TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”

In the most recent episode of Feud, the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony gains momentum, and the chasm between Bette and Joan continues to widen until it is irrevocable. When Bette loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, largely as a result of Joan’s scheming, the bitterness is fully set, and there will be, can be, no turning back for any of them.

There’s a nice little aside included in the episode, in which the majestic, statuesque, and ever-so-slightly over-mannered Olivia de Havilland, suggests that the feud between her and her sister Joan Fontaine was one fabricated in large part by a media determined to sow dissent.  There is a slight bit of hypocrisy in this episode, however, in that a subsequent scene shows all too clearly that Olivia had no love for her sister, and that the bitterness between them was quite real indeed.

Though de Havilland has been hovering on the edge of the screen since the series began, it’s only now that she has finally come into full focus, as the episode shows us the close relationship between Bette and Olivia. One can sense in Olivia’s somewhat distant performance a hint of jealousy and bitterness about her friend’s success and talent. As she remarks, Bette always saw her as Melanie from Gone with the Wind to her Scarlett, and she acknowledges, with just a trace of sadness, that that is true. Graceful and statuesque as she is, she knows that as far as Hollywood and the broader public is concerned, she will always be one of the system’s lesser lights, a minor star in a galaxy full of supernovas like Davis.

The other bit player in this episode who also begins to emerge into a fuller light is Judy Davis’s magnificently waspish and poisonous Hedda Hopper. For all of her vitriol and bitterness, Hopper is convinced of the rightness of her poison pen, which she has honed to a fatal point. The episode also reveals that she is as riddled with contradiction as any other woman in Hollywood. She criticizes Davis for being vulgar, and yet she makes a spurious claim that Bette Davis uses one of her Oscars as a doorstop in her bathroom. Yet she sees all of this as justified, her self-understanding as the moral compass of Hollywood rendering her inviolable from any trace of true self-reflexion or criticism.

Once again, Lange’s Crawford continues to wring the pathos from the script. When she says that something in her broke at the word of the Oscar nominations, for the very first time I felt like I was looking at the actual Joan Crawford on screen before me. Her visage showing all of its alcohol-produced flaws in the glaring light of the California sun, she has clearly begun a descent into desperation that ends, embarrassingly, in a phone call to Geraldine Page in which she convinces the younger actress to step out of the Oscar ceremony and an equally uncomfortable and pathetic visit to Anne Bancroft (who eventually wins, allowing Crawford to step out onto the stage). Yet even these moments are full of pathos, as Sarah Paulson’s Geraldine Page proudly announces that Hollywood should be made to look at what they have done to Crawford, and Bancroft graciously concedes to Crawford’s request.

Lange’s Crawford emerges in these scenes as a peculiar mixture of pathetic and malignant, someone driven by her own chronic sense of fragile self-worth.  As she tells George Cukor in one of the episode’s most affecting lines, she is not bigger than this pettiness, a stunning confession that reveals the extent to which she has come to understand her zenith as inevitably and irrevocably past.

(On a random note, I also appreciated the episode’s use of mirrors, in which constantly forces the characters to look at themselves and to face the unflattering light in which they so frequently paint themselves).

All in all, I found this the best episode yet of Feud, and yet also the most tragic. The final scene, in which Joan comes home from her pyrrhic victory was one of the most affecting the show has yet produced. As Crawford sits alone in her bedroom, gazing at the statue, one can’t help but reflect about all that has been lost as the feud between the two women grows ever more venomous. It is truly one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.

TV Review: “Feud”–“More, Or Less” (S1, Ep. 4)

Having finally watched last week’s episode of Feud, I am at last ready to share my thoughts. In all, I found this to be the best episode so far, in that it really does a great deal to flesh out the stakes of Baby Jane for everyone concerned, not just the principals, but also those who surround the production.

The opening sequence highlights the extent to which both Joan and Bette have found themselves on the losing end of an industry controlled and manipulated by ruthless (and not terribly likable) men. Both of them have, by this point, become aware that their fortunes may be irrevocably in decline, the possibility of a comeback tainted by the “B” movie status that has already begun to stick to Baby Jane and to taint its artistic pretensions.

The responses of the two women reflect a great deal about their respective personalities. While Bette handles the demotion to the junior leagues with biting sarcasm by taking out a classified ad, Joan spews out f-bombs to her utterly uncaring agent and his cronies. Throughout the episode, Crawford emerges as the one more attached to her rapidly-fading stardom and Davis to the fact that she can’t get roles that challenge her craft (this dichotomy has now become so much part of Hollywood history that it’s become fact).

Lange continues to bring Joan to life in a particularly compelling way. There is an almost frantic energy to Lange’s portrayal, as she teeters on the edge of utter collapse. She sees the writing on the wall of her career, and she is determined to do everything in her power to stop the downward spiral, including distancing herself from Bette and from any other woman who might taint her aspirations, even when that means distancing herself from the very people who would be happy to help her.

The scene at the premiere highlights how dependent Joan has become on the glamour of stardom. The colour and lighting here is quite warm, an evocation of Crawford’s renewed sense of vitality and happiness that she has once again returned to being adored by her legions of fans. One also gets a sense that the episode is making a conscious reference to Lange’s role of Big Edie Beale in Grey Gardens, which also featured her in the role of a woman clinging to vitality in the face of adversity.

For all of her talent, however, Crawford knows something that the others seem reluctant to acknowledge: the golden age of classic Hollywood is well and truly over. When she turns down Pauline’s efforts at jumpstarting her own directorial career, she does so not (so she claims) because the latter is a woman, but because she’s a nobody. Crawford is old enough and wise enough to recognize that Hollywood is a cruel and ruthless business, and she is just cutthroat enough to do what needs to be done to ensure her own legacy (it doesn’t hurt that she’s also being manipulated by the waspish Hedda Hopper).

Despite how despicable he can be at times, Molina’s Aldrich continues to come across as affable, accomplished, and likable, if more than a little self-centered and misogynist. He knows as much as the women do that his career is on the line, and indeed that, for all of his aspirations, he is not, after all, fated for greatness. Even his success with Baby Jane, however, is not quite enough to rescue him and elevate him to the status of an auteur. In a taut and unpleasant conversation with Jack Warner, the latter makes the cutting observation that he is nothing more than a journeyman, it’s a remark that hits all too close to the bone.

Feud is a delicious treat, but it’s also far from subtle. With Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland (Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as the film’s chorus, we are left in no doubt how we are supposed to feel about the characters and their circumstances. For all that, though, the show continues to hold up a none-too-flattering mirror to the machinery of Hollywood, an industry that still has a lot of distance to go in terms of the way that it treats women.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

Review: “Feud”–“Pilot”

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.

When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.

While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.

Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.

Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.

Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.

All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?

Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “All About Eve” (1950)

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This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!

All About Eve has long been one of my favourite films.  With its sharply written and snappy dialogue, its flawless casting, and its compelling and somewhat disturbing reflections on the nature of stardom and fandom in the Hollywood system, the film serves as a great entry point for those interested in classic Hollywood cinema (hence my focus on it for this blogathon).  If you are looking for a film that gives you insight into the workings of Hollywood in its golden age, look no further than All About Eve.

The film follows the fraught relationship between Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a strong-willed and successful Broadway actress and her protege and later replacement Eve (Anne Baxter).  While Eve begins the film as the starstruck fan of Margo, it becomes increasingly clear that she has designs on both the career of her idol and her husband.  While she ultimately succeeds in supplanting Margo in the eyes of the consuming public, she also becomes increasingly jaded and cynical, the victim of her own ambitions.  The film ends with Eve herself obtaining a young protege, one who might perpetuate the cycle.

The film, like others of the period (including Sunset Boulevard), remains interested in the contours and nature of female stardom.  Of course, given that this is 1950s Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the thoroughly empowered and career-minded Margo eventually decides to largely withdraw from that aspect of her life in order to focus on her frayed marriage.  She realizes, as any “good” 1950s woman would, that she will gain much more satisfaction out of her domestic life than she will as an actress.   However, given that this is Bette Davis we’re talking about here, there is no small amount of ambiguity about how seriously we as viewers are supposed to take her supposed domestication (in my opinion, not very.  How can you domesticate Bette Davis, after all?)

In marked contrast, Eve is as rapacious as she is talented, striving to take everything that she wants, regardless of who she has to step on or who she has to hurt on her way to both career and sexual happiness.  What makes her sinister, of course, is that she appears to be so genuine.  Indeed, we are led to believe that, like so many fans in classical Hollywood films, she has allowed the boundary to dangerously blur between her own identity and that which she wants to become.

More insidiously, the film also seems to suggest that female friendship is either inherently toxic and catty or, alternatively, a slipper slope into the danger zone of desire.  It always remains slightly unclear whether Eve desires to be Margo, desires her (and thus attempts to to satisfy that desire by trying to seduce her husband), or some combination of the two.  And it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film its bite.

Thus, the queer overtones in this film are hard to miss (see below for a couple of great books that discuss the film in some detail), and both Baxter and Sanders seem to relish their roles as the two devilishly queer characters.  Addison, not surprisingly, considers himself a Svengali and tries to mold Eve into the kind of woman that he wants to her to be and she, likewise, wants to do what she wants to do.  The ongoing tension between the two of them makes for one of the more compelling and deliciously corrupt parts of the entire story.

What really stands out, however, is the ending, in which a star-struck young fan manages to sneak into Eve’s room.  The last shot of the film is of this young woman, holding Eve’s trophy in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection stretching off infinitely into the future.  We are left in no doubt that the cycle of which Eve herself was a part will continue, that she will one day be replaced by a younger, more vivacious version of herself.  And unlike Margo, she probably will not have domestic bliss as a solace.

All About Eve is one of those splendid films that uses the conventions of classic Hollywood to cast a light on the ways in which the film industry is a cyclical monster, pulling in and spitting out its stars, particularly women.  However, it is also a relentlessly and bitingly enjoyable film, one of the great gems of old Hollywood.  Just as importantly, it highlights that one thing that makes the old films so much fun:  the dominance of women.  For all of its latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny, classical Hollywood was an industry and a system that relied on the glamour of its female stars.  And All About Eve shows why such a system worked so well for so long.

If you’d like to read more about queer readings of All About Eve, I recommend Robert Corber’s book Cold War Femme and Patricia White’s Uninvited as excellent starting points.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Ivanhoe” (1952)

Based on the famous novel by Sir Walter Scott, MGM’s film Ivanhoe is something of a generic hybrid, combining the boom and bluster of the traditional epic (the same studio had produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis the year before) and the swashbucklers that were such a notable part of studio production during the 1930s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, both starring Errol Flynn).  However, the film is worth watching, as much for the beautiful production values (what film produced by MGM wasn’t exquisite?) as for the plot.

Set during the reign of King Richard, the film depicts the struggles within his kingdom between the native Saxons such as Cedric (Finlay Currie) and his disinherited son Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and the Normans, especially the knight De Blois-Guilbert (George Sanders).  Caught up in the conflict are the Jews of England, notably Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor),  the latter of whom finds herself pursued by De Blois-Guilbert, who falls desperately and somewhat hopelessly in love with her.  The cunning Prince John, however, attempts to thwart their union and puts Rebecca on trial for witchcraft.  The brave Ivanhoe enters a joust to save her, defeats and kills De Bois-Guilbert, and the film ends with the triumphant return of King Richard and the deposing of Prince John.

While the film follows the plot of the novel in its broader contours, there are some notable excisions, most of which make the film stronger and more economical in its storytelling.  However, some of the novel’s original historical purposes have also been effaced, for while the novel remains steadfastly interested in the ways in which England became England as a result of the gradual melding of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities, the film seems more interested in the various love triangles that exist at the dramatic heart of the film.  Furthermore, Scott’s original work places a great deal more attention on the plight of the Jews of medieval England, while the film seems to see their ethnic identity as incidental to the main aspects of the plot.

Furthermore, Ivanhoe in the film becomes a much more powerful and active figure than he is in the original novel (in which he is largely laid low for the course of the novel, often a man to whom things happen rather than one who effects change on his own account).  In the hands of the always-stalwart Robert Taylor, he becomes a more traditional swashbuckling/chivalric hero, a true knight determined to protect those weaker than he is and to see the return of true honor and chivalry in the person of the imprisoned King Richard.  While I am not Taylor’s biggest fan (he is serviceable but lacks, in my opinion, a certain charisma that I usually respond to), he does bring a certain measure of honorable gravitas to his interpretation of Ivanhoe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is not terribly interested in the roles of trials of women (this is in marked contrast to the novel, which consistently points out the ways in which women occupy a marginal and often exploited status within medieval culture).  However, Joan Fontaine delivers a creditable performance as the Saxon princess Rowena, bringing her usual grace to the role.  And while I often like Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t quite bring out the tragic pathos that is such a crucial part of Rebecca’s character in the novel (which may be due to the fact that she gets so much less narrative attention than her literary counterpart), and the script doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her talents.  Quite a shame, really, as she could have really shined as Rowena.

One last note on casting.  I always love seeing Sanders in a film, largely because no other actor besides, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price could so compellingly play a villain.  Somehow, though, Sanders manages to inflect De Bois-Guilbert with a greater complexity as a character than emerges in Scott’s novel, to such an extent that we almost feel sorry for him when he is eventually struck down.  It’s rare to see Sanders playing someone who actually has a sympathetic side, and so this film was refreshing in offering him a little more flexibility.

All in all, Ivanhoe is a fine film, with some compelling visuals and a strong score provided by the immensely talented Miklos Rozsa.  However, it doesn’t really ask the same sorts of historical questions as either the book upon which it is based, the other epics of the period, nor even other films set in a similar period.  This is not necessarily a bad thing all told, but as someone who really loves the novel, Scott’s original work casts a long shadow that the film does not (and possibly cannot) live up to.

Score:  7.5/10