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#322. Actors Being Usurped

Success can be a fickle mistress. We can be extremely proficient at something, but find there’s always someone else who’s just a little better than we are. Whether it’s a boss who won’t retire to allow you to be promoted to his position or a king standing in your way of being the ruler of the land, what does someone do when faced with these circumstances? Well, if they’re smart and sly, they can surreptitiously obtain what they want by usurping the position of those above them. There’s no profession more cutthroat than that of acting, and the drama around who gets a role is often based on subtle actions (or inactions) of the actors who want to succeed. If an understudy wants to shine, all they might need to do is have the lead actor “break a leg” . . . literally. This week’s two films look into what it takes to usurp an actor.

All About EveAll About Eve
Year: 1950
Rating: Approved
Length: 138 minutes / 2.3 hours

Acting is just as much about talent as it is physical attractiveness. This is particularly prevalent with actresses. The moment they start their career, time is against them as they age. Younger women usually get most of the best roles, so when they get to a certain age, suddenly it can be difficult to find the leading roles they once had. Consequently, the competition for these roles can be fierce. It’s the truly conniving actresses who understand that it’s not what you know, but who you know. In the guise of a mentoring relationship, a young actress can learn what made an aging star successful and apply that to her own acting style. Eventually, though, the student becomes the master, and the older actress is left without any work as her protégée goes on to her own success. Such is the cycle of those in the acting profession.

Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) has one goal in mind: to become a famous actress like Margo Channing (Bette Davis). To do this, she picks up her life and moves out to New York to become Margo’s assistant, even if Margo doesn’t know this until Eve shows up and heaps praise upon the aging actress. Eve proves to be quite the adept assistant, often overstepping her bounds, much to Margo’s consternation. Soon, Eve sets herself up as Margo’s understudy for the play Aged in Wood just as she arranges for Margo to miss a performance. Audiences realized they like Eve in the role and didn’t care for the mature actress in a younger woman’s role. Through her manipulation, Eve soon becomes a critically acclaimed actress of her own, only to find Phoebe (Barbara Bates) is a fan of her work and wants to be her assistant.

Being John MalkovichBeing John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Rating: R
Length: 112 minutes / 1.86 hours

Sometimes, just having someone’s job isn’t enough. You want to be them. In Hamlet (1948), it’s not enough for Claudius to be given the kingdom, he must kill the current king and marry his wife. Claudius wanted to be the king in practically every way. The same can be said of certain actors, “Women want him, men want to be him.” The trouble with trying to be someone you’re not is that you’ll never quite live up to who they are as a person. Even impersonators can get close to mimicking an actor but rarely do they get it 100% correct. But what if there was a way to usurp a person’s being? What if you could literally get inside their head and become them? Who would you usurp? Would you become a famous actor? Would they let you? While this capability doesn’t exist, Being John Malkovich (1999) explores the possibilities if it did.

Behind a tiny door on Floor 7½ of the LesterCorp building, file clerk Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) finds a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich (himself). While he is able to experience life through Malkovich’s body, it is limited to a fifteen-minute timespan. After telling his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), she is enamored with the experience since it allows her to live the life of a man. Through Malkovich, Lotte starts having an affair with Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), a coworker of Craig’s who also knows of the portal. Craig is upset with this development and manages to use his puppetry skills to not only stay in Malkovich for as long as he wants but to control Malkovich as well. Meanwhile, Lotte learns that Malkovich is the latest in a string of portals meant to extend the life of Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). With Lester’s help, Craig becomes trapped in the next portal as he watches Lotte and Maxine’s happy life.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ousted actors

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