Jason Bellamy: On the same weekend that Robin Hood opened, Cate Blanchett turned 41. At least, most of her did. Watching her play Marion to Russell Crowe’s Robin, I found it difficult to ignore the glaring (apparent) reality that some of the actress is considerably younger. Blanchett’s cheekbones, for example, have such a suspiciously hard, dramatic contour that they look less like features of a human face than like accents of a sporty Mercedes-Benz, probably because they are equally unnatural. Blanchett, I think it’s safe to say, has undergone some cosmetic surgery throughout her movie career. And while I want to make it clear that it’s none of my business what Blanchett does to or with her body, I do feel I have every right to make the following observation: In Robin Hood, Blanchett’s too-perfect cheekbones look neither middle-aged nor Middle Age.
For me, this is a problem, not just in terms of how Blanchett’s face doesn’t fit the film but also because of the way it continues a somewhat disturbing trend. Particularly over the past 10 years, cosmetic surgery has become a kind of epidemic in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman’s forehead no longer wrinkles. Rene Russo’s skin is tighter than it was when she got her big break in 1989’s Major League. Meg Ryan hardly looks like Meg Ryan anymore. Meanwhile, almost every Hollywood actress over 35 seems to have Keira Knightley’s cheekbones, which makes one wonder whose cheekbones Keira Knightley has. Increasingly of late, I’ll come across one of these significantly remodeled actresses and silently shake my head, not in haughty admonition but in bewildered sadness, wondering what’s gone wrong with society to impel these already attractive women to transform themselves into stiff-faced approximations of beauty, sacrificing their uniqueness for some Hollywood Barbie “ideal.”
And then I remember All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. And then I realize that the only thing new about what’s going on in Hollywood today is the available medical technology. Sixty years old this year, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard each tell stories of actresses who are effectively washed up as a result of becoming middle-aged—the only significant difference being that one of them sees the writing on the wall, while the other is so deluded that she doesn’t even see the wall. This is certainly not the only way in which these films are united, but it strikes me that it’s a good place to start. Ed, I wish I could tell you that the experiences of All About Eve’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) strike me as something from our country’s shameful past. Instead, I think the way that these films suggest that, for actresses, wrinkles amount to irrelevancy is all too contemporary. How about you?
Ed Howard: Both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are the kind of movies that one hopes, 60 years later, would seem like dated time capsules from an earlier era. Instead, as you say, revisiting these films now gives the impression that we haven’t made much progress at all, that women—and especially women in the entertainment industry—are still dogged by these unreasonable societal standards about youth and beauty, this aversion to seeing a woman age naturally. It’s such a well-known aspect of popular culture that it’s taken for granted, and I don’t think I need to dwell on it too much. As an actress ages, with very few exceptions, she will get fewer and fewer parts, and more and more limited parts, so of course most Hollywood actresses will do anything they can to maintain some semblance of youth as they approach or pass the age of 40.
In somewhat different ways, both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard (which were both released in 1950) deal with the phenomenon of an actress whose best years are behind her. Margo is a Broadway star who’s increasingly aware that she’s starting to look ridiculous playing 20-year-olds, and that maybe she isn’t at the apex of her profession anymore. Norma, meanwhile, has already retreated from Hollywood fame into a solitary existence where, with the help of her butler/former director/former husband Max (Erich von Stroheim, himself a former director) she can convince herself that she still matters. The films also create an extra layer of metafictional commentary from the fact that both actresses were arguably reflections of the characters they played. Gloria Swanson had been a star in the silent era and survived the transition to sound but not the transition into her 40s; Sunset Boulevard was her first film in nine years. Bette Davis was still making movies regularly in 1950, but certainly her years as a young starlet were behind her, and like her character Margo she was poised on the brink of middle age, perhaps fearing that her audience wouldn’t follow her into her maturity.
Maturity is perhaps a key word here, for while both films are concerned with the fear of growing old, neither of these characters is actually growing up. In fact, these films together make a compelling case that our society’s obsession with age, with youth and attractiveness, leads to misplaced values and stunted emotional growth. Norma and Margo, as their bodies grow older and they can no longer hide the wrinkles in their skin and the bags beneath their eyes, cling desperately to the shallow preoccupations of youth. They’re emotional children in aging bodies. Instead of embracing the maturity and wisdom that should come with age, they struggle to maintain an illusion of youthful “perfection,” and they project the attitude of entitlement, capriciousness and superiority that comes with it.
JB: I think that’s mostly right. To be fair, Margo ultimately does grow up: bowing out of a part she knows isn’t right for her, marrying the man she loves and coming to terms with the fact that Eve (Anne Baxter) isn’t a threat to her happiness. But Margo gets to that point all of a sudden, and only after a lot of kicking and screaming. In essence, she ignores reality until she has no choice but to confront it, lest she go insane, which is precisely what happens to Norma in Sunset Boulevard. So, yes, I do think these films say a great deal about how the desperate pursuit of external youth creates a kind of arrested development, because it’s easier to never grow up than to never grow old.
I suppose all of this is obvious. No one could watch these films and fail to grasp that Margo and Norma demonstrate how difficult it can be for women to pass into middle age. This theme isn’t just in the subtext, it’s often in the text itself. (Margo: “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.”) And yet just because we’re conscious of what these films are saying doesn’t mean we’re as good about remembering what they’ve said. Given that All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are about actresses under the extraordinary expectations of Hollywood (or Broadway as a stand-in for Hollywood, in the case of All About Eve), it’s tempting to regard Margo and Norma as movie stars only, thus forgetting that they are very much regular women, too.
So it is that Sunset Boulevard’s final scene, in which Norma slithers toward the camera like the vampire in Nosferatu, ready for her famous closeup, is often interpreted as a comment on Hollywood’s twisted ideals and the corruptive effect of fame. It is that, no question about it, but on a much more basic level that scene also reveals a woman driven not so much by a desire to be loved by the world (or the camera) as by a desire to be loved by just one man. Given Norma’s obsession with stardom, it’s easy to forget that what sends her into madness isn’t the realization that her movie career is finished but that her live-in screenwriter/quasi-boyfriend Joe (William Holden) is leaving her for a younger woman. For all the elements of these films that are specific to Hollywood, I think they each speak just as well to some of the inherent pressures of general womanhood, even if they tend to use dramatic, theatrical gestures to get their points across.
EH: That seems accurate. The Hollywood actress (and actor, for that matter) is often held up as some kind of paragon, an ideal of beauty and charm that “ordinary” people aspire to mimic. The Hollywood celebrity is a model for what the rest of us strive to be: attractive, successful, talented, poised and elegant. These films pierce that idealization to suggest that these rich, famous actresses aren’t actually so different from the rest of us; they too worry about growing old, about losing their glamor, about being unable to find love due to fading looks—or about losing what love they already have. As you make clear in your intro, such concerns are particularly acute in the years before universal plastic surgery, when these celebrities, just like the rest of us, don’t really have many options for avoiding the inevitable passage of time. The connection between these actresses and the non-famous women who go to see them is thus more pronounced than it is today, when those who can afford it don’t have to age (visibly at least) at the same rate as everybody else. The drama is exaggerated and stylized, but to some extent these films are mapping ordinary concerns onto the kind of fabulous women who some might assume would be above such problems. In that sense, certainly, neither of these films is just a satire of the Hollywood/Broadway cycle of fame and irrelevancy; they’re both also about the more prosaic concerns of “general womanhood.”
But all of that exists on a thematic level. I don’t think anyone would argue that, in other respects, either Margo or Norma (or anybody else in these movies) really seem like icons of typical femininity. They are very particular characters, played by very particular actresses who are drawing on very particular acting traditions to craft stylized, in some ways absurd performances. Although I’d agree with you that both these films resonate with universal concerns that aren’t limited to the insular worlds depicted onscreen, the actual textures and aesthetics in both films are far from realistic. Norma Desmond is, as you suggest, derived equally from Nosferatu and the tradition of the silent vamp, from literal vampires and vampiric screen seductresses. She spends much of the film with her hands gnarled into claws and her eyes nearly bugging out of her head. Sunset Boulevard, after all, isn’t only about the physical degradation of age, but about losing touch with societal norms and the rapid pace of aesthetic change.
Norma has lost relevance as much because she represents an outdated aesthetic as because she’s started to grow old. The silent movie stars acted with their faces and their bodies because they couldn’t use their voices; Norma lives her everyday life as if she’s still in a silent movie, still mugging for the camera, projecting her emotions in every twitch of her expressive face. Mitigating against the idea that Norma is a woman like any other is the way that the film surrounds her with the trappings of Hollywood’s past: not only von Stroheim as her butler, but cameos by other actors whose stars dimmed in the sound era (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner). At one point, Norma even dresses up like Charlie Chaplin to do a mime routine as the Tramp. Norma’s biggest crime, as far as Hollywood is concerned, is her refusal to adapt to the times; in some ways the film suggests that society might be willing to forgive a few wrinkles, but it can’t countenance Norma’s intransigent devotion to silent movie (over)acting and old-school epic extravagance. The rest of the movie industry has moved on, and Norma’s been left behind, punished for sticking to her aesthetic convictions, as cheesy and out-of-touch as her preferences might seem to post-silent era audiences.
JB: That actually segues nicely into another of Sunset Boulevard’s famous moments: when Norma responds to Joe’s assessment that she “used to be big” by demanding, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!” It’s a magnificent line—truly one of the best in cinema history—and, like the film’s equally famous final shot, it’s tempting to think of that line as nothing more than a sharp dagger to the heart of a misguided Hollywood. I mean, just think of the countless essays you’ve read that use Norma’s quote en route to a proclamation that Hollywood’s best years are behind it. Sure, there are lots of movie lines that are more celebrated or better recognized, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with one that cinephiles, on the whole, find more personally resonant. Because we’ve all been there: staring up at the closing credits of a lackluster movie with that empty feeling that Hollywood used to make ’em better. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point. When Norma sneers that the pictures have gotten small, cinephiles reflexively nod their heads in agreement. We love her in that moment.
But let’s look at that line carefully, because it’s also evidence that Norma is, as you noted, tragically out of touch. With her card games among silent film stars (the “waxworks,” Joe calls them), her private silent-movie screenings and her antique car in the garage, Norma is doing everything she can to live in the past (not altogether unlike modern actresses trying to live in the past by undergoing cosmetic surgery). The truth is that Norma doesn’t actually know that the pictures have gotten small, because she doesn’t watch those pictures. Norma assumes—or convinces herself—that the movies have declined in quality simply because she isn’t in them. So it’s interesting that the same piece of dialogue that can make cinephiles high-five one another in triumph, as if Norma has reached into the future to bitch-slap Jerry Bruckheimer, can also be seen as the stubborn, clueless ramblings of someone bitter that the world has changed on them—the kind of stuff served up these days by Andy Rooney, who recently ranted against the micromanaging of medical professionals by bragging that he’s never brushed his teeth twice a day. In that light, Norma isn’t the woman that more reasonably disgruntled cinephiles should want as their spokesperson.
EH: Yeah, it’s funny that her words have become such a battle cry against mediocrity, because in fact Norma herself isn’t exactly a paragon of artistic integrity and inventiveness. She doesn’t miss the good old days because they represented a high water mark in cinematic aesthetics; she misses the movies of the past because they were more glamorous, more lurid, because they better suited her own particular talents and, as you say, because she was in them. Norma doesn’t fit in the modern movies because she’s too melodramatic, too over-the-top in her acting—whether she’s onscreen, trying out for a part or simply playing herself in her increasingly theatrical everyday life. The movie she wants to make is an absurd soap opera about Salome, the kind of movie that Cecil B. DeMille might’ve made in the silent era, which is why she wants DeMille to direct. But even DeMille, in the middle of directing a probably-not-so-different-on-the-surface sword-and-sandal epic, recognizes Norma’s ideas as outmoded. The pictures didn’t get too small for Norma, they simply changed, and she was unwilling or unable to adapt with the times, to adjust to new aesthetics and new ways of making movies. (Witness the overhead mic swiping her in the head as she sits on DeMille’s set, as perfect a metaphor as any for Norma’s relationship to sound.) As I said before, there’s something to admire in Norma’s refusal to compromise her own vision, but at the same time it’s a very conservative outlook, a desire to halt the natural evolution and development of a medium striving for new and different means of expression.
Director/co-writer Billy Wilder is striking a delicate balance here. Sunset Boulevard is a lament for a lost era, for those forgotten stars who failed to make the transition to sound, whose careers faltered when faced with the new economies and aesthetics of sound filmmaking. There’s something poignant even about the mere appearance of Buster Keaton, looking somehow wasted and gaunt, a premonition of the meditation on mortality and performance that he’d later deliver in the Samuel Beckett-written Film. There’s no doubt that Wilder feels genuine regret for the talents lost or forgotten during the transitional period from silents to talkies. At the same time, the film doesn’t idealize the past, doesn’t suggest that everything was better before sound came in and ruined it all; surely that would be hypocritical and silly coming from a director who started out as a writer and always knew the value of good dialogue. Instead, the film suggests that commerce always ruled, that the silent era represented not some golden age of artistic creativity but simply a different form of commerce, catering to different tastes and serving up different forms of spectacle. In the film, DeMille (gamely playing himself) rejects Norma and her ludicrous vanity project script not because he’s dedicated to his own noble artistic vision, but because he’s learned how to tailor his commercial products to new temperaments, while Norma is still serving up old-school kitsch. She hasn’t learned how to make modern trash.
Wilder, for his part, counters this artistic bankruptcy, which bridges the old and the new Hollywood, with some of his most compelling filmmaking. The film is packed with iconic images, like the early shot of a corpse floating in a pool, ingeniously shot from below the water, looking up at the body. Wilder matches Norma’s extravagance with baroque compositions that give the film the feel of an overblown Gothic fairy tale. At one point, Wilder shoots Joe’s arrival into a room from a distance, placing a pipe organ keyboard and Max’s white-gloved hands in the extreme foreground. Coupled with the film’s consistent depiction of Norma as a Nosferatu-like vampire, these shots further solidify the film’s links with the past, with Murnau and the German Expressionists—in other words, with the real artistic touchstones that might lend some credence to the argument that the pictures used to be bigger.
JB: Bigger, right. But, I agree, not necessarily better. As you said, it would be hypocritical, or at least inauthentically self-deprecating, for Sunset Boulevard to suggest that sound, and more specifically words, cheapened cinema. Sunset Boulevard is powered by words, in Joe’s omniscient screenwriter’s narration and even in the form of routine dialogue. And if other films, prior and since, have been made with such an obsession for “talk, talk, talk” that very little thought has been given to what’s within the frame (ahem, All About Eve, are you listening?), well, we can’t blame the technology (or the “words, words and more words”), only the filmmakers.
And so I wonder if over time the true meaning of Norma’s famous quote has become somewhat lost. Perhaps now we instinctually interpret the phrase as representing Sunset Boulevard and movies of its era, rather than the silent movies Norma is actually attempting to defend. On that note, I have to admit that over the past two years, when I’ve come across critics blasting away at 3-D as if its (re)arrival is the death knell of cinema, I’m startled at how much their diatribes (which I largely identify with, by the way) can come off like Norma Desmond offering her own technology-inspired obituary for movies: “They’re dead! They’re finished! There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough for them. Oh, no. They had to have the ears of the world, too. Look at them in the front offices. The masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them.” Ed, is it possible we could reach a point, perhaps only 15 years from now, where the anti-3-D crowd and/or the anti-Robert-Zemeckis-motion-capture crowd sounds this loony? I shudder at the thought. In fact, don’t answer that question.
I’d rather get back to Sunset Boulevard’s images. You already mentioned one of my favorite shots, of Max’s fingers hammering on the organ keys, and the shot of Joe floating in the pool, which, incidentally, I think of every time I watch the opening credits of Mad Men. But there are so many other examples of this movie’s visual richness, particularly in contrast to All About Eve. For starters, consider that terrific moment when Joe first ascends the stairs toward Norma’s bedroom and Max steps into the frame to deliver one of the film’s best laugh lines: “If you need help with the coffin, call me.” Genius! Consider the shot when Joe walks into the parlor for the first time, and the camera pans left along with Joe and pulls back to take in the enormity of the room. Consider, of course, the famous scene in which Norma stands up into the projector light, drawn like a moth to the flame, in a maybe-somewhat-accidental moment that she milks for all the theatrics it can provide. Consider the very simple slow zoom over Joe’s shoulder as he peers into Norma’s empty bedroom trying to understand the woman who lives inside it. And, just because I have to stop somewhere, consider a few of the various shots during Norma’s trip to Paramount, like her touching moment in the spotlight, or the way the camera takes in the chaos of the set and then slowly zooms to frame Norma and “Chief” DeMille for their intimate conversation. Visually, as well as verbally, this is very much a “big” picture. And, as I’ve already implied, I can’t say the same of All About Eve.
EH: Neither can I. Talking about these two films together is interesting in all sorts of ways, but one way in particular is very fascinating from a meta perspective: All About Eve might be the textbook example of the kind of movie that Norma Desmond is railing against in Sunset Boulevard. It couldn’t be more perfect. This is what happens when words take over and the visual virtues of the cinema are neglected. Joseph Mankiewicz’s take on the subject of aging actresses really is all about “words, words and more words.” Though I find All About Eve reasonably interesting in terms of themes and, to some extent, performances, I have to confess that in virtually every other respect it’s a profoundly dull, aesthetically bankrupt film, with little to offer beyond the ideas that prompted the script. It might as well have been an essay about female aging for all the visual or aesthetic interest Mankiewicz brings to this material.
Virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and little more. Mankiewicz frames the characters and occasionally moves the camera to follow them around if they happen to move—which they often don’t. It’s a shockingly static, theatrical film, which is perhaps fitting for its Broadway milieu but doesn’t really translate into satisfying cinema. I can hardly think of any shots, any camera moves, that enhance the themes or say something substantial about the characters or their relationships—at least, not until the very last shot of the film. This final shot is so striking, so potent, that it seems to have come from a different movie altogether. In the last scenes of the film, the narrative has already moved on from Margo, who has come to terms with her aging and gotten her happy ending. At the end, Eve has essentially become the next young Margo, a rising star, and when she returns to her hotel room she finds a young woman named Phoebe (Barbara Bates) waiting for her. The cycle is beginning anew, with Eve as the established star and Phoebe as the young wannabe who noses her way into her idol’s circle in order to get ahead. In the last shot, Phoebe dons one of Eve’s glittery coats and poses in a segmented mirror while ritualistically bowing as though accepting an award. Behind her, the fragmented mirrors create a multitude of Phoebes receding off into the distance, suggesting that this story will be played out again, and again, and again, one crass opportunist after another waiting to take over for those who grow old and tired of the game.
This one shot demonstrates the power of such visual inventiveness. If the rest of the film is an often tiresome gabfest with characters spitting out so many witty one-liners that it’s quickly deadening, this last shot is an elegant and memorable image that makes its point entirely without words. Norma Desmond would love it, but there’s not a whole lot else to love here. Jacques Rivette wrote, after revisiting this film in 1998, that “every intention was underlined in red, and it struck me as a film without a director! Mankiewicz was a great producer, a good scenarist and a masterful writer of dialogue, but for me he was never a director. His films are cut together any which way, the actors are always pushed towards caricature and they resist with only varying degrees of success.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with Rivette’s unqualified positive assessment of the dialogue—which is so on-the-nose that it’s maddening as often as it’s clever—but otherwise I think that sums it up nicely.
JB: Well, I guess I don’t disagree with you that the writing is on-the-nose, at least by contemporary standards. But it is very effective in places, and it remains one of the film’s strengths on the whole. However, as for your charge that “virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and nothing more,” I wouldn’t disagree. Sure, the last shot stands out, as you noted. And I’ve always rather liked the shot of Eve standing just offstage at the end of one of Margo’s performances, watching her idol taking her bows. And yet, in the context of the rest of the film’s visual blandness, that shot is utilitarian, too, upon further reflection; the only difference is that we’re given something comparatively interesting to look at. So much of All About Eve is nothing more than the actors centered in the frame, barking their lines (some memorable, some not), often in front of rather bland backdrops. And so it is that one of the most memorable shots in the film is the one of Eve and Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) walking down a sidewalk—memorable, alas, because it’s so clumsily staged in front of rear-projection.
Sadly, in terms of the cinematography, that’s not the only time that an oddity stands out. Of late, I’ve been puzzled by a shot at the end of Bill’s not-so-happy welcome-back party: The party sequence ends with Eve saying goodnight to Karen (Celeste Holm) and reminding her to put in a good word for her about becoming Margo’s understudy. Karen, standing at the top of a stairway, assures Eve she won’t forget and then descends the stairs. As soon as Karen leaves the frame, the camera zooms past where she was standing to focus on a painting that had hovered unremarkably over Karen’s shoulder during her conversation with Eve. In a very brief closeup, no longer than a second, we see what appears to be woman sitting in a chair, looking to her right, with figures standing over each shoulder—perhaps an angel over her right shoulder and something that looks almost like a court jester over her left shoulder. The painting is there and gone so quickly that it’s hard to say exactly what it portrays. In fact, right now I’m studying the paused image on my computer screen and I still can’t quite tell what I’m looking at.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the painting is quite famous. I freely admit that my knowledge of that art form is limited. Furthermore, I recognized Toulouse-Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret hanging in Margo’s living room (hence, she likes famous art). So perhaps you know exactly what that slow zoom reveals, and maybe I should, too, and maybe that’s why neither of the two commentary tracks on my DVD makes any mention of the zoom or the painting. Then again, unless the painting is as recognizable as Mona Lisa, I find the haste with which Mankiewicz cuts away from the painting, after going through the effort to (a) hang it there and (b) zoom in on it, to be baffling. Giving Mankiewicz the benefit of the doubt—and thanks to my close examination of the painting on my computer—I’ll assume that the painting symbolizes Karen’s place between an angel she sees (Eve) and a kind of demon she doesn’t (Eve again). Still, I think it’s telling that one of Mankiewicz’s few attempts at cinematic storytelling is essentially mumbled.
EH: Interesting analysis. I don’t recognize the painting either, so maybe I’m missing something obvious too. But I think you nail it when you suggest that Mankiewicz rushes through this insert too quickly to make whatever point he wants to make, presumably something about good and evil, or the hidden machinations behind a seemingly sweet young woman’s blankly pretty face. The film’s overall undistinguished visual style makes me think, not that I’m missing out on a clever reference, but that Mankiewicz just isn’t getting across whatever he thinks he’s getting across.
That said, I will admit that the over-the-shoulder shot you mention of Eve watching Margo from the wings is another rare exception to the film’s general blandness, especially since it mirrors the earlier shot when Eve sees the inside of the theater for the first time, and Mankiewicz similarly sets up behind her, looking out into the empty rows of seats beyond the curtains. These shots aren’t showy, but they’re substantial, especially in comparison to the purely functional images throughout the rest of the film, in which Mankiewicz often seems to have paid little attention to composition or mise-en-scène.
This approach naturally puts the film’s emphasis on the performances, relying on the actors to carry the story. In that respect, at least, All About Eve acquits itself well enough. Bette Davis as Margo isn’t as iconic or as overpowering as Gloria Swanson’s Norma, despite some almost equally famous lines (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”) but it’s a fine central performance. We feel, through Davis, the desperation of this woman, the way she lashes out at those around her because she seems to feel that’s what required of her in her star diva role. Her face, realistically worn and aged without losing its striking qualities, radiates this aura of unmistakable sadness beneath the rage. Anne Baxter’s turn as the treacherous Eve is a little less convincing; she’s great at selling the angelic sweetness of a small-town girl awed by the theater, not so great at selling the switch to a conniving manipulator. Nevertheless, the subtle touches are very satisfying, like the way we occasionally catch Eve giving Margo an almost leering evaluation whenever the older actress isn’t looking. The rest of the performances do pretty much what they need to, which is to convey the wit of Mankiewicz’s admittedly witty script. The only other notable turn is by Marilyn Monroe, who shows up in a small role, pre-fame, and of course completely steals every scene she’s in with her characteristic bombshell enthusiasm and some delightfully naughty lines: “You won’t bore him, honey, you won’t even get the chance to talk.” Now that’s funny, and proof enough that Mankiewicz is a good writer, if not quite a good director.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s fair. Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Mankiewicz’s underwhelming shot construction isn’t always detrimental to the story being told. As you noted earlier, the stage-like presentation of the drama seems perfectly appropriate for a movie about Broadway. On top of that, the basic camera set-ups and the frequent long takes (at least by today’s standards) allow us to appreciate the art of actors acting; that isn’t always the ideal, but it works here. A perfect example would be Margo’s spirited argument with Bill after he’s come back from Hollywood. Their three-minute verbal sparring session is composed of only a few takes, and the final one puts Margo and Bill in the same frame, first facing one another, and then standing almost side-by-side, with Bill looking toward Margo and Margo looking off into the distance, toward the fourth wall. Bette Davis is particularly fun to watch in that last setup—staring intensely at Gary Merrill as she listens to him, standing quietly when he’s talking, so as not to distract from her fellow actor’s performance, and even timing her biggest reactionary facial expressions for the moment he finishes a line. These are stage tactics, of course, but Mankiewicz is filming his actors in a theatrical style, so it’s appropriate. Plus, there’s a throwback appeal to that scene as an alternative to today’s shot/reverse-shot norm.
On the whole, Davis’ turn isn’t as impressive as Swanson’s, but then the character isn’t as interesting or as well-written. It’s an interesting bit of trivia that both actresses, and Baxter, went up against one another in the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards, although none of them won the Oscar. (The award went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a film that was nominated for Best Picture in a year that The Third Man was overlooked, by the way, which should be a reminder to the Oscar-outraged that those awards have never been particularly successful at identifying classic performances or films. But I digress.) As for Baxter’s performance, it now strikes me that we probably should have been referencing it in our conversation about Mulholland Drive Her affected performance, which even from the beginning feels like, well, acting, and then turns out to be exactly that, is more or less the blueprint for Naomi Watts’ approach to Betty. I’m kicking myself for not realizing that earlier.
The only performance you might have left out in your recap would be George Sanders’ as Addison DeWitt, which is really an achievement in writing more than acting, which is why it’s no surprise that Sanders did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, beating out Erich von Stroheim as Max in the process. (To fill out the Oscar recap, while we’re here: All About Eve also took Best Picture, Best Director (really), Best Costume Design and Best Writing/Screenplay, while Sunset Boulevard took Best Art Direction/Black-and-White, Best Music and Best Writing/Story and Screenplay.) It’s a good cast, and Monroe’s brief appearances add some charming zest, but I admit to being partial to Sunset Boulevard in this area, too. I’m not so sure the actual acting is vastly superior, but, man, those are characters!
EH: Yes they are. I’m reminded, in a strange way, of your stance on Tarantino, that when his characters speak you hear them, not as individual characters, but as undifferentiated mouthpieces for the writer/director. That’s how All About Eve hits me. I often felt like I was listening to Mankiewicz himself orating, particularly in the insufferable info-dump voiceovers (Sanders’ smug, trite narration being the worst offender in that regard). The performance style makes sense for Baxter’s Eve, who as you astutely point out is intentionally projecting an exaggerated innocence that hides an equally exaggerated manipulative evil beneath the surface. It works, too, for Davis’ Margo, a woman so used to being on-stage that she acts as though she is even when she’s stalking across her own living room rather than walking the boards. The rest of the cast, however, has the same style. They all speak in the same stilted rhythms and ornate language, with the same tortured enunciation of every word. There’s no sign here of the balancing presence that Joe Gillis and his down-to-earth romance with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) brought to Sunset Boulevard.
It also helps, as you point out, that Norma and Max, that film’s most stylized and outrageous personalities, are true characters, with real histories and a real sense of the events that brought them to this point. In that respect, Wilder’s clever use of real Hollywood history imparts another layer of tragedy to these characters. When Norma watches movies of herself in her glory days, the actress Gloria Swanson is watching herself as well, in Queen Kelly, a 1929 film directed by, of course, Erich von Stroheim. The pathos of this scene is well-earned because it draws on deep wells of feeling involving these characters and the actors playing them; the audience that knows of Swanson and von Stroheim’s shared career paths with their characters will feel the heartache of that scene even more intensely. And even for those unaware of these metafictional layers, those scenes—and the loving pans across the rows of old photos that seem to be everywhere in Norma’s house—suggest that this character came from somewhere, that she has a rich past that informs her wild current behavior. We’ve compared her to Nosferatu’s Count Orlock, which suggests that she’s a monster, but if so she’s a very sympathetic monster, a woman driven to caricature and insanity by the relentless downward trajectory of her life.
I’d argue that this depth, this richness of character, is what’s missing from All About Eve, in which the voiceover often gives us the only background information we get about these characters—words, words, words against the emotionally precise imagery of Wilder’s masterpiece. Maybe that’s why Sunset Boulevard hits me so hard, with all these intimations of nostalgia, melancholy, loss and change, while the ostensibly similar themes and story of All About Eve seem somewhat abstracted.
JB: Yes, whether it’s the characters, the dialogue, the sets or the camera techniques, All About Eve feels a little unfinished. It reminds me of one of those making-of extras for a modern blockbuster in which a computer animator shows off the featureless skeletal frame used to map out a digital character’s movements before other animators add the detail. All About Eve feels on the way to being Sunset Boulevard, but it needed another round of revisions and fine-tuning.
That said, before we move on, I want to keep the conversation focused on the characters for the moment, because I want to give more credit to Nancy Olson’s performance, which I think is Sunset Boulevard’s most underrated strength. Olson’s Betty doesn’t just balance the cocksure manner of Joe Gillis, she balances the entire cast, almost singlehandedly. On one side of the scale we’ve got Joe, Norma and Max, these three outrageous personalities. On the other side of the scale we’ve got Olson’s Betty, a comparatively small part, and also Cecil B. DeMille, an even smaller one. Even though Joe, Norma and Max are distinctively different, the same way that, at least in theory, Mr. Pink, Jules and Stuntman Mike are distinctly different across three Tarantino films, I wonder if that undifferentiated mouthpiece effect might still apply to Wilder’s film if not for Betty’s calming presence—so unaffected, so normal, and yet by no means uninteresting. (She’s got personality.)
Part of the reason that Betty has such a balancing influence is because of the way she’s written, and because of Olson’s lovely performance. But equally significant is that Betty never steps foot into Norma’s house of horrors until the very end of the picture. She doesn’t belong there. It’s a clashing of the real (Betty) and unreal (Norma & Co.), and to combine the two too often, or too early, would be to blur the all-important line between them. Wilder clearly grasps this. I’ve always loved that when the doorbell rings, announcing Betty’s arrival at the end of the film, Norma recoils in a horror movie pose as if it’s Betty who is the monster, as if the chainsaw killer has found her doorstep. Likewise, when Betty steps inside, Max looks her up and down as if she is the oddity. Then when Betty urges Joe to leave with her, she tries to pretend away the entire scene, saying: “I’ve never heard any of this. I never got those telephone calls [from Norma] and I’ve never been in this house.”
It’s Betty who allows us to see that Joe, in his own way, is almost as monstrous as Norma and Max. Without Betty, Joe would always be contrasted by the unrivaled extremes of Norma, leaving him to seem normal, pure. But he isn’t pure. He’s tainted. It’s because Joe was as desperate as Norma for attention and fame that he allowed himself to live in her house in the first place. It’s because Joe senses his own Norma-esque traits that he doesn’t run away with Betty after all, even though he realizes he can no longer stay in Norma’s grasp. And it’s because Joe has allowed himself to live in a morally corrupt fantasy that he’s punished for his sins. Norma goes crazy. Joe gets three bullets to his torso. Neither of them can escape their illusions.
EH: You’re right, Betty is crucial to this film. Among other things, she represents the freshness, creativity and idealism of the young artist, which is otherwise entirely absent from this film about the cynical, corrupt Hollywood establishment. (It’s absent from All About Eve altogether.) Virtually everyone else in Sunset Boulevard is artistically bankrupt, warped by Hollywood’s warped value system. Joe once had that idealism, the desire to write something good and meaningful—but at the beginning of the film, years of failure and poverty have made him content just to make a sale, to scratch up some money, even if it means churning out countless formulaic scripts. His first meeting with Betty is the first indication of the gap between what he is now and the promise he’d once shown; she holds his lame scripts to a higher standard because she was aware of his one-time talent. Later, she awakens a new energy and enthusiasm in the washed-up writer, encouraging him with her purity and her hopefulness until he finally begins writing something personal again, collaborating with her on salvaging and reworking some of the best aspects of an earlier story he’d written.
The brief moment of optimism that takes over the film during Joe’s collaboration—and eventual love affair—with Betty makes the tragedy of the denouement even more poignant. Of course, there was never any illusion that things could’ve worked out fine. The film opens with the story’s tragic conclusion, and the whole thing is narrated by a dead man, which naturally creates an inescapable aura of destiny. Even so, even knowing in advance how it all ends, even when I’ve seen the film countless times over the years, those interludes with Betty are so moving, so suggestive of an alternative to the tragedy, that I can’t help but hope that Joe will wake up, will make the right choice for once. It’s not just the romance, of course, but the fact that Betty is a creative partner for Joe as well, and she reminds him that there’s more to this movie business than money and fame. At one point, while they’re wandering around the shadowy studio lot one night, she tells him a story about her brief flirtation with being an actress, and how it taught her that she should remain true to herself and her talents rather than twisting herself into something she’s not—the exact opposite of Norma. Wilder stages the scene in the kind of moody, romantically dim lighting that suggests love blossoming, but the point of the scene is the other emotions that Betty awakens in Joe: self-respect, hope, the satisfaction of honest work, the pride in one’s substantial creations.
In that light, I see Joe’s belated rejection of Norma slightly differently than you do, in a way that arguably makes the conclusion even more heartrending. Sure, Joe was desperate for fame, and sure, he stayed with Norma as long as he did because he didn’t want to give up the comfort and security she gave him, as opposed to the scary freedom of being his own man. But when he refuses to leave with Betty, when he tells her to go get married to his friend Artie (Jack Webb) instead, he does so not because he’s still obsessed with these ideas about fame and security, but because he’s realized it’s too late for him, that he’s too corrupt to be any good for the naïve, good-hearted Betty. His tough-guy act with Betty when she shows up at Norma’s mansion is just that: an act. He’s playing the unrepentant gigolo for her because he knows it’ll turn her away from him for good, but the obvious subtext is Joe’s desire to do just the opposite, to run away with her and try to regain his one-time optimism and self-sufficiency. Joe, by the end of the film, has escaped his illusions. He just hasn’t been convinced that he deserves a second chance.
JB: I think we’re on the same page here. I agree with you that Joe puts on an act for Betty (he implies he’s going to stay with Norma, even though he’s clearly made up his mind to do otherwise) and that when he leaves Norma it signifies that, yes, he has escaped his illusions. What I was trying to suggest is that Wilder doesn’t let Joe get away with it, any more than he lets Norma get away with it. There are consequences to their extended make-believe. Joe hasn’t been convinced he deserves a second chance, and Wilder confirms Joe’s sins for him by having him murdered, even though a few minutes earlier Joe selflessly lets Betty escape with her purity intact. This is a grim ending, one that’s hard to imagine coming from a Hollywood movie today, and you’re not alone in finding yourself wishing that Betty can somehow save Joe from his foretold doom. (Incidentally, that’s an unusual emotion for me to have in regard to a William Holden character, because I usually find Holden tremendously irritating; his Sunset Boulevard performance is the only one in his career that I truly enjoy.)
You know, considering where this conversation started, it’s interesting that the scene in which Betty’s purity is best revealed is the one in which she describes having undergone a nose job early in her ill-fated acting career. Betty went through with the surgery, without regret, it seems, but it’s as if that was the moment she started to realize that coveting the attention of the camera and an audience can be dangerous business. And that turns us back toward All About Eve: Until now our discussion, like every other comparison of these two films that I’ve ever seen, has given the impression that Norma and Margo are the most similar characters in these pictures—the aged (by Hollywood standards) forgotten actresses, infatuated with themselves and clinging desperately to their fame. But, really, it’s Norma and Eve who are most alike. Even though Mankiewicz’s film implies, particularly in its conclusion, that Eve is a younger version of Margo, the next in a long line of glory-hungry stars, a closer examination spots some differences.
For example, I don’t think it’s insignificant that when Karen first shows up with Eve, Margo doesn’t want to see her. Margo actually looks down her nose at her most adoring fans, partially out of elitism, but perhaps also out of healthy skepticism. There’s no denying that once they meet Margo is flattered by the attention. But can you imagine Norma turning down a chance to let one of her fans bow at her feet? I can’t. Also, I think it’s only fair to point out that some of Margo’s less attractive behavior, particularly her paranoia that she’s going to lose Bill to the younger woman, turns out to be not altogether unjustified. Yeah, Bill’s faithful. But Margo’s intuition about Eve is acute. Eve really is desperate not only to be like Margo but to be her. It’s not the acting Eve cares about. It’s the fame. I don’t mean to imply that Norma isn’t genuinely in love with acting. She is. Or at least she was. But at the end of the day, Eve turns out to be much more like a young Norma than a young Margo, wouldn’t you say?
EH: That’s an interesting thought. Certainly, at the end of All About Eve, Eve’s wannabe successor Phoebe desires the fame and the glitzy lifestyle, the possessions and riches, rather than the acting talent. The line of succession that we see in All About Eve is one of regression, in terms of substance. It suggests, as does Sunset Boulevard, the degradation of creative standards over time; where earlier generations wished for talent, successive ones seem to want to skip that step and jump right to the fame part. (That reminds me of all those modern starlets, reality show contestants and pseudo-celebrities who, as far as I can tell, are mostly famous for promoting themselves really well. Marilyn Monroe’s character in All About Eve suggests, quite presciently, that TV is the place for those without talent to get famous based on their, uh, other assets.) Margo, of course, is in it at least partly for the acting, as someone who really loves the stage and the craft of acting, or so we can presume anyway, from the way she talks about it. Eve, for her part, is awed enough by her idol’s acting to obsessively watch Margo’s performances and, again based on second-hand knowledge, we can assume that she’s a fine actress as well. Still, for Eve the acting seems secondary, at least the acting she does onstage—acting and manipulation have become a way of life for her offstage as well. She’s in it for the fame and the acclaim, for the glamor, and her own protégé, Phoebe, seems even shallower, even more single-minded in her pursuit of wealth and glory.
Norma, too, hungers for the admiration of her fans more than she does for the creative rewards of acting and performing. Yes, she loves being under the lights on the set, but that’s more because she loves the attention of being in the literal spotlight rather than because she’s so committed to the profession in itself. Norma is at her most alive when she’s the center of attention, as when she visits DeMille’s set and an old stagehand turns a spotlight on the former star. A crowd is drawn to her, drawn to the light that glitters around her in the spotlight; it recalls the earlier scene where she stands up into the light of the projector and closes her eyes in pleasure, as though she’s basking in the glow of the sun. She’s obsessed with the fame, and with herself, as evidenced by her parlor, which is packed with photos from her prime and boasts a movie screen on which she never shows anything but Norma Desmond movies.
This brings me to one other aspect that unites these two films: the less than flattering depiction of female ambition and the female ego. Sure, none of the male characters come off too well either (except for the ultimately loyal Bill in All About Eve, I suppose), but the women especially are depicted as greedy, superficial, self-obsessed and often manipulative. So while both films are certainly concerned with the unfair expectations placed upon women as they grow older, it’s hard to ignore that in the process, both women are also turned into bitchy, fanged-and-clawed monsters. Margo eventually steps back from the edge of destruction—and finds happiness with a man, retiring from the stage into an implied domestic role as a married woman—while Norma pursues her monstrous path through to its (il)logical conclusion. One monster is tamed, with the implication that maturity means abandoning ambition, while the other monster remains vile and caricatured to the end, chasing her ambitions into insanity. I’m not sure which is more limiting.
JB: I’m not quite sure that Margo’s retirement into domesticity suggests that “maturity means abandoning ambition.” Close, but not quite. The problem with framing it that way is that it implies her ambition is always sensible, when we’ve already demonstrated that it isn’t. Actually, a line from Joe to Norma applies best here: “There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” Both Margo and Norma are ambitious in ways that are unrealistic. Unrealistic in part because of Hollywood’s contemptible habit of ignoring women who show their age. (Even now, Hollywood pretty much has two classifications for female actresses: Potential Sex Object, which Hollywood apparently defines as looking under 35, so that even the “cougar” type actresses do everything in their power to hide their age, and Grandma, the nonsexual senior citizen, who might actually be played by a sexy older woman like Helen Mirren but who Hollywood doesn’t demand we find titillating.) Unrealistic also because Margo and Norma are trying to play something they are not—young women.
So I think what these films show is that maturity means letting go of one’s illusions. Margo does that, and she finds happiness with Bill. Eve does that to a degree, thanks to Addison DeWitt calling her on her bullshit, and although she doesn’t find happiness she at least finds a place in the real world. Meanwhile, in Sunset Boulevard, Joe lets go of his illusions, and that gets him away from Norma, and gives him integrity, even if it also gets him killed. Even Betty gets a wake-up call that she needs about the messiness of adulthood and the prevalence of impure people, signaling that perhaps her square boyfriend Artie isn’t so bad after all. The one who doesn’t see the light is Norma, and we know what happens to her. (Max, by the way, operates in a strange middle ground, because he’s always been aware of the truth and yet he’s completely devoted to manipulating it on Norma’s behalf, so that in front of her he’s a slave to the illusion.)
That said, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard both provide limited and limiting options for women, which is what you are getting at. Both pictures imply that a singular existence, one without a man, is either less happy or less realistic. Margo and Betty submit to marriages that at least seem to make them happy enough, but in doing so give up lifestyles that they seemed to want more. (The films conveniently ignore this.) Eve sees the light when Addison takes ownership of her, and they’re by no means a happy couple, but at least they operate without illusions. The one who doesn’t find peace is the one who loses her man, Norma. So while I think it’s anti-feminist to imply that women can’t find happiness in a relationship, if that’s what they want, these films certainly aren’t rallying cries for women’s lib. No question about that.
EH: Yeah, both films have a complicated view of gender, so it’s not a simple either/or proposition. The problem with Margo’s retirement, as I see it, is that it suggests the impossibility of a compromise, a happy middle ground: she’s either a miserable, out-of-touch bitch trying to maintain unrealistic ambitions of extended youth, or she’s a contented housewife who gives up her career altogether in order to be a full-time wife. Sure, you could interpret that as an indictment of the limited roles available to women in acting, as in life: you’re either a young sex kitten or a grandma, and there are by far more roles for the sex kittens. But the film itself seems to accept this reality a bit too easily. There’s no hint of any regret from Margo, at the end, that she’s been forced to make this choice, and that rings a little false to me. Norma, at least, goes out kicking and screaming against an industry that’s left her behind in her old age—she may be delusional and insane at the end of Sunset Boulevard, but she’s not acquiescing to the system’s insistence that actresses remain eternally young or get off the set.
That’s a big part of what I love about Norma, what makes her such an unforgettable character. In spite of her monstrousness, in spite of her insanity, in spite of how her doting on Joe risks ridicule, she has a certain dignity to her—even Joe has to begrudgingly admit it, though he tries to laugh it off, watching her bury her monkey with such solemnity on his first night at her house. It’s there in the way she drawls out her signature phrase, “It’s the pictures that got small.” She says it with such certainty, such contempt, that it leaves little room for doubt. We spoke before about the irony of so many nostalgic cinephiles unquestioningly adopting Norma’s pronouncement as their own, and maybe that’s why. The way she says it inspires that head-nodding reaction. She insists that, as a silent star, she doesn’t need words—“we had faces”—but at moments like that she seems like a born orator, stirring up her audience with grand rhetoric and anecdotes of the good old days.
It’s a complex film that can inspire such contradictory responses. Sunset Boulevard makes Norma a vampire, a diva, a legend, an icon of a sadly overlooked earlier era, a figure of pathos and pity, a symbol for all the women like her in Hollywood and beyond, for better or worse. Sunset Boulevard encompasses all of these facets and more. It is simultaneously an elegy for a lost Hollywood, a satire of the industry’s present and a commentary on broader issues of gender roles. It is also, of course, a fabulous and clever melodrama, with some of the most memorable characters to ever grace the Hollywood screen. I wish I could say the same of All About Eve, but as much as there is to admire in that film, its accomplishments seem more limited, more prosaic. It seems more bound by the conventions it depicts rather than straining, as Sunset Boulevard does, messily and angrily against those bounds.
JB: That’s true. Sunset Boulevard is an all-around fantastic film: funny, thoughtful, mysterious, romantic, nostalgic and critical of its own characters as well as of the mostly unseen forces that made them the way they are. Any film can be plenty great and still pale in comparison. In that sense, discussing these pictures together is the worst thing we can do to All About Eve. In effect, it’s like putting an aging actress next to a young sex symbol and expecting them to look the same. Sunset Boulevard highlights all of All About Eve’s flaws, including the ones we don’t notice when looking at that film by itself. To alter Joe’s quote from earlier: There’s nothing wrong with being All About Eve, unless one tries to pretend it’s Sunset Boulevard.
And that talk of pretending brings us back around to the start of the conversation, to Cate Blanchett and her curiously sharp cheekbones. Given that I’ve been to a grocery store and spotted the tabloids by the register, I didn’t need to revisit these films to realize that Hollywood tells actresses (implicitly or explicitly) that their relevancy is directly related to their “beauty,” or to realize that Hollywood has some twisted ideas of what “beauty” is. But it’s impossible for me to come in contact with these films without feeling an extra dose of sympathy for aging actresses (and women in general), not to mention an extra dose of frustration with the system. I think what bothers me most isn’t that actresses feel compelled to look younger but that they feel compelled to look a specific kind of young—small noses, symmetrical chins, angular cheekbones, pouty lips. If an actress doesn’t look like that when she finds fame, her plastic surgeon is likely to alter her face that way in order to maintain it. “We had faces!” Norma says proudly in Sunset Boulevard. Yes, and now? More and more, actresses have one face. It’s enough to make one yearn for the good old days, whenever those were. Margo and Norma could relate.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.2.5
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.
For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.
Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.
If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.
The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.
Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era
In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.2
The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The Laundromat—The Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.
The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.
It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.
Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.
The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.
It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve
There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.1.5
Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.
Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.
The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.
Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.
Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.
Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril
In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.2
“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.
Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.
Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.
Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.
The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.
Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
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