Monday, February 21, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "All About Eve"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following the fourth installment (2010's "Black Swan"), I now present ~

All About Eve 1950 / Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

SYNOPSIS Though still the toast of the New York theater scene, veteran stage legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is insecure about her age. Her playwright friend Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and director/boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) insist that her "ageless" talent and beauty make her fit to portray twentysomething women, but Margo isn't so sure. As Bill heads to Hollywood for a movie directing gig, she secretly worries about losing him to a younger woman. Her concerns are temporarily allayed when Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm) introduces her to Eve (Anne Baxter), an adoring superfan who has seen every performance of Margo's current Broadway hit "Aged in Wood". Flattered by Eve's idolatry and impressed with her excellent, unassuming manners, Margo takes the young lady under her wing and adopts her as a live-in personal assistant. When Margo learns that Eve has been casually corresponding with Bill in anticipation of his "Welcome Home" party, her fears resurface, especially when her wisecracking maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) admits to finding Eve creepy. Margo's infamous diva-like temper explodes at the party, and she manages to humiliate Bill, Lloyd, Karen and Eve all at once - much to the amusement of acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). As Margo becomes increasingly suspicious of Eve in the days following the party, her obsessive paranoia further alienates her from the people she loves, leading to disastrous results.

I'm not sure if I've watched "All About Eve" more than any other movie, but I can't think of another film I've studied more intensely. I think it's brilliant and so it's a bit difficult for me to keep from writing about it hyper-analytically, even academically.* But that sort of piece could be interesting only to those who've already seen it, and one of my main reasons for engaging in this Bitchfest series is to make readers want to watch these great movies. So, if you've seen "All About Eve" and you're curious about my theory of the backstage crate that says "Handle With Care," let me know; otherwise, I will stick to answering the question, what makes this Bitchfest film so special?

Let's begin with writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's unconventional script. Commonly known as The Bitchiest Film Ever Made, "All About Eve" is undoubtedly the gem of this genre and yet it upends all of the character types that we recognize in films like "The Women", "Mean Girls", "Chicago" and "Black Swan". Margo, our protagonist, is the common definition of a bitch. She's pushy, temperamental, inconsiderate and sometimes downright mean. The antagonist is polite and endlessly gracious. Without revealing too much, I'll concede that Eve isn't what she initially seems. And granted, the seemingly-good-but-secretly-bad girl is not a new sort of character, even in 1950. But unlike most Bitchfest films, in which the protagonist adopts the antagonists' tendencies in an effort to defeat her, Margo remains true to herself, while Eve does the aping in an attempt to overcome her adversary. Karen, who we would assume to be Margo's more sensible sidekick (and in most films, would serve to teach her ill-behaved pal a stern but positive lesson), is a self-unaware fool who does immeasurable harm by unwittingly unleashing Eve upon her friends. And perhaps most unusual is that the biggest bitch of all is Addison, a man.

But as Addison himself so snidely observes in the film's opening scene, the function of the writer and director is "merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it." Witty as Mankiewicz's script is, only a seasoned and sympathetic pro like Bette Davis could be capable of delivering his heroine's words so deftly; this is arguably her signature film. Despite her bitchiness, we root for Margo, for the same reason we root for those no-good "Chicago" girls - she's entertaining, hurling bitter, hilarious barbs at both the innocent and the deserving with equal finesse. Take, for instance, when a justifiably incensed Bill complains that she's going to make him miss his flight to L.A. and his meeting with Darryl Zanuck (real-life Twentieth Century Fox exec and producer of "All About Eve" - so meta!). Margo merely replies in mocking sing-song fashion, "Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck. What are you two - lovers?"

Unlike "Chicago's" Roxie or Velma, Margo is also vulnerable, and Davis conveys this tenderness so convincingly that you almost believe she's playing herself. In one of her best scenes, she wearily confesses to Karen, "Funny business, a woman's career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you go back to being a woman." Davis could have just as easily been describing her various failed marriages in light of her own lengthy career. In the course of this monologue, her character also reveals a keen self-awareness that sets her apart from most of the other principal players, especially when she admits, "Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure - or unloved." Ultimately, this cognizance is more important to Margo's personal success than either her assertiveness or her occasional willingness to be kind. Again, this is not the typical characterization of a "good girl".

Anne Baxter's portrayal of "bad girl" Eve is certainly less nuanced, just as her character bears fewer layers than our protagonist. Yet, Baxter does a great job of making us queasy about Eve long before she reveals her true nature. From her melodramatically delivered introductory monologue (a young widow's sob story that would suit reality TV perfectly) to her stoic poise in the face of Margo's most brutal tantrum, Baxter's portrayal throughout the first half of the film is a series of subtly unsettling alarms. Though her acting in the latter half verges on campy, it is certainly amusing, even rewarding. After all, we don't really want Eve to be as virtuous as she seems.

The other true star of the film - portraying a character who is a far more formidable force than Eve - is George Sanders. If Margo is correct in her initial observation that Eve considers the theater "all the religions in the world rolled into one, and we're Gods and Goddesses," then Sanders's Addison is certainly the Devil. Like Billy Flynn from "Chicago," he's the manipulator who can't be baited by any Bitchfest lady. But unlike Flynn, nothing so worldly as money interests Addison. His only love is the theater and his only desire is to control it by somehow possessing its stars. His love/hate relationship with Margo (which is all hate on her end) is a powerful dramatic undercurrent that becomes more apparent throughout the film, though Sanders is constantly foreshadowing. The opening scene (set months after the bulk of the action), in which he presents all of the major character via voice over narration, is the film's greatest gift to a repeat viewer and it gets better with every successive screening. As his eyes dart from a heavy-hearted Karen to a glowering Margo, Sanders's sneering expression says everything that his narrative refuses to divulge. But it's Sanders's outstanding, dulcet-toned delivery that perfectly complements Mankiewicz's biting dialog, especially in this scene with a very young Marilyn Monroe -

Though Bette Davis unfortunately lost the Best Actress Oscar (to a very deserving Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday"; since Baxter was also nominated, it is commonly believed that she and Davis cancelled each other out), Sanders was rightly awarded Best Supporting Actor, his only nomination from the Academy.

In the spirit of recognizing great acting, I must give a shout-out to Thelma Ritter, whom you saw descending the staircase with the enormous sable in hand. Ritter was one of Hollywood's best character actors, the perennial wise-ass servant (you may recall her as Jimmy Stewart's macabre nurse in "Rear Window"). With her thick New York accent and salty manner, she brought the silver screen down to earth and helped millions of viewers suspend their disbelief. Her Birdie, the "fifth rate vaudevillian" turned maid, is no less important to this film. She connects us to the improbable world of "the thee-uh-TUHH" and, as the most prescient observer of Eve, she helps us accept that people this crazy can and do exist.

On a completely different note, "All About Eve" stands out amongst other Bitchfest films as an insightful study of jealousy. Margo's billowing resentment toward her rival is an irresistible train wreck. Her extreme, outward hostility only feeds Eve's popularity, which in turn fosters a more potent, self-defeating envy. I think that just about any woman (or man) who has engaged in catty behavior can relate to that experience. But while so many Bitchfest narratives reward jealous heroines by returning to them the "thing" (a guy, usually) that the bad girl somehow stole, that isn't Margo's path to redemption. As infantile as she can be, Margo is a grown-up and like real-life grown-ups, she eventually figures out that her jealousy is a manifestation of her insecurity. It doesn't matter if she's right or wrong about Eve. She must find her peace in the only place it could possibly be found - within herself.

*Honestly, the only thing I miss about college is writing ridiculously detailed, five page shot analyses for highfalutin theory classes.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Persistence of Memory

I've decided to take a break from my Bitchfest Movie series of postings to touch on a subject that's been gnawing at my brain - my better-than-average memory. Alright, I will abandon the false modesty. I have an excellent memory, not for facts and figures so much as for things that I have witnessed during the course of my life. For instance, I know that a year ago today, I had a nasty cold and had to miss my friend L's dance performance. Granted, that memory wasn't so tough to recall, because she was dancing at a show that happens the day after Valentine's Day. But I also remember that I wrote a Facebook status update in which I cursed the virus and wished her well (when she stumbled across that later, she thought it was nice). I was happy that I could see her next recital on March 26th, the day my friends' twin babies were born, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to receive that phone call only moments after her performance. That was also the day that I finished reading "Great Expectations". It was a sunny, crisp, early Spring afternoon. Dan and I ate Vietnamese food before the recital.

You cannot imagine how much time I spend mentally wandering through these associated recollections*. The most obscure minutiae trigger all sorts of flashbacks. Here's an example: yesterday, I used the word "elan" in a puzzle. Every time I think of that word, I think about a very clever and charming former housemate whose figure skating team name contained the word "elan" (mind you, I knew this woman years after she had left the team). When I think of "elan", it brings up all sorts of sentiments - how my feelings toward her vacillated between frustration (like when she would try to flirt with my boyfriend in front of me) and sympathy (we experienced a common tragedy, which made us oddly close for a few months). "Elan" reminds me of all the stories she told about her old job at a cafe that I never visited, and the kind of cigarettes she smoked. I could go on, but that isn't my point. My point is that, based on these memories, I could write a little bio about a woman I have seen just once in the past decade. Obviously, I don't know her whole story, but I still know so many details.

I used to be proud of this trait. It can be an entertaining parlor trick and sometimes it's delightful to surprise an old friend with a funny "Remember when?" that they had completely forgotten. But mostly, I consider this ability a curse. As with the word "elan", it brings up at least as many unpleasant memories as happy ones. And even when recalling memories of pleasant moments spent with loved ones, I know there's an excellent chance that I'm the only one who remembers. That loneliness might be the worst thing about having this good memory.

*My blood-related family can probably understand. I think this ability is definitely a genetic inheritance.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "Black Swan"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's third installment (2002's "Chicago"), I now present ~

Black Swan 2010 / Dir: Darren Aronofsky

SYNOPSIS: Demure and technically flawless ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) wins the lead role in her company's production of "Swan Lake". Though she is a perfect fit for the virtuous White Swan, her director (Vincent Cassell) doubts that she can pull off the other half of the role, the seductive Black Swan. Nina begins to feel threatened by Lily (Mila Kunis), a less talented but more alluring dancer who embodies Black Swan qualities. Further stymied by her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina feverishly taps into her dark side and begins losing her mind in the process.

When we were kids, my sister K identified certain elements that guarantee a super creepy story. This included evil twins who pretend to be nice, dead evil twins who come back to life, and mirror images that smirk or otherwise behave differently than the person looking in the mirror. All of these pertain to doubles and good/evil dualities. And it's true that no matter how often I encounter such devices, I always get freaked out in the best possible way. "Black Swan" works so well because it's packed with this kind of basic, no-fail horror. Plus, it takes place in the already weird world of ballet.

Bitchfest conflicts are essentially evil twin stories - a good girl and a bad girl, bonded by a common goal (if not an identical physical appearance), are thrust into battle. As I explained in my initial post, the righteous Bitchfest heroine sometimes adopts the antagonist's negative traits in order to defeat her. The process by which the Nina tries to mimic Lily's carefree sexuality is the film's central focus. Going into it, I had misgivings about the marketing label "psychosexual thriller," as if open and unapologetic female sexuality is somehow inherently sinister. Fortunately, that isn't the point at all. The real issue is, what does sex mean to a twenty-something woman who still sleeps in a bed festooned with stuffed animals? The good girl in this scenario is a timebomb of smothered sensuality. She can't even masturbate without worrying that her mother might barge through her lock-less bedroom door. Regardless of how you or I or Lily feel, sex is a murky, uncharted realm for Nina. You quickly realize that this twin conflict is at least as much internal as external, and that the protagonist's unrealized urges are defining the battlefield.

Director Darren Aronofsky expertly yanks the audience into Nina's eerie, insular world and makes you ride sidecar along her troubled journey. The camera is always in her face or behind her head, stalking her down a shadowy hall, spinning as she pirouettes. You really begin to feel that you're inside her mind, though Portman deserves at least as much credit for conveying Nina's point of view. I will consider her all-but-assured Best Actress Oscar well earned, and not just because she became a ballet dancer for the sake of this role. She actually made me forget that she's Movie Star Natalie Portman, whom I generally find annoying. Not to say that Nina isn't annoying - she really is, with her perpetually frightened little girl voice - but feeling your way through her sheltered life is a truly terrifying experience and you can't help longing for her release.

Kunis's Lily is an interesting subversion of the Bitchfest bad girl archetype. It's possible to read the story in such a way that she isn't really a culpable, manipulative Black Swan type, but rather a genuinely concerned friend. Then again, she may be intentionally messing with our heroine, or at least taking advantage of her instability. In any case, Kunis does an excellent job of anchoring the audience to everydayness - if only temporarily - by interjecting some easygoing humor into this unnervingly taut story. Whether or not Lily is actively trying to push her rival over the edge, she generally appears to be the least fucked-up person in Nina's tiny, asphyxiating world.

Erica is just as much of a debilitating force, a stifling superego to Lily's pleasure-seeking id. Her relationship with Nina reminded me of "Carrie". On the surface, Erica is nowhere near as psychotic as Piper Laurie's Margaret White, but the air of sexual repression in her dimly lit home is just as palpable. Instead of screaming about "dirty pillows", Erica submerges her child in a little girl world of music boxes and pink-frosted cake (which she passive-aggressively forces a sickly Nina to eat in celebration of winning the lead role; I found this scene more disturbing than the plentiful gore that occurs throughout the film). MINOR SPOILER ALERT - you learn that Nina's conception marked the abrupt end of her own ballet career. Erica isn't just a stage mom. She is actively holding her daughter in a state of arrested development and kinda trying to sabotage her at the same time.

Even among positive reviews for "Black Swan", the pejorative term I've encountered most frequently is "trashy". I guess that's fair, considering all the ballet-society stereotypes (from Cassel's cruel and lecherous director to Winona Ryder's aging, raging diva, Beth) and especially Portman and Kunis's straight-up soft porn sex scene. But honestly, I love "Black Swan" because it was exactly as trashy as I wanted it to be. While I appreciate the more highbrow elements - Matthew LiBatique's haunting, exquisite cinematography, the excellent use of sound (just the thought of a certain toenail-clipping noise makes me a bit nauseous), and of course the dancing - it's the pairing of Bitchfest story structure with those classic evil twin gimmicks (the above photo is a fine example) that lured me to the theater and kept my eyes glued to the screen. It isn't a unique combo, I know, but I can't think of another film that does it better.

Tune in for the final installment, 1950's "All About Eve"