film.  The sardonic, unflattering commentary he delivers, immediately paint him as a wounded and more than a little bitter.  DeWitt credits himself for a good portion of these actors success, due to his favorable (or unfavorable) reviews, and is clearly upset that his view is not shared by them.  When he sees in Eve a chance to exercise some control over those he deems in his debt, he makes grab for it, spinning a web of deceit matched only by the one that is being spun around him.

Finally we have Margo, played by the legendary Bette Davis.  Her scowl wreathed in cigarette smoke that are delivered within the first 30 or so seconds of her screen time are enough to convince us that we fully understand her relationship with Eve.  She seems a cold, cunning and angry person.  Although, as the film progresses we see Davis paint Margo Channing as a completely fleshed out person, not simply the one-dimensional character portrait we get from some films of this period.  She is at times cocky, at others she is scared of growing old, or blindly angry at what she perceives as a slight.  Davis is each of these things, and all of them at the same time, delivering one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Beneath the glitzy New York theater setting, the backstabbing, and the drama, All About Eve is really the story of a woman, Margo, peeling away the facile, superficial elements of her life (not by choice, mind you) and seeing what it is that she really has.  The film seeks to determine the value of what you have left once you lose the extraneous things that populate your daily life, and by comparing these two women, Eve and Margo, it is obvious which has the better foundation.  Not only is this film an extraordinary example of the quality of work that came out of the studio system of Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, it is also a remarkable achievement that it deals so frankly and honestly with the aging process from a female perspective.  This era can easily be described as somewhat of a boys club, so it is refreshing to see some diversity (I’m still waiting to stumble upon a film from this era that tells the tough as nails story of a gay, African-American, scientist, who is also a post-op transgender individual.)

Totally and completely worth it’s spot on this list, All About Eve blew me away.  After the film was over, for days and weeks afterwards, I found myself thinking about it.  Even though I had never had any interest in her before, I am very excited to see more of Bette Davis’ work.  When watching this film, you should indeed buckle your seat-belt  it will be a bumpy ride!

“Fuck. Bette Davis can act her ass off!” – Ashley

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man – 1980

Director – David Lynch

Starring – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft

Slow, cruel, and beautifully filmed.  These are the main adjectives I would use to describe David Lynch’s, The Elephant Man.  Set during the Victorian era in London, The Elephant Man tells the real life story of John Merrick, a seriously deformed man led from one freak show to another.  Anthony Hopkins stars as Frederick Treves, a doctor who takes it upon himself to rescue Mr. Merrick from the actual freakshow that he is performing in, puts him up in his hospital, and attempts to teach him civilized behavior.  Treves parades Merrick around, using his notoriety to advance his own reputation, all the while claiming to help him.

When word gets around that the “Elephant Man” (called this partially due to his appearance, and partially because his mother was mauled to death by an elephant) has gained a certain popularity with the upper crust, the owner of the freakshow (Bytes) comes back to collect his “treasure”.  Treves and Bytes play a game of tug-of-war with Merrick, neither considering him or his feelings in the least.  In terms of characters, Merrick himself played with a certain amount of humanity and grace by John Hurt, is the only character who really has any redeeming characteristics.  Despite his huge prosthetic make-up appliances, Hurt manages to imbue Merrick with a certain subtlety.

On the brightside, the film looked beautiful.  Shot in silky black and white, each characters shadowy nature plays itself out visually on the backdrop of dreary, foggy London.  Each of the set pieces is crawls with life, some of it unsettling and horrible, and some of it approaching dignity.  As the movie goes on, the mood, as well as the visual tone of the film grows subtly and slowly brighter.

Of the Lynch films that I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that this is smack in the middle.  It doesn’t reach the fantastic weird heights of films like Mulholland Drive, or Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t quite fall to the un-intelligable depths of Lost Highway, or Inland Empire.  If you’ve seen any of David Lynch’s other films, you will see some similarities but he clearly grew and matured since finishing this film.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Elephant Man was one of his more critically successful films and has since allowed him to go on and become a unique independant voice, if only for that reason, this film deserves it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die.

The Graduate (1967)

TheGraduate

The Graduate – 1967

Director – Mike Nichols

Starring – Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

A classic film.  One that, I’ve been told, encapsulates an entire generation.  It sums up what it’s like being in that in-between stage in life, where you’re not quite a responsible adult, and you’re no longer a care-free kid.  I have to say that this summary of The Graduate is entirely true, although, to fully appreciate these selling points one has to be part of that demographic.  At the very least you have to be near to that demographic, otherwise the just out of college (or recent graduate, get it, get it…?) Benjamin Braddock starts to seem more and more like a shiftless young man who just doesn’t know what he wants.

The story starts out after Ben has graduated from college with a number of honors, and the pride of his parents overflowing.  The guests at his party are gushing about him, dying to know more about his time in college, but all he can think about is getting away from them and being alone.  It is during this wallowing, that he encounters Mrs. Robinson, a sexually hungry neighbor who wastes no time in seducing him.  At first Ben is frightened, but eventually days later, his curiosity gets the better of him and he voluntarily accepts her lustful advances.

Mrs. Robinson, a woman unhappy in her marriage, and unfulfilled by her choices in life, is attempting to dampen the pain through their purely physical encounters.  Conversation, and social niceties are thrown out the window, as she apathetically, almost coldly manipulates Benjamin in order to get what she wants.  Benjamin, fascinated by the attention he is getting from her, doesn’t quite know how to handle the clinical approach that Mrs. Robinson takes, and continually attempts to engage her.  Ultimately he persists long enough, and delves deep enough to find out something of why she is engaged in this deception of her family with him.

During their affair, Ben lets everything else in his life slide.  The drive and ambition that defined him in his college career, now gives way to malaise and ennui, causing his parents to finally confront him.  In an attempt to get him back on track, it is suggested that Ben take Elaine Robinson out on a date (his parents are un-aware of Ben’s affair with Elaines mother).  Ben’s submission on this issue, and his and Elaine’s subsequent date sets into motion the main conflict of the movie.

While this movie almost certainly defines what it is like to be young, and to break free of the mold that has been set for you, it also chronicles the consequences of such impulsivity.  For every life altering decision that Benjamin Braddock makes to forge his own way, there is a life long regret that Mrs. Robinson is continually trying to make up for.  For every plot element that looks forward into a promising future, there is an equally strong storyline looking back on decisions that can’t be un-made.

That being said, what you get out of this film depends entirely on where you are in your own life as you watch it.  I for example, just turned thirty, am engaged, and have a steady job that I work hard at everyday.  I see the folly in Benjamin’s decisions more than I do the glamour.  Dustin Hoffman does a great job of playing the impulsive, wandering, naivety that most college kids our just out of school.  He is young capable of getting what he wants, and most of all he is only really concerned with himself, and what seems to be best for him in the present.  Anne Bancroft on the other hand, does a fantastic job of playing the person who used to be just like Benjamin Braddock.  Someone who, only now, can see the error of her choices.

Visually, the film is put together beautifully.  It flows together much like the characteristic songs from the soundtrack.  Each shot goes with the next, and is bourne from the last.  The patterns layered in the montage scenes repeat themselves to illustrate the scheduled and repetitive nature of Ben’s life, and start to fall away when he becomes more impulsive and free-wheeling.  The color is rich and vibrant, which aides  the slightly unreal quality that one feels after completing  something as life-changing and influential as graduating college.

While the Graduate maybe didn’t have the same effect on me that it did on others, it did have an effect none the less.  While I don’t think it is the film that completely defines who I am, or who I was, neither are the films that at one time did define me.  As much as Lost in Translation once meant to me, i’m coming to it from a different perspective now, and it doesn’t quite mean the same thing.  That being said, just because it doesn’t define me, doesn’t mean it isn’t saying something important anyhow.  The same is true for The Graduate.

“Hoffman at his tannest.” – Ashley