Tuesday, June 29, 2010

All About Eve: When Unreal Is More Real Than Real

All About Eve holds the Oscar record for most nominations: fourteen, with six wins. The film is atypical of a feted Oscar nominee—it isn’t an epic, a musical, a period drama, a biopic, a war film (well, not any sort of actual historical war). In fact, All About Eve, with its storylines about backstabbing actresses, seems more like it is ripped from the headlines of a 1950 edition of Us Weekly. How does a film that sounds like the 1950 version of Mean Girls end up one of the most honored Best Pictures of all time?

Mere synopses and source material can be deceiving. Just one year previous to All About Eve, All the King’s Men—adapted from no less than a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—won Best Picture, but that film was one of the dullest movies I have ever watched. All About Eve was adapted from a short story that first appeared in Cosmopolitan (a magazine that the characters of this film would most certainly be reading), and this is one of the most awesome movies I have ever seen. You know why? People like the kind of stuff you read about in Cosmo. Fashion, gossip, lifestyles, relationships, sex advice, the arts—these are the kinds of subjects most human beings spend the hours talking about in one way or another. Corruption in politics, anti-Semitism, WWII—those sound like college courses someone would have to twist my arm to attend. Bitchiness, backstabbing, jealousy—these are the kinds of things people stretch their ears to eavesdrop on. Which movie would you rather watch?

Titillation alone does not account for the greatness of All About Eve. Certainly one could pop the film into your DVD player and be entertained by the surface aspects about the story. Yet all great films—like all great works of art—operate on many levels. First, helping tell the story is some of the greatest, wittiest, and most venomous dialogue ever written. Next, some damn talented and perfectly cast actors bring those words to life. Finally, after you’ve been hooked by the subject matter, the story, the dialogue, the acting—you realize what All About Eve is really all about. The cost of vanity and ambition. The fear of aging. The responsibility (or lack thereof) of people in power. Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Others have dug deeper to find both homosexual and anti-Communist subtexts (which I won’t be discussing here, but both are present in the film). Unlike All the King’s Men, which is transparent about its subject matter, beating out its moral to the viewer as if they were a piece of metal being forged and hammered out on an anvil, All About Eve appears to be about trifling subject material but the film gradually unveils itself to be about deeper universal themes.

The film has a great opening scene. Like The Godfather twenty-two years later, within the opening sequence of the film the audience is introduced to every important character and we get a glimpse of each of their motivations and personalities. The film opens at the beginning of the final act, making the remainder of the movie a long flashback. The scene is an award ceremony for the Sarah Siddons Society (and here’s how you know a film becomes a classic: the actual Sarah Siddons Society was established in 1952—two years after All About Eve was released—yet the award and the society were an invention of director/screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz; the film proved to be so influential that a Chicago theater patrons made what was in a movie a reality, life imitating art), where according the narrator, the top award is “the highest honor our theater knows” is awarded to the greatest star of the theater and that the minor awards “for such as the writer and the director since their function is to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes upon it,” have already been presented. Who is the light flashing upon the tower? Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), whom, according to the narrator, “no brighter light ever dazzled the eye.”

The narrator then introduces himself as Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), an egomaniacal and bitterly cynical theater critic who describes his occupation as “essential to the theater.” How else do we know that Addison is a snob? Easy—he’s the kind of guy who can’t just say “theater”. In his mouth, the word becomes a sonorous, trilled “theee-aaaah-taaah” as if it were the word of God. Addison then introduces the rest of the characters (director Bill Sampson—played by Gary Merrill—and playwright Lloyd Richards—played by Hugh Marlowe—are introduced first in Addison’s line about “minor awards”). First up is Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the playwright’s wife, who has “nothing in her breeding or background that should have brought her any closer to the stage than Row E, Center” but because she is Mrs. Lloyd Richards, she is an important part of the periphery of the theater community. To Addison, Karen is simply “the lowest form of celebrity.” Next is producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff). Addison says “there are two types of theatrical producers. One has a great many wealthier friends who will risk a tax deductible loss. This type is interested in art. The other is one to whom each production means potential ruin or fortune. This type is out to make a buck.” Max is of the former.

Finally, there is Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in her greatest role), whom Addison praises as “a great Star. A true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.” Mankiewicz responds appropriately to Margo’s introduction with a close-up. As Eve accepts the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement, she is greeted by canned applause and indifferent looks. Margo’s disdain burns the brightest. Mankiewicz freeze frames right as Eve—who is the youngest person to receive the Distinguished Achievement Award—is about to clasp her claws around the coveted prize. The film then flashes back as we learn all about Eve.

Eve is introduced to Margo after a performance of Fabian’s play Aged in Wood. Karen arranges the meeting, after she learns that Eve has attended every performance Margo has delivered in the play. Margo is Eve’s idol. Karen feels that Margo ought to throw her biggest fan a bone, but Margo derides her fans as “autograph fiends” and “juvenile delinquents”, noting that they’re “never indoors long enough” to even see a play. Yet when the nature of Eve’s devotion is revealed to her, Margo softens. Eve wins over Karen, Bill and Margo with her wide-eyed innocence and star-struck behavior and her tale of growing up in Wisconsin (where “everything is beer”), where she lived a dreary existence as a secretary for a brewery where “it was pretty hard to make-believe you are anyone else.” Eve became drawn to plays—for reasons almost identical to my own love of movies—because “the unreal seemed more real to me.” Her stories win over her audience—save for Margo’s backstage maid and companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who sees right through Eve and how she is manipulating the others and says: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end!” Birdie’s warnings go unheeded, and Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life when Margo later offers Eve a job as her personal assistant. The bond between Margo and Eve strengthens when Bill—who is also Margo’s fiancée—leaves New York temporarily to pursue a directing opportunity in Hollywood (the script makes many jokes about the differences between the theater community and Hollywood community).

The next big set piece in the film involves a party celebrating Bill’s return from Hollywood. By this point in the film, Eve’s ruthless ambition is made crystal clear—most strikingly when Margo catches Eve dressed in her own costume (Birdie notes: “She’s studyin’ you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints. How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep.”)—and Margo, while understanding Eve’s envy toward her acting career, becomes unglued when she learns that Eve has planned the party for Bill’s return without her say-so. Margo’s deepest fear is made open and raw: that Bill will leave her for a younger woman. When Bill returns, Margo remarks “there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges. For instance, you.” When she misinterprets Bill speaking with Eve as flirting, she admonishes him: “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.” The claws have come out; Margo is a woman who means war.

As the guests arrive, each of them remark how much they like Eve and admire Margo for taking her under her wing. Margo acts out, becoming drunker and surlier as the night goes on (Margo warns the party, in the film’s most famous line: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”) Lloyd Richards notes that Margo’s mood is “very Macbethish”. The unflappable Addison arrives, a dumb blonde bimbo starlet—Miss Casswell, a “graduate of the Copacabana School for the Dramatic Arts” (Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earliest roles)—on his arm, and tells Margo, “You were an unforgettable Peter Pan. You must play it again soon.” Margo’s insecurities only become more fueled when Lloyd says that the lead role in his new play is written as a “twenty-ish” woman. Margo lays the facts bare: “Lloyd, I am not twenty-ish. I am not thirty-ish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh - That slipped out. I hadn't quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as if I've taken all my clothes off.” Furthermore, Margo makes note of the sexism actresses face when they reach middle age by comparing herself to Bill. “Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago. He'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men."

By this point, with her insecurities fully revealed in the company of her friends and colleagues, Margo’s character becomes, in the words of Eve, more real than unreal. Who doesn’t—women and men both—have fears of growing old and feeling unfulfilled in life? I don’t care how confident a person is, everyone has a scab that they don’t want picked, covering an insecurity always threatening to fester. Margo is no longer simply a drama queen, spoiled actress, and bitch of the highest order (though she is always all of those things and very entertainingly so); she loses her star luster and becomes achingly human. The jokes the party guests make about coming to view the “remains of Margo Channing” as if she were a naked corpse laid out at a viewing become more poignant (but still funny).

What is a character becomes flesh and blood in the hands of Bette Davis. One aspect of the casting that works extraordinarily well in All About Eve is that Margo Channing the character closely resembled the true life of Bette Davis the actress. Davis was considered box office poison, and she was unceremoniously dumped by her longtime studio, Warner Brothers, at the end of her contract in 1949 after each of her films performed substantially worse than the last. Davis was always frank about her career coming before personal relationships or reputation. Davis wasn’t even the first choice for Margo—another actress with a reputation for being bitchy, Claudette Colbert, was—but when Colbert suffered a back injury, Davis was in. She was 42 when filming commenced. Furthermore, she developed a relationship (and eventually married) with Gary Merrill, who played her paramour in the film and was also seven years her junior. In watching Davis as Margo, actress and part develop a symbiotic relationship. Davis expertly delivers the many delicious lines Margo has but also imbues her with the humanity that could only have come from Davis’ own life experiences. I think Davis felt a kinship with Margo that could only have developed out of the compassion she felt for the character and how Margo mirrored her own life. If there was ever an example of a role an actress was born to play, it is Bette Davis as Margo Channing.

The remainder of All About Eve becomes a contrast between Eve’s ruthless ambition and Margo’s acceptance of her insecurities. A more predictable—and less great—film would have Margo and Eve facing off in the mother of all catfights, a tussle filled with hair-pulling and backbiting. Mankiewicz takes the story in a different direction, allowing Margo some moments of self-reflection. Margo tells Karen—who feels a measure of guilt toward Margo for it was she who arranged for Eve to meet her idol, and Karen also schemed to let Eve become Margo’s understudy in Aged in Wood—“Infants behave the way I do, you know.” It is in this scene where Margo realizes that she envies what Karen has—a healthy marriage. In a speech where Margo advances for feminism then simultaneously takes it two steps back, she says:

“Don't fumble for excuses, not here and now with my hair down. At best, let's say I've been oversensitive to her...to the fact that she's so young, so feminine and so helpless, too so many things I want to be for Bill. 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 get back to being a woman. There's one career all females have in common - whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed - and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a - a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain. The End.”

Margo reprioritizes her ambitions; her time as an actress in its sunset, she needs to remember how to be a woman, to be—in her eyes—worthy of Bill’s unconditional love. Margo’s next great role will be as Margo Channing, member of the human race.

Meanwhile, Eve schemes her way to the top. Her stage debut is facilitated by Karen (in fact, when Margo is giving Karen her “funny business, a woman’s career,” speech it is on an outing meant to deliberately keep Margo off stage and allow Eve to take over the lead role for the night), but it is Addison who takes full advantage of Eve’s nascent career and accelerates the blossoming of the nubile young star. Addison tells Eve: “We all come into this world with our little egos, equipped with individual horns. Now if we don't blow them, who else will?” That sells Eve, who tells Addison to “take charge”. Addison arranges for theater critics to see her perform as Margo’s understudy, writes a rave about her performance, and introduces her to Hollywood agents. He writes fluff pieces about Eve’s humble beginnings, and encourages her to make statements that older actresses should not take parts envisioned for younger performers. Lloyd’s new play has a part, Cora, which is intended for Margo but more age appropriate for Eve. Eve’s ambitions undoubtedly lie on Cora.

At a dinner with Karen and Lloyd where Bill proposes marriage to Margo (she accepts, the marriage will be a simple ceremony at City hall where Bill and Margo will acquire a marriage license and she will wear “something simple. A fur coat over a nightgown.”), Eve and Addison are also seen dining at a nearby table. Eve summons Karen via a note to the ladies room, and by this point Margo only wishes to know what Eve is thinking out of pure curiosity, not spite, and tells Karen to find out “what’s going on in that feverish little brain waiting in there.” Eve offers Karen a phony apology about the “poison pen” article Addison wrote where Eve is quoted dressing down Margo because of her age, but she is really there to blackmail Karen into convincing Lloyd to let her play Cora. In exchange, Eve tells Karen that she won’t divulge to Addison that it was Karen who schemed to have Margo be absent on the day Eve took over the lead in Aged in Wood, thus destroying Margo and Karen’s friendship and ruining Karen’s credibility. (What Eve doesn’t know, of course, is that Karen and Margo have reconciled against Eve.) Karen, astonished at the depths of Eve’s Machiavellian calculations, tells her, “You’d do all that for a part in a play?” Eve replies: “I’d do much more for a part that good.”

What is telling about Margo’s character is her reaction. She tells Lloyd, “I don't want to play Cora...It isn't the part. It's a great part in a fine play. But not for me anymore. Not for a four-square, upright, downright, forthright married lady...It means I finally got a life to live. I don't have to play parts I'm too old for, just because I've got nothing to do with my nights.” Margo is content, happy. (Karen has the best reaction to this news—hysterical laughter.) Eve thinks she can only be content when she is on stage, receiving applause, calling it “waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine to know, every night, that different hundreds of people love you. They smile. Their eyes shine. You've pleased them. They want you. You belong. Just that alone is worth anything.” Eve thinks she can receive love without a relationship, by playing a role.

She receives her ultimate comeuppance when Addison exposes her entire backstory as a lie—Eve has been performing the whole time. Addison calls Eve out: “You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition—and talent. We deserve each other...and you realize and you agree how completely you belong to me?” Eve falls victim to Addison’s gambit—she will “belong” to him as his mistress and he will never reveal that the foundation of Eve’s existence as an actress is an utter lie. The two schemers inevitably end up alone together.

Cut to the awards banquet. Eve accepts the Sarah Siddons Award for her role as Cora. Eve gives a canned valedictory, giving “credit where credit is due” (cut to a shot panning over the faces of Lloyd and Karen, Bill and Margo, who know that they’ve been used), calling the night “the happiest of my life” and saying that although she will be leaving to film a movie in Hollywood, she says that “three thousand miles are too far to be away from one’s heart”, promising that she will be back to “reclaim her heart” soon. Margo gets the last laugh—“Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Eve decides to forgo the after party thrown by Max Fabian in her honor, demanding that Addison take her home.

When they arrive at Eve’s suite, Phoebe (Barbara Bates), a pretty young fan, surprises the couple. Phoebe says Eve is her idol and she is there to write a report about her—“how you live, what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of perfume and books, things like that.” Eve is flattered by the attention and invites her in, just as Margo once did for her. Addison, of course, knows exactly what is happening, but does nothing to stop it. He asks if Phoebe would like to win an award someday, and Phoebe tells him “more than anything else in the world.” Addison’s reply: “Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. Miss Harrington knows all about it.”
The final shot of the film has Phoebe, wearing Eve’s coat and clutching onto the Siddons Award. Phoebe vainly admires herself in Eve’s four mirrored cheval, and the mirror returns an infinite number of reflections where Phoebe bows with dignity, imagining that she is the recipient. The cycle of ambition continues. There will always be another Eve.

So, what seems like a tawdry tale about catty actresses ultimately reflects infinite insight into our own lives. All About Eve can be enjoyed simply straight up, but because the film has much deeper levels, it resonates as a classic.

Some interesting life-follows-fiction details happened after the release of the film. First off, Bette Davis—though she delivers what is universally acclaimed as not only her finest performance, but also one of the finest performances ever given by an actress—did not win Best Actress for Margo Channing. Why? Because Anne Baxter considered herself (with justification, after all it is the title role) also a lead actress in All About Eve. Both women secured Best Actress nominations for their work in the film, effectively splitting the vote and handing the award to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. (Some mention must also go to Gloria Swanson, who also spectacularly played an aging actress—Norma Desmond—in Billy Wilder’s superb Sunset Boulevard, seen as the chief competitor to All About Eve in the 1950 Oscar race.) Many who follow the history of the Oscars have speculated that Baxter (who had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1946) was pulling a real-life Eve Harrington move. In reality, Davis and Baxter became great friends on the set of All About Eve and remained that way for the rest of their lives. However, there is no doubt in my mind that had Anne Baxter considered herself a supporting actress in the film, both she and Davis would have Oscars for their indelible performances.

Happily, Davis married Gary Merrill, mirroring the Margo/Bill relationship in the film. The marriage would ultimately end in divorce ten years later, and Davis, like Margo (presumably), did not receive many substantial roles once she hit middle age. Though she received a final Oscar nomination in 1962 for the campy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Margo Channing is widely perceived as Davis’ last hurrah.

Tragically, three of the actors who made the film—George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbara Bates—died by their own hand. Coincidentally, each of the actors played either unhappy or empty characters in the film. Monroe everyone knows all about (and there is much speculation that her death wasn’t a suicide, but I will leave that to the conspiracy theorists). Sanders, who is so, so good as Addison DeWitt (very deservedly winning Best Supporting Actor for his efforts), did not find much happiness later in life. Sanders the man, like Bette Davis, in reality was much like his on screen counterpart in All About Eve. His autobiography was titled Memoirs of a Professional Cad (Sanders’ suggestion for the title: A Dreadful Man). He succumbed to alcoholism and on April 23, 1972, Sanders overdosed on Nembutal, his suicide note reading: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” Bates parlayed her role as Phoebe into a modestly successful film career, but was prone to depression, mood swings, and bipolar behavior. When her husband died of cancer in January 1967, Bates followed him on March 18, 1969 when she committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.

All About Eve has ensured immortality for all those involved, despite the tragic circumstances that befell some of its cast. Like Eve’s statement, the film is one of the rare works of art where the unreal is made more real than real. Watching the film, I felt as if I’ve known the story for my entire life, because in many ways, I’ve known Margo Channings and Eve Harringtons everywhere I’ve gone.


All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates, Gregory Ratoff

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture, Best Director—Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Best Supporting Actor—George Sanders, Best Adapted Screenplay—Mankiewicz, Best Costume Design Black & White—Edith Head*, Best Sound Recording) out of 14 total nominations** (Best Actress—Bette Davis, Best Actress—Anne Baxter, Best Supporting Actress—Celeste Holm, Best Supporting Actress—Thelma Ritter***, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Set Decoration Black & White)

*Edith Head is the most celebrated costume designer ever in Hollywood history. She received an Oscar nomination in every year from 1949 to 1967, representing 30 nominations in total. She eventually received 35 nominations in total, winning 8 Oscars (and won in both the B&W and color costume categories in 1950).
**14 Oscar nominations is the Academy record, shared by Titanic (1997)
***The nominations secured by Davis, Baxter, Holm and Ritter represented the first and only time four actresses had been nominated from one film. None of the actresses won, though Davis, Baxter, and Holm had won Oscars previously. Ritter received six total career nominations and never once was victorious, an all-time Academy injustice.

NEXT BLOG: An American in Paris

Thursday, June 17, 2010

1940's: Decade in Review

So, two whole decades (and two years in the 1920's) of Best Pictures are reviewed and in the bag. Confession time--I'm way, way ahead in terms of watching the Best Pictures. I just re-watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (good movie) last night, and will start the review of All About Eve (fucking great movie) today, which puts my viewing schedule a full 25 films ahead of what I am reviewing.

I look forward to writing about the 1950's Best Picture collection. There decade is basically divided into some of the finest films to ever be awarded the Best Picture Oscar, and easily at least three of the absolute worst. The common factor between most of these films: the advent of television, and how it affected the viewing habits of filmgoers.

As for the 1940's--it was a decade of very good Best Picture winners, one of which is in my opinion, the absolute best film to be awarded the Oscar. Overall, the ten films are much more mature than the batch of films from the 1930's, which is no surprise, given that half of the decade was spent under the shadow of WWII. No less than four of the films in the decade deal with the war at least peripherally. The 1940's Oscar winning films also displayed a strong sense of social consciousness, as filmmakers used the power of their medium to confront social issues their audiences faced daily.

That said, here's how I'm ranking the 1940's Oscar winners:

1. Casablanca (1943): Bogart, Bergman, one of the finest supporting casts ever assembled, one of the greatest and most quotable scripts ever written, and a love story for the ages. "As Time Goes By", Casablanca only gets better.

2. The Lost Weekend (1945): Billy Wilder and his star, Ray Milland, present a terrifying, effective, and altogether unflinching portrait of a man stricken with alcoholism. one of the best social issues pictures ever made, and only one of two films to win both the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme D'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

3. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): Director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland nurture compassionate performances in this melodrama about three servicemen returning home from WWII and accepting the changes in their lives.

4. Rebecca (1940): Alfred Hitchcock's masterly creepy thriller about an unnamed woman who must contend with the ghost of her husband's former wife. The film hints at what themes Hitchcock would develop in the next two decades.

5. Mrs. Miniver (1942): William Wyler's effective piece of propaganda encouraging America to help on the European front of WWII by showing the effects of the war on an upper-middle class British family. Greer Garson is magnificent in the title role.

6. How Green Was My Valley (1941): John Ford's film is unfairly maligned because it beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture, although the films surprisingly share many themes. A nostalgia filled weepie about a Welsh mining family as told through the eyes of its youngest member.

7. Hamlet (1948): Director/star Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is the first non-American production to win best picture. The adaptation of Hamlet is uneven but proved to be very influential.

8. Gentleman's Agreement (1947): Elia Kazan's drama about anti-Semitism is a little more concerned with its message instead of character to be truly effective.

9. All the King's Men (1949): This drama about a corrupt Louisiana politician has lost its edge when compared with the political scandals seen in real life over the past forty years. A masterful supporting role from Mercedes McCambridge is the standout performance.

10. Going My Way (1944): Total fluff from director Leo McCarey and star Bing Crosby. Imagine if the Whoopi Goldberg film Sister Act won Best Picture. A funny and entertaining film, to be sure, but Oscar material? I don't think so. The same line of thinking should have applied here.

Actor of the Decade: Humphrey Bogart. His Rick Blaine is an iconic American role. Bogart also turned in the finest work of his career in the decade. Runner-up: Laurence Olivier.

Actress of the Decade: Greer Garson. Red-headed Garson brings a magnificent beauty and humanity to her role as Kay Miniver. She was also nominated for five consecutive Oscars in the decade, making her the Meryl Streep of her era. Runner-up: Ingrid Bergman

Director of the Decade: William Wyler. Can't argue with two Best Director Oscars in two Best Picture winners over a span of four years. Wyler, with Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, made two very excellent films that bookended the central conflict of the 1940's, WWII. Runners-up: Billy Wilder, then Michael Curtiz

Studio of the Decade: Warner Brothers. There is relative parity amongst the studios of the Oscar winning films of the 1940's. MGM dominated the 1930's (and will dominate the 1950's), but nine different studios would produce Oscar winners. 20th Century Fox delivered two--How Green Was My Valley and Gentleman's Agreement--but those two pictures don't even come close to adding up to Casablanca, which is the greatest film to ever be entirely shot in a studio. WB for the win.

NEXT BLOG: All About Eve

All the King's Men: Mr. Stark Goes to Baton Rouge

In politics, truth is stranger than fiction; reality is crazier than the movies.

All the King’s Men, adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, is a film about politics. Politics and the movies have had an uneasy screen relationship. I think fictional political films (though Warren’s novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long) are difficult to do well because any scenario a screenwriter could dream up usually pales in comparison to the actual drama of politics. How can Hollywood compete with a President receiving blowies in the White House, an entire state conspiring to rig a Presidential election, a President so paranoid he has spies break into the hotel where his opposing party’s headquarters are located, or—the cherry on top—a gee-whiz, golly-shucks B-list actor actually winning the highest elected office in the land? (Or better yet, an Austrian-born muscleman-turned actor best known for playing a killer robot whose grasp on the English language is questionable at times becoming the governor of California.)

No way could Hollywood make that crazy shit up.

Also, casting a well-known political figure is difficult. Many people have pre-conceived notions of how a politician should be portrayed, and what actor should play them. Sometimes, the casting fits like a glove—Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Other times, the choice is out of left field. Welsh-born Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon? (Actually, Hopkins is quite good as Tricky Dick, but he looks nothing like Nixon and the guy best known for playing a cannibalistic serial killer wouldn’t be my first choice to depict a Commander-In-Chief, but then again, someone who played a cannibal would make a perfect Nixon. Hopkins also played John Quincy Adams, proving that I know dick-all about casting. But, I digress—back to the topic at hand.) Disco-dancing, Italian and New York as hell John Travolta as a fictionalized Bill Clinton? (Yet Travolta was also good.)

Finally, any film about politics is almost assuredly going to piss off a certain percentage of its audience. Conservatives holler about a film being too lefty or not righty enough. Liberals complain about the opposite. Historians nitpick over inaccuracies. Maybe the film ends up over-glorifying or over-condemning its subject to be effective. Maybe a film is simply too agenda driven. And finally—if you’re Oliver Stone, perhaps—maybe you are deliberately trying to make a film so incendiary that the intent is to actually piss your audience off.

All of these factors make for a difficult recipe for a political film to be successfully cooked up. Despite the Oscar glory obtained by All the King’s Men, I didn’t really like the film very much. For me, the biggest hurdle All the King’s Men had to overcome was the passage of time. What played as revolutionary in late 1949 came off as recycled in 2010.

Louisiana politics are at the center of All the King’s Men. Broderick Crawford (in a Best Actor-winning performance), plays Willie Stark, a man running for local office on a platform of government reform (Louisiana is a state long filled with political corruption in all levels of government). Willie loses his first election, but catches the eye of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a reporter from a wealthy family. Jack is endeared to the candidate because he feels that Willie is a rare breed indeed—a politician that cannot be bought. Although Stark loses the election, he makes his first important political connection in Jack, and with his wife’s encouragement, Willie obtains a law degree.

Fate steps in, as a tragedy occurs at an elementary school when during a fire drill, the fire escape some students were using collapses due to shoddy masonry, killing several children in the process. Willie files a lawsuit against the builders, and exposes nepotism in the process. This endears Willie to the locals, who will now fully back him in a run for County Commissioner. However, his charismatic and populist campaign catches the eye of the corrupt officials in the state government, who befriend Willie under false pretenses and encourage him to run for Governor. Their strategy is that Willie will split the “hick vote” that wishes for reform, allowing the corrupt puppet to win the election. Willie’s entry guarantees that scenario will play out, but he is alerted to this strategy by Jack and politico Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge, who won Best Supporting Actress in her debut role).

Jack and Sadie remake Willie—who delivered boring, fact-filled speeches about the government screwing over the common man. Once Willie learns that nobody likes listening to how badly they’ve been taken for fools (since of course, Willie also realizes that he is being played), he changes tactics, calling himself a “hick just like you” and giving thunderous, commanding oration, encouraging the “hicks” to “nail up” the corrupt politicians holding them down. Despite his changes, Willie loses the gubernatorial election, though he learns that rousing speeches and noble intentions aren’t enough to win. On Willie’s third go-around, he isn’t nearly as naïve, accepting money and gifts from anyone willing to guarantee votes, and in many ways, he becomes like the corrupt politicians he is trying to unseat. This time, his strategy pays off, and Willie Stark ascends to the office of Governor.

Willie rationalizes his corruption by arguing that by using cutthroat tactics and accepting graft to gain office, he can ultimately do more good after the campaign and he is firmly entrenched in office. For a while, Willie makes good on his promises of reform, building schools, playing fields, hospitals, and giving benefits to farmers. Yet each of his reforms are bull-rushed through the Louisiana legislature in a manner that more accurately reflects a benevolent dictatorship than a democracy. Ultimately, Willie loses his moral turpitude as well. He engages in extra-marital affairs, first with Sadie, then with Jack’s fiancé, Anne (Joanne Dru). Willie covers up a fatal drunk driving accident in which his son was behind the wheel. He tries to blackmail his Attorney General. More and more, Willie abuses his power until he is brought up on impeachment charges. Though Willie beats the rap, he is assassinated outside of the capitol.

In 1949, I’m sure that the notion of absolute power corrupting absolutely was shocking and eye-opening to a vast percentage of the audience of All the King’s Men. Filmgoers in 2010 are overloaded on political scandal. I watched the Supreme Court hand a tainted election over to George W. Bush. My parents lived through Watergate. We all know far too much about the kinky sex lives of our elected officials. We live in the era of Too Much Information. Hell, crooked politicians are used as punchlines to jokes. We’ve grown accustomed to lying, cheating, and weaselly politicians. The only thing that surprised me about Willie Stark is that it took him half the movie to become truly corrupt. I figured he’d be there by about the twenty minute mark of All the King’s Men.

Not only was the film’s message unsurprising, my viewing experience was made worse by the fact that I didn’t think All the King’s Men was particularly artfully made. A predictable story and message can be overcome by dynamic filmmaking, but this film is rather staid. What I hated the most was that it was blatantly obvious the film was filmed on studio backlots (and in Stockton, California). Not once did I feel like I was in Louisiana—a state rich in flavor and culture. The acting is on the whole, dull. Broderick Crawford won the Best Actor Oscar, but even some of his bigger moments come off flat, especially the “Nail ‘em up!” speech (look what Sean Penn does in the 2006 remake—while containing some very excellent acting it unfortunately is also not a very good film—to see how a really great actor brings the part to life) that is central to Willie Stark’s campaign. Crawford also gives off more of a used car salesman or blustery high school football coach vibe than that of a ruthless, canny politician.

Mercedes McCambridge, in her role as Sadie Burke, does capture those qualities. McCambridge’s performance is easily the highlight of All the King’s Men, and she maximizes every moment of her scant seventeen minutes of screen time. McCambridge makes Sadie’s motivations and actions clearly understood and felt—it is perfectly understood why she initially helps Willie, why the two have an affair (and how burned Sadie feels when Willie spurns her for another woman—hell hath no fury like a mistress scorned), and why she is the only one with enough stones to suggest to Willie that he needs to be held morally accountable for his actions.

McCambridge’s performance is a master class in supporting acting—it isn’t simply one killer scene or an equal part of an ensemble or a lead role billed as a supporting role to reap Oscar acclaim—her Sadie Burke exists to compare, contrast, and illuminate the character of Willie Stark while making Crawford a better actor in the process. McCambridge also never forgets that her while her character’s role is small, her Sadie is also a fully formed human being with wants, desires, jealousies, and heartbreak. If only the rest of the film were as awesome and impassioned as her performance in it.

I’ll conclude my discussion of All the King’s Men and political films by describing a political film I found to be truly radical. About a month after viewing the 1949 Oscar winner, I viewed for the first time a very famous political film released ten years earlier—Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra’s film and Robert Rossen’s film have very little in common save for their political themes, and both films have some serious flaws (in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra overindulges in sentiment, coincidence, and unbelievable situations—especially in the final third of the film). Yet Capra’s film uses optimism to its advantage. The protagonist, Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart in one of his quintessential roles), has politics thrust upon him, as he is named Senator by his Governor after the previous Senator has passed away. Smith—devoid of any ruthless political ambition—simply wishes to not embarrass himself or his state. His naïveté and optimism become infectious as the film unfolds, and as the narrative builds to Smith’s epic filibuster against graft in the Senate, I found myself believing in the power of our Constitution and the principles of our government if they remained unpolluted.

Both Willie Stark and Jefferson Smith begin their films as political neophytes. Both have populist roots. Inarguably, both of the characters are dynamic. Each of these characters have also had decades of turbulent political history working against them. I was surprised to find myself identifying with the idealistic, naïve, and let’s face it—kind of hokey film where a single man can enter the lion’s den of American politics and come out with his integrity intact. Willie Stark is the more realistic and—when viewed through the lens of 1949—prescient portrait of an American politician (and let’s not forget, he was modeled on actual Louisiana Governor Huey Long), but after bearing witness to decades of American political scandal, the character is neither surprising nor incendiary. Jefferson Smith, the naïve optimist, is far more refreshing and revolutionary.

Perhaps a future filmmaker will realize that if he wishes to make a truly special political film, a vision of politics that appeals to the better nature of man will be far more eye-opening than one mired in scandal and immorality.


All the King’s Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen

Starring: Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Actor—Broderick Crawford, Best Supporting Actress—Mercedes McCambridge) out of 7 total nominations (Best Director—Robert Rossen, Best Supporting Actor—John Ireland, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing)

NEXT BLOG: 1940’s Oscar Review, then into the 1950’s with All About Eve

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hamlet: The Film's the Thing

English majors take perverse pleasure in writing about Hamlet, and I am no different than my melancholy Dane-loving brethren. This piece will mark the first time I’ve written about Hamlet on film, a combination of two of my loves. Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of the play in 1948 won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and has played an influential role in how the play has been adapted to film since.

So, for the uninitiated, this is Hamlet in three paragraphs. William Shakespeare composed the play in 1600, and the play has remained popular for the last 410 years. The story follows the eponymous title character, a Danish prince and philosophy student in England, who his returning home to castle Elsinore after the death of his father, the King (also named Hamlet—people often forget there are two Hamlets in the play). Claudius, the King’s brother, is the successor to the throne and he has married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The death of his father and the hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle cause Hamlet considerable angst—which is mistaken as madness—and he finds that Elsinore has devolved into “an unweeded garden”. Even the Elsinore sentries have noticed changes (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”), especially in seeing the ghost of the dead King haunting the castle. The Ghost King reveals that Claudius murdered him and usurped the throne. The Ghost gives Hamlet a mission: avenge his father’s death by murdering Claudius and thus restoring honor to the kingdom.

Key subplots emerge. One involves Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, with whom Hamlet has an on-again, off-again relationship. The relationship between her brother, Laertes and their father, Polonius (a champion and ill-fated hide-behind-the-curtains meddler and Claudius’ closest advisor) is shown as a contrast to the relationship Hamlet has with his parents. Another involves the investigation Hamlet makes into the Ghost’s claims, culminating in a play-within-a-play sequence where Hamlet “will catch the conscience of the King”. The major subplot involves Hamlet’s supposed madness, and audiences have debated—right along with the characters—if Hamlet is genuinely mad or if he is putting on an act or if he is both at the same time. Ophelia and Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by Claudius to test Hamlet’s reactions, and the debate between insanity and acting, life and death is summarized in the “To be or not to be” speech—the most famous monologue ever written. Lastly, Fortinbras, the prince of Norway and foil to Hamlet, idles just off Denmark’s shores, waiting to claim the kingdom for his own.

Everything comes to a head in the final act. Hamlet comes to terms with his fate, his mortality, and the mission the ghost of his father laid out for him—“Readiness is all.” Ophelia drowns, and after Hamlet disrupts her funeral (just before this is the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene, where Hamlet holds up the skull of the court jester from his childhood—the image of Hamlet holding up and debating with a skull is the most famous image of the character), a duel with poison-tipped foils is staged between Hamlet and Laertes, and at the duel, Claudius’ hidden secrets are revealed. However, as is the case with Shakespearean tragedy, everybody dies. Only Hamlet’s close friend Horatio survives as Fortinbras claims Elsinore for Norway.

The story has been adapted to film over fifty times since the turn of the twentieth century. The adaptations range from the traditional, to the epic (Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film was entirely uncut—a rarity for a Shakespeare film adaptation—and ran over four hours), to the international (Gamlet, a 1964 Russian production that Branagh and fellow Shakespeare expert John Gielgud consider the best filmed Hamlet ever), the modern (the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke set is set in the boardroom of the “Denmark Corporation”) and to the bizarre (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’ 1983 ode-to-all-things-Canadian comedy Strange Brew is set at Elsinore Brewery—got it, hoser?). The play has also been recontextualized as an existential comedy by Tom Stoppard. His play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was also made into a 1990 film starring Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss. (Stoppard also drastically shortened the play, staging The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, with an encore that further truncates the text.) The most popular—in terms of box-office grosses—filmic adaptation of Hamlet is the 1994 Disney animated musical The Lion King. The play has also inspired operas, music, songs, albums, fiction, poetry and episodes of television shows. Currently, FX Network’s motorcycle gang drama Sons of Anarchy is yet another outside-of-the-box Hamlet adaptation. So the most central question in a film adaptation of Shakespeare is how well his play is adapted to the medium of film. The film really is the thing.

Director/star Laurence Olivier’s version of the film has made very lasting impressions on how Hamlet has been interpreted on screen. His credentials for bringing Shakespeare to screen were firmly established four years earlier, delivering a very well regarded and Oscar-nominated Henry V. With the tone of that play being patriotic, Olivier was instructed by Winston Churchill to make Henry V a piece of morale boosting propaganda for British soldiers during WWII. Unsurprisingly, with Hamlet being a post-war picture, the film favors the psychological aspects of the play over the political aspects. In fact, Olivier is heavily indebted to film noir in bringing his adaptation to life.

Rich chiaroscuro imagery fills the screen, and the deep focus cinematography (another 1940’s stylistic hallmark) by Desmond Dickinson is crisp and crystalline. Black and white is the perfect film stock for Hamlet, with its light and dark contrasts creating a perfect visual metaphor for the themes of duality—good vs. evil, sanity vs. insanity, life vs. death—the story contains. The light and dark color scheme extends to the costumes of the actors, none more effective than Olivier’s as Hamlet. He is almost always wearing black, his hair is platinum blonde, and his makeup is chalky—making Olivier look one step closer to the grave. Olivier’s costume design for Hamlet has proven tremendously influential, and Branagh reprised the look for his Hamlet in 1996.

Olivier is also indebted to German expressionism and gothic horror—especially in his set design. Elsinore Castle is enormous in the film. Often, Hamlet is alone on screen and his solitary figure set against the labyrinthine hallways and spacious rooms of the castle suggests a man lost within his own mind. One could easily imagine a horror film like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu being staged on this set. The gothic look of the castle is especially effective in the scenes where Hamlet is speaking with the Ghost. Olivier really used production design to his greatest advantage in presenting his visual adaptation of the play.

Olivier errs in his screenplay. All film versions of Hamlet (save, of course, for the unabridged Branagh version in 1996) or any Shakespeare play face difficult decisions about which parts of the play need to be excised when crafting the screenplay. Shakespeare-adapting screenwriters face an unenviable and difficult task when it comes to choose which lines to leave in and which lines will be eliminated. Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s longest and richest plays, is arguably the most difficult to adapt successfully. Olivier’s version cuts almost half the dialogue. Yet his cardinal sin in the adaptation comes in the narrated prologue to the film, where after the “So oft it chances in particular men” speech from Act I, Scene IV, Olivier offers his thesis to Hamlet’s character. He reduces Hamlet’s tragic flaw thusly: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

I feel that anyone can interpret Hamlet in any reasonable way they choose, and Olivier was an authority on Shakespeare, but reducing the play to simply being about “a man who could not make up his mind” is a gross oversimplification. In fact, Olivier’s interpretation borderlines on erroneous, as Hamlet does make up his mind—but the character is far more concerned with making the morally right decision instead of acting rashly. In fact, only when Hamlet acts rashly—such as his murder of Polonius, mistaken for Claudius eavesdropping behind Gertrude’s curtain—do his actions lead to tragedy. I always feel that by the end of the play, Hamlet becomes confident in his fate and secure about the actions he will take to resolve it, a far cry from a man racked with indecision.

Olivier also omits any mention of both the pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras. Olivier makes this choice to focus on the psychological intensity of the lead role, but in doing so, loses key scenes that flesh out the character of Hamlet. Hamlet’s scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second act of the play give the audience the most insight into the personality of Hamlet before his father’s murder, and the scenes also contain some of the most humorous moments of the play (humor is non-existent in this film version of Hamlet, as Olivier chopped most of the gravedigger sequence too, leaving out the fantastic joke about who is the “master builder”—“a gravedigger—the houses he builds last ‘til doomsday”). Gone with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is Hamlet’s famous dismissal of them—the “What a piece of work is man” speech.

Without Fortinbras, Hamlet loses his most important foil. In the play, Fortinbras seeks to conquer the kingdom of Denmark to revenge his father. His firm decision making and swift action stands out in complete contrast to Hamlet’s brooding and inquisition. In many ways, Shakespeare shows audiences Fortinbras as the man that Hamlet should most emulate—one who honors a dead father by taking action to avenge him. If Olivier’s Hamlet is tragic because he is a man who can’t make up his mind, wouldn’t Olivier’s interpretation of the character be enriched by showing a foil to him? Wouldn’t Fortinbras, the man of action, further illuminate Hamlet’s crippling indecision? Though Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras are small roles, they are crucial to understanding the character of Hamlet, and with their omission from the film, Olivier missed an opportunity to make his film stronger.

The worst parts of the film involve Gertrude. Eileen Herlie, the actress who portrays her, does a fine job, but Olivier is very much caught up in the Oedipal and Freudian interpretations of Hamlet that suggest the character’s inability to act stems from unfulfilled sexual desires toward his own mother. Herlie was 28 when she played Gertrude—in contrast to Olivier, who was 41, a full thirteen years her senior—and the age disparity in the ages of the actors shows that in casting a Hamlet much older than a Gertrude, a sexual conquest is possible. In the scenes where Hamlet confronts Gertrude, Olivier is dominant and physically imposing toward Herlie and one can easily imagine that if Olivier was a bit more perverse in his interpretation, Hamlet would rape Gertrude.

I don’t entirely discount Oedipal and Freudian interpretations of Hamlet—there is enough evidence in the text of the play to make a compelling case for that point of view. I always feel that Hamlet’s anger toward his mother is born not out of unrealized sexual desires or jealousy toward Claudius, and instead from an extreme distaste toward Gertrude’s behavior. Hamlet is angry at his mother because he feels that she does not at all honor her late husband’s memory and affection toward her—if she ever felt that way at all—by jumping immediately into a marriage with her husband’s brother. In fact, Hamlet harbors suspicions that Gertrude may even be a co-conspirator to the King’s death.

Still, a mother-fixated Hamlet has pervaded filmic adaptations since. In Italian Franco Zeffirelli’s (who helmed the definitive, very excellent traditional film version of Romeo & Juliet in 1968) 1990 version of Hamlet with Mel Gibson as the prince and Glenn Close as the queen, he basically goes where Olivier didn’t quite. The Hamlet/Gertrude scenes in that film are even more sexually suggestive, and when Gertrude dies, a sweat-drenched Hamlet falls on top of her, suggesting post-coital actions. Also notable is that Close was cast primarily on the strength of her man-eating role from Fatal Attraction (Gibson was chosen because of his work in Lethal Weapon as the madman, suicidal cop Martin Riggs), and that again there is an unbelievable age disparity between the actors playing Hamlet and Gertrude. This time, Close’s Gertrude is the older actor, though she is only 11 years older than Gibson, a disparity more believable in a sexual partnership than the age divide between a mother and son. No matter the disparity, rare is the modern Hamlet interpretation that doesn’t include a sexual element between Hamlet and his mother. Rarer still, is an actor cast who is closer to Hamlet’s actual age—around twenty (I always imagine Hamlet as a full-of-himself, pseudo-intellectual college sophomore).

Grievances aside, it is important to remember that whenever Shakespeare is presented on screen, it will always reflect the interpretations the filmmakers have of the text. No director, screenwriters, or actors will ever get things completely right. The fun in watching a film based on Shakespeare is in the debate over what details and interpretations the viewer agrees or disagrees with, and for all I dislike about Olivier’s Hamlet there is also much to admire.

The Ghost King is spectacularly rendered. The play within the play, as always, provides excellent meta-commentary on the audience that is currently experiencing Hamlet, and Olivier makes the scene work as a commentary on audiences watching a film. The duel at the climax of the film is rousing and excitingly staged (when watching the film, keen-eyed Star Wars fans will undoubtedly notice Peter Cushing, the indelible Grand Moff Tarkin in the 1977 original film, here in his first film role as Osric, the courtier who referees the Hamlet/Laertes duel and delivers the line, “A hit! A very palpable hit!”). Olivier’s delivery of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy doesn’t disappoint.

Hamlet is very much an Oscar anomaly—no other direct interpretations of a Shakespeare play have matched its Best Picture win, and the film isn’t typical of the late 1940’s cinema more beloved by Oscar. In fact, as stated previously, Olivier’s Hamlet is far closer to film noir—a genre nearly completely ignored by the Academy—than at all like the socially conscious pictures that reaped the majority of Academy acclaim. The film’s Best Picture victory is significant in that it was the first entirely British production to claim Oscar’s top prize, and since then Great Britain has by far been the most dominant foreign country in terms of actors and filmmakers receiving awards and nominations (Olivier himself was honored fourteen times by the Academy: nine nominations as Best Actor and winning for his role as Hamlet, once as Best Supporting Actor, once as Best Director and one Best Producer award for Hamlet along with two Honorary awards).

Shakespeare would also continue to provide fodder for Best Picture winners. Film versions of Romeo & Juliet were nominated for Best Picture previous to Olivier’s Hamlet (George Cukor’s 1936 version) and after (Zeffirelli’s 1968 film), and twice has the play been reimagined and awarded Best Picture. West Side Story (for my money, this is bar none the greatest reimagining of any Shakespeare play in any medium) famously updated Romeo & Juliet set amongst New York street gangs in the 1950’s—first a Broadway musical then film. The film won 10 well-earned Oscars. Tom Stoppard contributed to the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love—which offered fictional speculation to the motivations behind Shakespeare composing his most famous romantic tragedy—and lifted many scenes verbatim. Shakespeare in Love took home 8 Oscars.

Olivier’s Hamlet took home four statues, and is proof positive that the medium of film has been very kind to the Bard indeed.


Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Peter Cushing*

Studio: Two Cities (Universal handled the U.S. distribution of the film)

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture, Best Actor—Laurence Olivier, Best Costume Design—Black & White, Best Art Decoration/Set Decoration—Black & White) out of 7 total nominations (Best Director—Laurence Olivier, Best Supporting Actress—Jean Simmons, Best Score)
*The very famous and prolific Christopher Lee has an uncredited role as a spear carrying soldier

NEXT BLOG: All the King’s Men

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gentleman's Agreement: The Importance of Being Not Too Earnest

The award magnet films of the late 1940’s were all films concerned with issues of social justice, and confronted audiences about everyday evils. The Lost Weekend tackled alcoholism. The Best Years of Our Lives reminded audiences that returning WWII veterans needed compassion upon their return to the homefront. Gentleman’s Agreement paints a big, fat target on anti-Semitism. Any film that targets a social issue always runs the risk of forgetting about character in favor of the message. Like its Oscar-winning predecessors, Gentleman’s Agreement is an honorably intentioned, earnest picture. However, the film is not as successful at balancing its social message with crafting compelling characters through superior filmmaking.

The film was adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson. 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, acquired the rights to the novel and hired Elia Kazan to bring the adaptation to filmic life. The film was born of good intentions. Zanuck was denied entry into the exclusive Los Angeles Country Club because it was assumed—incorrectly—that he was Jewish, like nearly all of his contemporaries were. Shorty thereafter, Zanuck purchased the rights to Hobson’s novel, and he was immediately faced with pressure to not make the film. Samuel Goldwyn (who won the Oscar in the previous year for his own socially conscious picture, The Best Years of Our Lives), himself Jewish, told Zanuck that he would only “stir up trouble” if Gentleman’s Agreement was made.

Another argument cited as a reason to not make the film was risking offending the Hays Code—the rigid censorship guidelines that all Hollywood films were expected to adhere to. Joseph Breen, the head enforcer of the code, was known to make anti-Semitic remarks, and producers were particularly fearful of incurring his wrath. Spurred on by witnessing the hypocrisy in the filmmaking community, Zanuck felt even more compelled to bring Gentleman's Agreement to the screen. With respected stage director Kazan at the helm, Zanuck felt confident his picture and its message would resonate with American audiences.

The story of the film concerns a journalist named Philip Green (Gregory Peck) who is writing for a magazine called Smith’s Weekly (in the mold of publications such as The New Yorker). A recent widower, Green has moved to New York from California with his young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and his mother (Anne Revere) in tow. Phil struggles with finding a great subject to write about. His publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), suggests he write a piece about anti-Semitism, and while Phil feels the subject is worth reporting on, he cannot think of a fresh angle in which to approach it.

Sometime later, Tommy asks his father what prejudice is, and Phil is at a loss to give his son a satisfactory explanation. Inspired in part by wishing to explain prejudice to his son, and also in honor of his childhood friend Dave (John Garfield), a Jew serving in the Army, Phil accepts the assignment. His approach to the material is to go undercover as a Jew to truly sympathize with what he doesn’t understand (the notion of “putting on someone else’s shoes and walking around in them for a little bit” is a sentiment espoused by the character Peck would become most famous for playing fifteen years after Gentleman’s Agreement—Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird—and was a common denominator in the roles that defined Peck’s career).

Subsequently, Phil begins a romance with Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire)—Minify’s niece, who initially suggested that her uncle publish an expose of anti-Semitism in Smith’s Weekly. Kathy comes from an affluent community in Connecticut, where there is a “gentleman’s agreement” in place where the local realtors have a policy of not selling or renting to Jews. Though the extent of Kathy’s upbringing is not revealed until later in the film, Kathy is confused when Phil tells her about his controversial angle to his story—she is worried that Phil may actually be Jewish and has been keeping it a secret from her. Phil has gone a bit Method in his undercover act, adopting the last name “Greenberg” for not only himself but his son. His co-workers are even in the dark about his true identity, and like Cathy, have their prejudices quickly exposed. However, Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), the fashion editor at the magazine, supports Phil.

Anne, in the film’s most subtly developed subplot, becomes Phil’s closest confidante. She is one of the few people Phil can turn to when he experiences racism—like when he is called “yid” at a restaurant or faces discriminatory rules in his own apartment building. Conversely, as Phil and Kathy develop their romance, her sly bigotry is revealed. One example of how Phil’s adopted identity reveals Kathy’s ignorance is in a scene where Tommy comes home from school, the victim of anti-Semitic slurs and beaten up. When Tommy cries that he was called “a dirty yid” and a “stinking kike”, Kathy tells him the words should mean nothing to Tommy because he isn’t really a Jew. This incenses Phil—who thinks that Kathy should be saying the slurs are wrong in and of themselves. He also feels that Kathy is instilling a sense of Christian superiority in Tommy by telling him this, and that “nice people” like Kathy are sustaining anti-Semitic attitudes when they espouse Christian superiority instead of railing against the hateful remarks. Kathy also makes apologies for the anti-Semitic behaviors of her sister and the other members of her hometown in Connecticut when Phil wants her to take a stand. A deep part of the film’s message is to show how when the so-called good guys remain apathetic to bigotry, it only ripens an environment where bigotry is tolerated.

In that regard, I love how Gentleman’s Agreement is direct about that message. It’s far easier to demonize Nazis, Klansmen, cross-burners, lynch-mobs and other token racists in film than to suggest that ordinary, decent white Christians are equally condemned if they don’t use their privilege to eradicate bigotry. On the other hand, the messages in the film play less like natural character developments and more like a sensitivity training video.

Other scenes go as follows:

• Phil’s secretary Ethel (June Havoc)—a Jew who can pass as Gentile because of her fair skin and blonde hair—discloses that she originally applied to the magazine under her real, more traditionally sounding Jewish name, Estelle Walofsky, but was told that there were no open positions. When she applied as “Ethel Wales”, she got the job. Phil brings this to the attention of Mr. Minify, who promptly changes the company hiring policy to being “religion is a matter of indifference.” When told of the change, “Ethel” crows that more “kikey” Jews could ruin things for her at the magazine.
• At the engagement party for Phil and Kathy planned by Kathy’s sister Jane, Kathy warns Phil not to discuss the topic of anti-Semitism. Jane tells Kathy that she screened the guest list to only include the “safe ones”—people who are less overtly anti-Semitic—to specifically avoid any uncomfortable conversations. When Phil is surprised by the progressive attitude of the guests, Kathy does not disclose that the guest list was screened.
• When Kathy is with Dave at a restaurant, she tries to defend herself against Phil’s accusations of bigotry. Kathy tells Dave that at a dinner party she attended, a man told an anti-Semitic joke that nobody in her party objected to, and that it made her feel ill to hear in. Dave asks her, “What did you do about it?” He reinforces the idea that Kathy can’t simply feel ill when someone tells a hurtful joke, she has to speak up and out against it.

These are all scenes straight out of Sensitivity Training 101. I feel the script is well-intentioned, but it cares more about hitting its talking points instead of letting the characters dictate the action. I especially think the end of the film—where Phil forgives Kathy and resumes their engagement—is especially discrediting. I buy that Dave’s talk with Kathy opened her eyes to her own bigotry, but I don’t buy that the crusading Phil falls in love with her again simply because she promises to change. Kathy is never shown standing up to her sister, or telling off someone using an anti-Semitic slur. No visual evidence is given that Kathy has changed. I don’t buy it, especially given that Anne has been supportive of Phil throughout his assignment, and she is someone who uses her privilege to right anti-Semitism (the fact that the stunning Celeste Holm is about ten times more beautiful than the plain Dorothy McGuire doesn’t help, either). Not only do the film’s talking points play like a laundry list, the changes in the characters’ attitudes are made simply to give the Phil/Kathy romance the typical Hollywood happy ending.

I don’t think the noble failure of Gentleman’s Agreement lies at the fault of Elia Kazan or his actors. I do think that 20th Century Fox wanted to make a film that would aggressively court controversy. Zanuck was well intentioned in wanting to make the picture, but he was so wrapped up in the message that he wanted to bring to audiences that the film ends up preaching to us, instead of letting the audience grow and change along with the characters. In many ways Gentleman’s Agreement is so earnest that its message is not as effective as it could be.

However, Gentleman’s Agreement was a huge hit for Fox and held both popular and critical acclaim. Message pictures were big business in 1947, and maybe audiences actively wanted a film to bash them over the head with a socially conscious message. Kazan would fare much better seven years later, when he made an indelible message film in On the Waterfront, a work that certainly puts character first—and is all the more effective for doing so—when putting its lesson across.

The film also had unintended political consequences. Gentleman's Agreement significantly raised the profiles of Kazan, Zanuck, John Garfield, and Anne Revere; each of whom were called to testify in the hearings on anti-Communism held by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan and Zanuck made deals (Kazan infamously so, and many see On the Waterfront as his apology), but Garfield and Revere—both of whom refused to testify—landed on the Hollywood blacklist. Revere didn’t work as a film actress for twenty years, and Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39 shortly before his wife was called upon to testify a year later.

I don’t think Gentleman’s Agreement should have tempered its stance on anti-Semitism, especially in holding privileged WASP’s culpable for their complacency. I like how incendiary it is. Yet if the characters in the film were as memorable as the message (there’s a reason why Terry Malloy is a classic film character and Phil Green isn’t), Gentleman’s Agreement could have been a classic for all time instead of an obscure Oscar-winner.


Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Dean Stockwell, Albert Dekker, June Havoc

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Director—Elia Kazan, Best Supporting Actress—Celeste Holm) out of 8 total nominations (Best Actor—Gregory Peck, Best Actress—Dorothy McGuire, Best Supporting Actress—Anne Revere, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing)

NEXT: Hamlet