Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Revisiting the original Star Wars has been a terribly significant experience for my film journey, more so than I would have expected. I opted out of rewatching the old trilogy as many did before seeing The Force Awakens last year, so it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen the original films. After enhancing my understanding of film and immersing myself in a wide variety of titles in recent years, I expected to simply be entertained by Star Wars. However, I was truly blown away by this viewing. I can say with confidence that Star Wars is a groundbreaking piece of cinema and one of the greatest sci-fi adventures ever committed to the screen. It’s an epic, ambitious film that ceases to hit the brakes, making it one of the most enjoyable, immersive films I’ve seen of late.

I need not touch on the plot details with this one, but it’s clear that one of the most impressive things about Star Wars is how well it builds its world. We immediately jump into the action: a big scary overlord is fighting against a rebellion, and he’s taken the princess. We see massive spaceships racing through the darkness of the universe. We get quirky characters of different races, vibrant atmospheres and a whole slew of different planets. George Lucas has one of the strongest visions for the complex world (or worlds) of his film, more so than just about anything we’d seen in a movie up to this point. Every second of footage is a carefully crafted piece of immersion that pulls you into the Star Wars universe and dispels criticism that these films are simply sensational cash grabs. The story, while simple at times, never ceases to be unique and captivating. The original trilogy is a pretty standard rundown of Joseph Campbell’s “hero myth,” but it is carried out with such passion and grandiose that Star Wars may very well be the most exciting execution of the hero myth to ever hit theaters.

It’s often easy to forget that this movie came out in the 1970s. The production value is through the roof, and the environments are impressively detailed. While we often catch a glimpse of more dated special effects, the movie is so overwhelmingly successful that these moments feel more charming than disruptive. The spaceships are just as thrilling as they were upon release, as is just about every other piece of tech in the Star Wars universe. The Death Star continues to feel like one of the most epic objects presented in a film, and its ultimate destruction feels as satisfying as ever. Of course, John Williams shouldn’t ever be left out of a discussion of these films. One of the most iconic, powerful scores to any film, the music behind Star Wars carries a wondrous sense of sci-fi adventure that drives the movie from start to finish, bringing a spot on sense of ambiance to every scene.

Anyone who has seen The Force Awakens was likely ecstatic to see our classic heroes back in the action. While I think the new movie drew a bit too heavily from the well of nostalgia, it’s understandable for them to do so. Han Solo, Luke, Leia, Chewy, and many other characters have become staples of American culture. There are the charming, humorous sidekicks that keep a smile on our faces throughout the story (C3PO and R2D2), but this is mainly an adventure about heroes. Luke Skywalker fits the mold of the conventional protagonist, a young Jedi learning the ways of the Force in order to combat the evils of the Empire. Then there’s the more daring, unconventional hero Han Solo, played to perfection by Harrison Ford. George Lucas has created a tremendous universe, but it takes a talented set of actors to really bring it to life. The acting can feel silly at times, but the portrayal of these characters is lifted to galactic heights due to a collective sense of energy and adventure that runs through the Star Wars trilogy. It seems every actor is on board with the epic scale of what Lucas is attempting to create, and the payoff is one thrill ride of a story.

To speak about the first movie specifically, (or A New Hope, as it has come to be called) it’s important to note that Lucas refuses to get bogged down in exposition. Setting up an entire universe and laying out its rules is a difficult task for the first film of any saga, but Star Wars always manages to keep its audience entertained while explaining key information at the same time (while the prequel trilogy seriously fell short in this area). A New Hope feels like a standalone adventure, even though it was only the first of a larger story arc. Any Star Wars ripoff that came after it failed to nail down the pacing the George Lucas carefully planted into the story. I came away from this viewing with a sense of amazement that I had actually just watched a 2 hour movie. The film uses each scene to accomplish a pivotal plot point, and nothing is wasted or added for its own sake. It’s not often discussed, but I think this is one of the most important things about the success of this movie. Every scene is exciting, but every scene is important. If other deep space epics could get this formula down, I think we would see a far stronger set of films where it’s a lot easier to get invested in the story.

Some have fallen back on the notion that Star Wars is simply big budget entertainment without much cinematic merit. While this movie is undoubtedly a summer blockbuster with a lot of money dumped into its production, you can’t deny the cinematic greatness Star Wars accomplishes. For a snazzy blockbuster film, each scene carries a surprising amount of weight and accomplishes a great deal towards creating an epic story. George Lucas brings a powerful vision to the screen with a powerful movie. Star Wars establishes one of the most exciting trilogies ever made, a trilogy that I look forward to diving further into very soon.

Films Left to Watch: 922

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.”

The Academy Awards aren’t always an indicator of a great film, but very often they are. Particularly if a film sweeps all five major categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay) as only three films have done, you know you’re dealing with a piece of quality cinema. Of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one such film, and it is undoubtedly a terrific piece of film. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey (one of my personal favorites), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an adaptation that holds the message of the source material as sacred to the story of the film. The performances couldn’t be better, and all the pieces align in such a way that this is a movie set for long-term greatness. It’s one of the greatest movies of the 1970s and likely the greatest film which has ever touched on its complex subject matter.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a wisecracking criminal convicted of statutory rape, sent to a mental institution after showing signs of mental illness. In order to avoid the hard labor and rough atmosphere of the prison system, McMurphy feigns signs of “crazy” in order to get himself admitted. He comes to meet a slew of over patients, each facing their own mental obstacles, and he becomes an inspirational leader among them. He teaches them games, plans a getaway fishing trip, and helps them stand up to the towering, authoritarian nurse of the ward, the infamous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). As McMurphy faces off against Ratched for the control of the ward, he comes to realize the cruelty and inhumanity in place at the mental institution itself and the effect this has on the patients. It’s a humorous, inspiring, terrifying, unsettling, wonderful story which never ceases to entertain.

I find that the success of the film can be attributed to the innovation and passion of the source material. The story itself, which follows closely with Kesey’s novel, is a masterfully-crafted piece of fiction that translates beautifully to the screen. Every character is fully realized, and we come to root for every patient in the ward. It’s fun to see Danny DeVito play Martini, a delusional man who can’t quite fit in with reality like everyone else but keeps a smile on his face regardless. Then there’s the “Chief” (Will Bromden), a mute man of Native American descent who becomes one of McMurphy’s closest companions and brings the film its most powerful scene. As an audience, perhaps the most dismal shift comes when we realize that Nurse Ratched doesn’t want these people to get better. All these characters that we’ve come to love, whose obstacles we want to see overcome – Ratched just wants power over them. It brings the film from a silly Jack Nicholson feature to a heartbreaking piece of cinema. The film implores its audience to wonder if there’s a clear distinction between sane and insane, or is it just that the people in power get to draw the line themselves? Thematically, the movie pulls no punches, and it conveys Kesey’s original message wholeheartedly to the audience.

On a cinematic level, the film is wildly entertaining if only for the battle of wits between Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. While Nicholson brings such an uncensored, human approach to his character, who just wants to be happy and make others happy, Fletcher plays the opposite. Her cold, reserved approach to Nurse Ratched feels sinister for how safe it is. Her power comes from her reservedness. As an audience, you just keep waiting for her to lose her cool, and there’s power in this restraint. While Nicholson’s character has his flaws, you want to see him succeed against such a cruel force as Nurse Ratched. Not only on a personal level between the two characters, but his little victories over her feel massive because they seem to work against an entire system. Ratched represents the institution itself, which holds power over the weak through rules and regulation, while Nicholson seems to symbolize freedom from all of it. He encourages his fellow patients to try and free themselves, whether in ways big or small. In the way that it’s always fun to root for the underdog, Nicholson is really up against the odds as he attempts to challenge a colossal institution of oppression using only his wit and charm.

When you talk about movies that have achieve greatness, and this is a film that surely has, one key ingredient is heart. When adapting source material, this is particularly important. Good filmmakers achieve thematic excellence when they treat their adaptations with care and respect. This is a film about beloved characters and their struggle for strength and freedom, but it’s also a film that implores its audience to change their way of thinking. Mental illness is a tough subject to explore through any medium, but this is a movie that actually does so with a lot of laughs. Very few films can invest their audience in such a way that this one does, and it makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of cinema. It’s a powerful film that put countless smiles on my face, so I’ll even call it a masterpiece.

Films Left to Watch: 923

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Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona

“Sometimes it’s a hard world for small things.”

I think that Ethan and Joel Coen are two of the greatest living filmmakers. The way these guys can take a genre, and they’ve hit quite a few of them, and twist it in some way for some curveball effect is really impressive. They make bold films, almost always out of their comfort zone in terms of subject matter, and they have an impressive understanding of the cinematic art. If you watch a Coen brothers movie, take notice of how much information is conveyed in a single shot. They are some of the best visual storytellers in the business right now, and a Coen brothers film is always an entertaining time. I think they get discounted a lot because they stray away from epics and their sense of comedy isn’t the most accessible, but they are some of the most innovative and playful directors making movies right now. I think The Big Lebowski is one of the biggest misses from the 1001 List All of this being said, Raising Arizona is pretty good. It’s probably among their worst, but it’s pretty good.

It’s important to note that Raising Arizona was made in 1987, only the second Coen brothers movie they’re credited for directing, and they hadn’t perfected their craft just yet. It’s essentially a farce. Herbert I. McDunnough, or simply “Hi”, (played by Nicolas Cage) is a convenience store robber fresh out of prison after several incarcerations. He decides to get his life together and marry police officer Ed (Holly Hunter). The two discover that Ed is infertile, and they decide to steal a baby in order to become a proper family. Their target is wealthy furniture salesman Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), who has just become the father of quintuplets. After stealing the baby, the film follows a comedic sequence of events in which Arizona attempts to get his baby back while Ed and Hi overcome the struggles of parenting. John Goodman and William Forsythe also make noteworthy appearances as the Snoats brothers, friends of Hi who crash on his couch and escalate the conflict to a boiling point when they’re finally told to leave.

The thing about Raising Arizona is that it’s unquestionably over the top. Nicolas Cage does a silly accent while playing an obliviously idiotic character among a cast of equally clueless stooges. The Coens have a clear understanding of farce, using physical comedy and silly circumstances to draw their laughs from the audience. The humor of the film comes from the size of its caricatures and the absurdity of their antics, and for the movie that it’s trying to be, it does a fine job. Raising Arizona is a textbook example of well executed farce. However, one simply can’t help but compare the film to later works by the Coens which work off a smarter, more subversive plot. You also see less of the cinematic talent in this movie. It’s there, and it’s still stronger than a lot of similar films, but there are far less of the creative shots and unique uses of sound and visuals we’ve come to expect from the Coens in 2016.

I found the funniest thing about the film to be Nicolas Cage himself, primarily because he’s playing a well-suited character for his style of acting. Cage is often mocked for his presentational method of playing a character, but Raising Arizona allows him to be as absurd and distant from reality as he wants. I think Cage should have taken on more roles of the same type instead of trying to play this Hollywood superstar. He actually does a really fine job playing the buffoon, and I’m of the opinion that Cage is more of a character actor. He’s also accompanied by some other fine performers who are well on board with the style of the film. It’s neat to see John Goodman in such an early collaboration with the Coens, and his later work really shows how he’s grown as an actor. He does decent work in the film, but he definitely becomes more grounded and gives off a stronger presence as his career progresses. Not just any cast could pull off Raising Arizona, and the Coens do exceptional directing with the strong talent they have.

I don’t mean to suggest that Raising Arizona is a bad film by any means, but farcical humor is just not as interesting to me as some newer styles of comedy. It’s a fun movie with a smart direction, but the story itself isn’t very smart. The laughs are cheap, most often stemming from Cage’s silly voice or some character doing something stupid, and the plot never really amounts to anything exciting. It’s still a fun time, though, and if you’re just looking for a fun 90 minutes to kill, you might consider giving it a watch.

Films Left to Watch: 924

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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Fellowship of the Ring

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

In my ongoing journey to review the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, there are a few things about the book that make this task a bit more difficult. One such issue is trilogies. In an attempt to squeeze in as many important films as possible, we see the Lord of the Rings and the Toy Story trilogies as one entry, one “film,” in the book. This is also the case for a few other multi-part films, actually making this task 1007 films long. This isn’t as catchy of a number, however, so we’ll stick with the notion that we’re working with 1001. All this really means is that I don’t get to check this film off the counter until I’ve reviewed the whole trilogy. If you’re just reading to see if I liked The Fellowship of the Ring, I apologize for this digression, and I’d like you to know that I liked the movie very much. If you were interested in the composition of the 1001 List, then I hope you found this interesting, and I hope to elicit some of your sympathy as I trudge my way through 12 hours of hobbits and monsters to check one movie off my list.

This being said, I suppose “trudge” isn’t the word for this movie. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s no denying the fantastic feat which these movies accomplish. It’s one of the most ambitious projects of the 21st century in terms of adaptation, and director Peter Jackson builds a fantasy world that manages to satisfy hoards of devoted Tolkien fans while standing alone as a breathtaking piece of film. The visuals, the story, the artistic passion in every scene – this is a film that takes its source material and treats it with care and respect, maintaining the sense of wonder and adventure present in a story of this scale (which I have regretfully never read). Even watching the 4 hour extended edition, the only high quality version that the depths of the Internet would throw my way, I was impressed by the energy and pacing that the Fellowship of the Ring brings to the screen for the first in a beautiful sequence of films.

The visuals are likely the proper place to begin this discussion. Famously shot in beautiful New Zealand landscapes, every frame of the Fellowship of the Ring feels like a fantastic work of art. Just the mention of the film’s title conjures up images of the Shire, a lush green wonderland where Hobbits make their way through peaceful agrarian life. We also see snowy mountaintops, ominous cave systems, a wondrous Elven city, and various other bright, powerful locations that keep the screen brimming with color. There’s also the bleak, desolate fields of Mordor, of which we get a sufficient glimpse in the film. It looms over the story as the final challenge yet to come. The image of Sauron, the all-powerful antagonist, repeats itself throughout the film in the form of a horrendous orange eye, always watching our heroes as they make their way through the journey.

While we’re on the subject of heroes, the film seems to offer an exploration of what it means to be a hero. Frodo is unquestionably our central hero, a young Hobbit who takes on the burden of carrying the One Ring to be cast into the flames of Mordor to save the lands from the evil schemes of Sauron. He is played with a youthful, charming energy by Elijah Wood, and this energy is reflected in his Hobbit friends Merry, Pippin, and Samwise who join him on the journey. We’re also presented with a medley of other heroes who come in various forms. There’s the wise mystical figure Gandalf, the cunning Elven archer Legolas, and the rugged swordsman Aragorn, among several other leading figures. The various races coming together for a common goal is an inspiring image from the film, suggesting the epic scale of the quest itself. While their comradery isn’t too impressive at times, the combined efforts of the fellowship to complete their objective at any cost makes for a great adventure film. It’s a real treat to see the varying degrees of skill these characters possess in various fields, and the film seems to suggest that they’re all heroes regardless of how strong or smart they are. Where one hero falls short, another hero has their specialty, and it brings a really important dynamic to the fellowship that recurs frequently throughout the journey.

There are countless other elements to the Lord of the Rings universe that make this film special, both for fans of the franchise and common film-goers such as myself. The obsessive nature of the One Ring, which corrupts just about every character who comes near the thing, is a powerful plot device that certainly lays the groundwork for some strong conflict in future films. The impending subplot of Aragorn’s rightful place as king, despite his reluctance, also makes for an interesting narrative to follow. Fellowship of the Ring manages to keep its audience captivated with an unrelenting sense of adventure and wonder while also setting up important plot points for future films. The careful construction of the story is testament to the trust that Peter Jackson (among other screenwriters) had in Tolkien’s text. By allowing the story to blossom as it was originally written, with minor changes for screen adaptation, Jackson accomplishes the challenging task of making a written fantasy world feel epic on screen.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates that Peter Jackson has certainly come a long way since Heavenly Creatures, and this is a set of films that will come to define his career. Fellowship of the Ring is an impressive jump start to the trilogy that introduces its audience to Middle Earth as Tolkien imagined it, and it provides a rush of fantasy and adventure that makes for an always entertaining film. I would say without hesitation that it’s one of the finest fantasy films ever made. This is the result of a strong creative talent putting trust in an equally strong source material. It’s a simple formula, but one that often gets muddled or tossed aside altogether when adapting treasured novels. The film is a product of love and attention from everyone involved, and the payoff is a wondrous piece of cinema. Expect more discussion of Middle Earth in the very near future.

Films Left to Watch: 925

(Again, since the films are one entry in the book, I won’t drop the film count until I make it through the trilogy. Please forward all complaints to the book’s editor, Jay Schneider.)

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City Lights (1931)

City Lights

“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”

The silent film was on decline in 1931 as studios gave way to the era of talkies. These new movies were far more popular than the silent film because, well, they weren’t silent. However, one man refused to give up the silent film. A man who built his entire career around the craft of the moving picture: Charlie Chaplin. One of the most prominent actors of the early 20th century, Chaplin was comedic master who knew physical comedy inside and out. He saw the silent film to be a purer form of art, and he continued to perfect it for years after sound had become commonplace in cinema. Often hailed as his greatest work, City Lights is a film that demonstrates how moving and artistically fulfilling these silent films can be. Endlessly funny but with a surprising amount of heart, it’s Chaplin at his finest, and it holds up as an inspiring piece of entertainment even today.

City Lights juggles two major plot points as Chaplin returns to his classic comic character, The Tramp. Wandering the streets, penniless and alone, Chaplin comes across a beautiful young woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. He quickly falls in love with her but soon discovers (rather comically) that she is blind and also (rather uncomically) that she is poor, facing the loss of her home due to overwhelming debt. This is where the other plot comes in. Chaplin meets a drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) late at night who is attempting suicide. Chaplin manages to save the man’s life, and for doing so, the man is eternally grateful. The only issue is that the millionaire can only seem to remember Chaplin when he is drunk, leading to a hilarious sequence of on-again off-again friendship between the two. Through the course of the movie, Chaplin attempts to maintain his relationship with both the young woman and the millionaire, perhaps using his wealthy connection to help get the woman out of her financial predicament.

Any doubts over whether this film holds up today are extinguished from the opening scene. As the town anxiously gathers for the unveiling of a new statue, only to find that Chaplin has been sleeping on the statue beneath the tarp, we get a hilarious physical routine that sets the tone for a fun film. Chaplin brings his unwavering commitment to strong physical comedy. Every movement he makes is specific and focused, as if he has calculated some formula for maximum funny. His facial expressions, his physical blunders, it’s all so precise with perfect timing. While comedic films today put their trust in shock humor or irreverent depictions of irony, Chaplin proves that the right timing and commitment to a joke goes a long way. It’s a style of comedy we don’t see much of today, but it could certainly be due for a resurgence.

I was also surprised by how moving and personal City Lights can be. The romantic side of the plot is charming and heartfelt in every occurrence. The Tramp is such a lowly, bumbling figure that it becomes easy to root for him. What we love about clowns like Chaplin is that they never give up. Despite all the anger and misfortune that comes their way, they keep chasing after their desires, brimming with optimism. In this case, Chaplin’s desire is the love of a simple flower merchant. More than this, though, we see that he wants her to be happy. The end of the film demonstrates this humble devotion, as Chaplin is willing to end up in prison to make this woman’s life better. The final scene features some powerful, nuanced acting in which the couple finally reunites in a surprising string of events which is crafted to perfection to bring smiles to the audience.

The real takeaway from a film like City Lights is the precision and commitment to detail that Chaplin maintains. He was known to be a perfectionist, holding full creative control over his films and really taking his time to get them to the point he envisioned. The routines of physical comedy are no less than we’ve come to expect from a comedic visionary such as Chaplin, but the story itself is so personal and alluring that we come to love the main character, not just as a clown but as a real person. For this reason, it’s a fine piece of classic cinema that unquestionably stands the test of time.

Films Left to Watch: 925

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Within Our Gates (1920)

Within Our Gates

“Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage. Negroes and whites – all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.”

When we talk about important movies, we’re often speaking in terms of milestones. Their importance stems from being the first to do something significant, and this designation often rests with the production of the film rather than the film itself. It’s the making of the movie that matters. Within Our Gates is one of these milestone films, the first to be created by an African-American. However, unlike many other milestone films, Within Our Gates goes further than simply being the first film by an African American. Its powerful message and sensational story cut right into the conversation about race in early 20th century America. Most scholars suggest that it was filmmaker Oscar Michaeux’s answer to The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan propoganda film of 1915. After witnessing the power and emotion in Micheaux’s craft, it’s clear that Within Our Gates shouldn’t just be regarded as a milestone picture. It should be studied and honored as a gripping piece of cinematic commentary. It should be regarded as a great film.

The movie portrays a young African-American woman, Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer), and her efforts to raise money for the preservation of a school for African Americans in the South, where discrimination and public unrest have made it difficult to acquire education for black children. Through her journey, we see other traces of discrimination and heated race relations which culminate in violence as the film progresses. In different screenings for the film, different sections were often cut out to avoid race riots similar to the 1919 Chicago riot the previous year. In one of its most powerful, horrifying scenes, a black man is lynched out of pure malice while Landry is nearly raped nearby. The film is an unsettling, unrelenting look at the early 20th century in which Micheaux presents the violence and inhumanity that derives from racial discrimination in America.

In one of the most disconcerting scenes, a black preacher called Old Ned delivers a sermon in which he encourages black people to accept a subservient place in society, suggesting they will be rewarded in heaven for doing so. When questioned further by a group of wealthy white patrons, Old Ned reassures them that black people should not seek any kind of equality in society. However, once he leaves the room, he laments his situation and states that he does believe in racial equality, and that he has “sold [his] birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage.” While Micheaux presents horrifying looks at racial violence towards the end of the film, he also presents more nuanced, complex scenes about the nature of racism throughout the movie. With such a system in place in which even figureheads of the black community are coerced into accepting their subservience, Micheaux demonstrates the enormous difficulty in overcoming this societal struggle.

Within Our Gates is also an inspiring piece of cinema when we realize that Micheaux worked with a shoestring budget, this being his first film. Props and clothing had to be borrowed and scenes had no chance for a reshoot at a later date, leaving Micheaux with a painstaking cinematic process. However, the end result is a wonderfully shot piece of cinema. While too many movies of the silent film era relied on dialogue slides to tell the story, Within Our Gates only uses them when necessary. The actors also over-exaggerate their movements in order to more clearly present their scenes visually. Micheaux understands that silent film has to let these visuals do the work, and this style pays off wonderfully with a clear set of physical actions that smoothly convey the narrative.

If there’s anything central to our understanding of Within Our Gates, it’s that this is a daring film. Not even one hundred years ago, the production of such a work was incredibly dangerous and controversial. Oscar Micheaux is one of the most admirable filmmakers in American history for his work on the film (and his roughly 40 later works, many of which deal with similar themes). While many young filmmakers will work off a limited budget today in order to express some artistic vision, Micheaux had something far more important to say. By pointing the camera at systemic racism, both its causes and consequences, Micheaux makes a daring mark on cinematic history that can only be admired and respected today.

Films Left to Watch: 926

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All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve.jpg

“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. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman.”

With the record for most Oscar nominations at 14, including a Best Picture wins, All About Eve is truly a classic film. One of the first fifty movies inducted into the National Film Registry and sitting at an impressive 14 on the AFI Top 100, it’s one of the most significant stories to come out of American cinema. Well, the name sounded familiar, but I had no idea what this thing was even about when I watched it. It gets a lot of attention for being one of the first films with Marilyn Monroe in it. This seemed intriguing, but it’s a tidbit that fell to the wayside upon actually watching the film. With a wonderfully crafted story and some of the best performances of the black-and-white era, All About Eve is one of the most surprising delights I’ve seen in a while.

What you’re led to understand immediately is that this is a film about someone’s rise to power, that someone being the beautiful young actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). The movie opens with a scene in which Eve accepts a prestigious stage acting award, suggesting she’s made it to the top of the game. Then we jump back roughly a year to find Eve as a lowly theater patron making her way through the streets, friendless and harmless. She soon finds her way into the life of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a beautiful but aging leading actress whom Eve adores. Through charm and wit, Eve manages to become Margo’s friend, then assistant, and then performance understudy. As their friendship gives way to a heated rivalry, you see a transformation in Eve unlike most any other character in a movie, and your perception of the film forever changes when you find out what Eve is really capable of.

There’s quite a few factors behind the success of the movie, but I think the story itself is at the center of it. It’s such a fresh concept: the rise of an ingenue through the world of professional theater. What makes the story so juicy, however, is the relationships. From the opening scene in which Eve’s former friends glare coldly as she receives her award, you know that some divide comes between them, but it’s hard to imagine such a sweet character as Eve being at fault. For the first part of the film, she’s nothing but courteous and gracious to her new friends for the connections she’s allowed and the care they give her. Then you start to see the real Eve Harrington, one of the most cunning snakes in cinema, the saboteur and the obsessive backstabber. In her lust for the spotlight, Eve proves herself willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the top. We even come to learn that this isn’t a change that comes about in Eve’s character, but she has been deceitful from the start. It’s a long, calculated ruse which brings Eve from obscurity to the top of the world at the expense of her friends. The film also makes sure that things aren’t too perfect for our shining heroine. Some mistakes along the way cost her greatly, and while she gets away clean with her rise to stardom, accumulated baggage will seemingly plague her for the rest of her life.

Four women in the film were nominated for acting Oscars, and they’re all worthy of recognition. While the titular Eve is played beautifully by Anne Baxter, with enough charm and wit to fool both the audience and the other characters, the real star of the movie is Margo. Bette Davis nails the cynicism of an actress on the decline. Her character never fools herself into believing she’s a star forever, and her 40th birthday takes the character into a dismal sort of melancholy that marks some of the finest acting in the film. While I wish we could have gotten a cleaner face-off between Margo and Eve towards the end of the film, their rivalry is written with such fire and precision that you can’t take your eyes off either of these actresses. Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm also bring strong performances as Birdie and Mrs. Richards, respectively. They show opposing sides in respect to how they approach Eve, with Birdie showing an immediate, sour disdain for Eve’s facade which Mrs. Richards is more sympathetic to believe. When we see Celeste Holm give a horribly defeated performance towards the end of the film, we remember Thelma Ritter’s warning from the start that Eve was not one to be trusted.

I’m always attracted to films about ambition, what people will do on the path to greatness, and All About Eve is another masterpiece of this category. We see Margo facing her decline as a younger, fresher actress rises through the scene, suggesting that it’s all just a continuous game. A central message of All About Eve is that nobody stays on top forever, but it’s also a film that questions whether being on top is worth the price, as evident by the friends Eve has to betray and the way her life is altered as a consequence of her actions. The film even presents a young woman at the very end, looking into the mirror while holding Eve’s trophy and draping herself in Eve’s wardrobe. It’s an image which leaves us with a reminder: we’re only watching a small piece of a cycle, one that continues to this day. It’s a commentary about age and stardom that still holds true for modern audiences, and it makes All About Eve a timeless film, well worth of the label of classic.

Films Left to Watch: 927

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