#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


#321. Marilyn Monroe

What makes someone into an icon? Is it an accumulation of moments and sound bites, or can a single picture cement an individual as a piece of our popular culture? We all know that “sex sells,” so perhaps the idea of an icon isn’t as accurate as saying someone is a sex symbol. For whatever reason, Marilyn Monroe is the de-facto sex symbol of American history. A few moments from her career and life have made her into a muse for an enormous amount of artists and entertainers, even if it is occasionally in parody. From her sultry birthday song to former President John F. Kennedy to the famous subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), her suicide in 1963 only fuels the never-ending obsession with Hollywood’s favorite “dumb blonde.” This week’s two films highlight bookends to Marilyn Monroe’s film career.

Some Like it HotSome Like it Hot
Year: 1959
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 120 minutes / 2 hours

In the decade before the end of her life, Monroe was on a hot streak on Hollywood. She appeared in such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), which included the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and The Seven Year Itch, with its aforementioned subway grate shot. In the height of her popularity, she even started her own film company, which released The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the filming of which was the main plot of the biopic, My Week with Marilyn (2011). Part of the appeal of her roles in these films came from the “dumb blonde” persona. When she acted like a beautiful girl without a brain in her head, often comedy would ensue. If anything, it perpetuated a negative female stereotype. At any rate, one of her final films was none other than the classic, Some Like it Hot (1959).

Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) is a singer and ukulele player for an all-female ensemble en route to Miami for a gig. When their train leaves from Chicago, they pick up a saxophone player named Josephine (Tony Curtis) and a double-bass player named Daphne (Jack Lemmon). When Josephine and Daphne join in on Sugar’s forbidden drinking, the trio becomes fast friends. Sugar bemoans the fact she can’t find a good man and hopes to turn her luck around with a bespectacled millionaire in Florida. As luck would have it, she finds such a man, but only because Josephine is actually a man named Joe. He and Daphne (nee Jerry) dressed as women to escape the mob. Donning another disguise as Junior, Joe woos Sugar but cannot keep the ruse up for long as the mafia soon finds the two men again. In a rushed kiss during their escape, Sugar learns that Josephine is both Joe and Junior and decides to run away with him.

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

Even with half a dozen movies under her belt, Marilyn Monroe was still relatively unknown by 1950. Often, a pretty face will get you in the door, but you need something extra to break through into stardom. By 1953, with such hits as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire, Monroe had finally grabbed everyone’s attention by simply oozing sexuality. What is interesting about her films before this point is seeing her in minor roles and thinking, “Isn’t that Marilyn Monroe?” Despite many of these earlier films not standing up well over time, All About Eve (1950) still remains culturally relevant. As the Best Picture for that year, All About Eve focuses on what it takes to get ahead in the theater. Interestingly enough, the heavily Marilyn-influenced TV show, Smash, revealed the same amount of backstabbing in today’s theater world as well.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is pleased to find an endearing fan in Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and hires her to run some of the minutiae of her life. During a surprise party Eve set up for Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), Margo gets drunk and soon learns that her producer, Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), has agreed to audition the beautiful arm-candy of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe) auditions with Margo’s new understudy, Eve. Since this was news to Margo, she starts to recognize the warning signs: Eve is trying to replace her. After all, the papers are touting Eve as an up-and-coming star who fits in the roles better than the “mature” actress that Margo has become. Now Margo is on full alert, but it is already too late. Eve has played the system and is soon recognized for her accomplishments.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 marvelous Marilyn Monroe roles

Bacon #: 2 (Some Like it Hot / Jack Lemmon -> JFK / Kevin Bacon)