All About Eve: “A Bumpy Night”

“To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce the film All About Eve”

Don’t worry—I haven’t turned into a film snob on you, I’m just having a little fun.  The above is a slight variation on the film’s opening narrated by Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic who knows where all the bodies are buried.

All About Eve is one of our most celebrated and treasured films.  The American Film Institute lists it as the sixteenth greatest American film ever made.  It was the first film to garner 14 Oscar nominations, and remains one of only three films to do so.  

The film is stacked with high caliber talent from the top of its head to the tip of its toes.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz had just come off winning two Oscars in 1949 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives.  He would repeat that feat with All About Eve, again taking home trophies for directing and screenwriting.

(If you’re wondering, the new film Mank is about Joseph’s brother Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.)

Our Mank adapted Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” into a delicious tale about a group of theater people who are taken in by the outwardly naive but inwardly cunning Eve Harrington.

Mank stocked his story with top-tier acting talent.  Ann Baxter plays Eve, the ambitious social climber.  Claudette Colbert was slated to play the aging diva Margo Channing, but Colbert injured her back before shooting began and Bette Davis fell into the role of her career.

It remains the only film to receive four female acting Oscar nominations— Best Actress for Bette Davis and Ann Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and the wonderfully gruff Thelma Ritter.

Even an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance.

And yet it was supporting actor George Sanders who won the film’s only acting award for his pitch perfect Addison DeWitt.

To top it off, the legendary Edith Head dressed them all.  She won her third of an eventual eight Oscars for costume design.  There’s not a great actress from that era that Head didn’t dress, and she owns more Oscars than any other woman.

The result is a film that nails show business—the egos of the stars who have made it, the desperation of those who haven’t, and the obsessive preoccupation with a woman’s—but not a man’s—age.  

It’s as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.

A few years ago, I had the chance to watch All About Eve on the big screen.  My local cineplex was doing a retrospective on classic films, and I got to see Bette Davis on the big screen.  It was a night I won’t soon forget.

All About Eve is the story of Margo Channing, an egotistical theater star.  She takes an interest in Eve Harrington, whom she (and everyone else) believes to be a naive (and a bit pathetic) fan.  Soon Eve is insinuating herself into Margo’s life Single White Female style, attempting to take over Margo’s friends, her boyfriend Bill, and her career.

Davis is divine as Margo, a woman distressed about her recent fortieth birthday.  She’s still playing twenty-something roles, but she’s no fool.  She sees Eve Harrington and every other upstart nipping at her heels.

Though the American Film Institute named Margo’s quote, “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night,” as the ninth best movie quote of all time, I’m partial to her drunken rant about ageless men.

“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.”

It took guts for Davis to play an actress who knew she was washing up.  Davis herself was forty-two at the time, and in playing Margo Channing, she was facing her biggest fear—the death of her career.  And it is undoubtedly true that despite her success in the film, good roles were few and far between for Davis after Eve.

She had her own upstarts to deal with.

But just like Margo Channing, Bette Davis wasn’t done yet.

Things I’ve Learned from Novels

People used to think reading novels was a waste of time.  Many people still think that, but today video games and smartphones are the poster children for how to waste your time and rot your brain.

When people say they learn a lot from books, they’re usually talking about nonfiction.  These are often serious books with a capital “S.”  Thick biographies of dead presidents or the raft of time management, diet, and self-help books out there.

I’ve got nothing against these books.  I’ve read plenty of them myself.

But I’m talking about what you learn from novels.  And I don’t mean vague, high school English class stuff like empathy, critical thinking, and language. 

Let’s get practical here.

I’ve learned from novels that any good homicide detective or private investigator drinks their coffee black.  It’s a matter of toughness.  In fact, if you ever need to hire a PI to track down your cheating spouse, run the other way if they are soft enough to add cream or sugar to their coffee.

I starting rowing because of Tess Monaghan, the report-turned-private investigator in Laura Lippman’s long-running series.  In the first novel, Tess gets up early every morning and rows alone down the Patapsco river.  While good rowing is a beautiful sight, Tess described herself as moving up the river like a sprawled out beetle.

I didn’t think I could row with grace and efficiency.  But I figured I could row like a beetle.

It goes without saying that Tess Monaghan drinks her coffee black.

Speaking of coffee, the main character in Marisa de los Santos’ novel The Precious One drinks her coffee in the shower.

Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I don’t know anyone who does this in real life but I decided to try it.  I set my coffee on the top of the toilet tank just outside the shower.  After I’d shampooed my hair, I reached out from the behind the shower curtain, brought the mug in and took a sip.

Trust me, there is nothing more luxurious than drinking hot coffee with hot water running down your back.  Kings and queens and movie stars and even Beyonce never had it as good as I do every morning drinking coffee in the shower.

Reader, try it tomorrow. Actually, try it now.  I’ll wait.

I learned about the epic British victory at Dunkirk not from a textbook, but in Suzanne’s Brockmann’s deliciously sexy romantic suspense novels featuring Navy seals.

This is the opposite of homework.

So put down the latest diet book and pick up a novel.  You might learn something as wonderful as drinking coffee in the shower.

Even if, like me, you still can’t bear to drink it black.

The Great Lie: Bette Cedes the Spotlight

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is torn between two very different women:  home and hearth Maggie Patterson and temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak.

Maggie (Bette Davis) is devoted to Peter but refuses to marry him until he stops drinking and gets a job.

Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) likes him just as he is, a wasteful layabout.  Her career comes first, and she’s content to play packed halls and party all night with no thought of children or marriage.

The film opens with Peter waking up with a hangover and discovering he and Sandra ended last night’s particularly raucous party by marrying.

The marriage is a flash of clarity for Peter and the audience—he isn’t torn between two women, he never was.  His heart has always been with Maggie, and without a word to his new wife, he runs to her.  

They both believed they’d marry when he finally grew up.  Maggie waited; he didn’t.

She’s devastated, of course, and Peter’s presence the day after his marriage confuses and hurts her.

Yet in a twist of movie-land fate, Peter discovers he is not technically married to Sandra, as she got the dates mixed up on her divorce and was still married to her first husband during her drunken nuptials with Peter.

To his credit, Peter offers to marry Sandra again when they are both sober and single.  Yet on the day she is a free woman, Sandra travels to Philadelphia to perform, signalling that her career will always come first.

Peter takes this opening and marries Maggie instead, finally becoming the family man she always wanted.

Peter and Maggie live in marital bliss while Sandra stews over losing her man.  It’s not Peter she wants so much as to win the head-to-head competition with Maggie.

Then Peter dies in a plane crash and Sandra turns up pregnant.  (It is now clear why the convoluted marriage-not-marriage plot was necessary.  The hero of our tale is permitted a drunken consummated fake marriage in 1941, but not a drunken one-night stand.)

Here’s where things get interesting—Maggie wants a piece of Peter with her forever.  Sandra wants a career as a concert pianist unencumbered by a child.  So The Great Lie is conceived—Maggie will raise Sandra’s child as her own.  Maggie pays Sandra the bulk of her inheritance from Peter for the privilege of raising Sandra’s son.

The film shines in the scenes between the women.  In the best segment, Maggie and Sandra escape to a private cabin in the woods where Sandra can have the baby in complete privacy and thus pass it off as Maggie’s.  Patient Maggie placates Sandra, who is going mad from the pregnancy and confinement.

I’ve written a lot in this blog about Bette Davis’ skirmishes with other actresses, and her need to hold the spotlight.  It’s all true—she owned it during her lifetime and she would own it now if she were here.  But The Great Lie is the rare Davis film made great by her understated performance.  She is the patient and calm woman any man would want to marry.  

Mary Astor’s Sandra is petulant, fiery, and gets all the best lines.

“I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food!”

The film is a contrast of the two women, and Davis allows Mary Astor to shine in their scenes together.  Watching it I realized that I had never seen any actor—man or woman—steal scenes from Bette Davis the way Mary Astor does in this film.  

People have said that I stole the picture from Bette Davis,” Astor said.  “But that is sheer nonsense.  She handed it to me on a silver platter.”

Mary Astor knew as well as anyone that no one could steal a scene from Bette Davis unless she allowed it.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I like Bette best when she’s bad—but watching her homespun Maggie play off Astor’s stone cold bitch is a true delight.

Mary Astor won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra, and she thanked Bette Davis in her acceptance speech.

The title of the film telegraphs its big twist, and anyone who grew up watching soap operas knows Peter—who was presumed dead without a body—will show up alive before it’s all said and done.  The great lie will be exposed.  But knowing what’s coming doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film, a lovely product of the studio system that doesn’t transcend into legendary status but is a pleasant way to pass a cold winter night.

From, Your Valentine

The origins of Valentine’s Day are murky.  Best I can gather, it began in ancient Rome (as so many things do) as a fertility festival honoring Romulus and Remus, the raised-by-wolves founders of Rome.

Then Christianity came along and hijacked the festival (as it so often does) into the early version of the rose industry’s favorite holiday.

So who was Saint Valentine?  Again, it’s murky.  There are about a dozen recognized Catholic Saint Valentines.  The most popular is probably St. Valentine of Terni, who was beheaded for secretly marrying young Christian couples in defiance of Emperor Claudius II.  Old Claudius thought that young single men made more dedicated soldiers, and didn’t want those pesky wives interfering with his plan for world domination.

But my favorite story is that of Valentine, an imprisoned man who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter.  (On second thought, this might be the plot of a romance novel I read in the early nineties, but either way, let’s continue.)  So the doomed man wrote one final letter to his love and signed it, “From, your Valentine.”

Are you swooning?

Men have been trying to live up to Valentine’s romantically tragic gesture ever since.

Why February?

Well, in addition to the Christians merging the celebration of St. Valentine with the pagan fertility festival, mid-February is the beginning of the mating season for birds, at least according to Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame) who wrote about fowls choosing their mates in February.

And somehow, we got from beheaded priests, doomed lovers, and lusty birds to one of the world’s most reviled holidays.

Couples hate it because it is an opportunity for dramatically different expectations.  One party wants to basically forget the whole thing, the other wants wine, roses, and dinner in a packed Italian restaurant.

And it’s even worse for the uncoupled.  It’s one of the most well-tread movie tropes—the lonely single girl drowning her sorrows in red wine and systematically destroying a box of chocolate and a pint of ice cream in pajamas and fuzzy slippers.  Or maniacally celebrating Galentiene’s Day, a Valentine’s Day alternative where women celebrate their female friendships.  Galentine’s Day has its heart in the right place but just comes across as trying too hard.

So if you want to hate on Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday if there ever was one, I won’t try to talk to you out of it.

But if you strip away the cliched roses, cards, and chocolates, there really is something quite lovely about a day dedicated to romantic love.

So this Valentine’s Day, boot Hallmark out of your holiday.  If, like Chaucer’s birds, you’ve chosen your mate, let them know you love them, no fancy cards, chocolates, or roses required.

And if you’re ever on the way to the gallows, don’t forget to send them one final Valentine.

Mr. Skeffington: Ugly Bette

Mr. Skeffington is a first class melodrama with the fingerprints of the 1940’s all over it.

Bette Davis plays Fanny Trellis, a woman as beautiful on the outside as she is ugly on the inside.  She strings along her many admirers, amusing herself with the way they fall all over themselves competing for her attention.  She dangles the prospect of marriage like bait on a hook, but cares nothing for any of them.

She cares for nothing but herself, her beauty, and her brother.

Her brother, George “Trippy” Trellis is as worthless as she is, and since the death of their parents has squandered the family fortune.

While they put on a brave face for their friends and society, the Trellis siblings are dead broke.

Like it or not, Fanny will have to choose one of her admirers and graduate from a debutante to a wife.

To the surprise and disapproval of everyone, she choses Job Skeffington, a self-made Jewish man high up the ladder in a brokerage firm and Trippy’s boss.  The choice serves two purposes—Skeffington is the richest of her suitors, and their marriage will prevent Skeffington from prosecuting Trippy for embezzlement.

For Fanny, love never enters the equation.

Job Skeffington is a better man than Fanny deserves.  Patient, kind, and reliable, he knows Fanny does not yet love him but believes he can earn her affection over time.

He’s wrong.

When Trippy is killed in World War I, Fanny is inconsolable as his death has made her “sacrifice” in marrying Job pointless.  She torments Job, refusing to act as a proper wife or mother to their daughter.

Fanny maintains her looks as she ages, and still enjoys the attention of all her old (now married) suitors, as well as the affection of younger men.  She basks in the adoration, all the while ignoring the true love of the husband and daughter she leaves at home.

Over a decade into his loveless marriage, Job finally has enough and finds comfort in another woman.  When Fanny finds out she divorces him, relieved to be rid of him and her daughter.

But fate plays a cruel trick on Fanny.  She contracts diphtheria and though she recovers, the illness robs her of her most prized possession—her beauty.  She ages well beyond her time and loses her hair.  Her outside appearance finally matches her cruel and careless heart.

Davis sunk her teeth into the role.  At thirty-six, she made herself over into a fifty-year-old scarred former beauty.  She was always willing to do anything for a role, and even pushed the makeup artist to make her appearance even more devastating.  When the director protested that she looked too hideous, she waved him off.

“My audience likes to see me do this sort of thing,” she told him.

Fanny is humbled by the loss of her looks.  All the male attention disappears overnight, and she cannot bear the shocked looks when people see her new appearance.  She becomes a recluse, and having pushed Job and her daughter away, there is no one left to care.

Meanwhile, Job has been in his own hell.  Living in Europe after the divorce, he is rounded up by the Nazis and spends time in a concentration camp.

At the end of the film, he returns to Fanny, blind and broken.  

Fanny is finally able to appreciate what a fine man she had in Job.  And her vanity is still in place—his blindness is a boon to her, as he will always remember her as beautiful, and will literally never see what she has become.

The film ends with their heartfelt reconciliation and the promise that they will finally have a two-way marriage filled with love and mutual respect. 

Offscreen, things didn’t end so peacefully.  Davis was grieving the death of her second husband, who had collapsed in the street and died without warning.  She lashed out and fought constantly with the directors, the screenwriters, and the producers.  

She also had an affair with the director.

Director Vincent Sherman could not reign Davis in, and she meddled in everything—the script, the directing, the lighting.  Her constant interference had the film dragging on months behind schedule.  

Jack Warner cornered writers (and brothers) Julius and Philip Epstein and demanded to know why the film was so far behind schedule.

“Because Bette Davis is a slow director,” they told him.

Production manager Frank Mattison’s daily notes from the filming are more dramatic than half the shows on television:

“We are in somewhat of a dilemma concerning the matter of our producers refusing to have anything to do with the picture.  Miss Davis is not only the director, but she is now the producer also.” 

Poor Vincent Sherman had directed Davis in two consecutive years— first in her epic catfight with Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance and now in Skeffington.  Davis had been beaten him down into submission.

“The only way I could finish the picture was by having an affair with her,” he said.  

Sherman ended both their professional and personal relationship when the film wrapped.

The result was another Oscar nomination, Bette Davis’ seventh.

And another bridge burned.

First into the Tank

I have so much television to catch up on. 

People keep giving me wonderful recommendations.  My friend Susan has been telling me for years to watch Vikings and Game of Thrones.  Nina, who never watches anything (and thus her recommendations carry triple weight) swears by Virgin River.  There’s The Crown, Emily In Paris, and Jack Ryan.

I’m obsessed with Outlander and haven’t yet made time for Season Five.

I know I would love most or all of these shows.  But lately, every time I’m not watching a movie I find myself turning to a little old Friday night network show I have always loved.

Move over Bridgerton, I’m watching Shark Tank.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the premise is simple.  Fledgling entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of investors (the most famous is Mark Cuban) and if interested, the investors will make them an offer and (ideally) fight one another for a deal.

Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve heard of at least a few of the products.  There’s the Scrub Daddy, the tough kitchen sponge you’ve probably got on your sink.  There’s the Squatty Potty, Bombas Socks, and Cousins Main Lobster Food Trucks.

In a time of exceptional cynicism, Shark Tank is a breath of optimistic air.

The show celebrates hustle, ingenuity, and hard work.  The contestants are full of—what’s the word for it?

I know:  Moxie.

It’s the best rendering of the American Dream—the version we haven’t heard much about lately on the evening news.  It reminds us that in America, with a little of that moxie, you can build a better mousetrap in your basement and change your life.

And maybe make someone’s else life—and the world—a little better.

Already this season I watched a teenage boy and his dad pitch a plastic cup that holds leftover paint.  They built the prototype in their basement and already have it on the shelves in some stores.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants designed a cap that allows parents to easily apply diaper cream to their babies.  The woman—whose native language is not English—read a book on how to apply for a patent for her invention.  A man pitched meatless jerky made from mushrooms that I would never have tried if not for the enthusiastic reaction of the sharks.

I went to buy some on Amazon—sold out.

The products are fun, but the real charm of the show is the interaction of the sharks (the investors) with the contestants and one another.

The sharks are brutally honest—it is their own money they’re putting on the line when they invest—but never mean-spirited. 

When someone comes in asking for half-a-million bucks for two percent of their company that’s barely sold a thing, head shark Kevin O’Leary (a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful) brings them right back down to earth.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and QVC Queen Lori Greiner have an almost sibling rivalry.  Cuban rarely loses a deal when he really wants the product, and exasperates Lori when she can’t lure a contestant away from his fame with a better deal.  Yet they often go in on deals together and poke fun at one another.

All the sharks rib and joke, but get down to business when there’s a potential moneymaker on the carpet.

The motto of the sharks—and the show—could be:   Work Hard, Play Hard, and Good Things Will Happen.

Words we all can live by.

So Virgin River and Game of Thrones are just going to have to wait.  Right now I’ve got to find out if this guy with a huge mustache is going to get a deal for his eco-friendly ski wax….

The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance

Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.

Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater.  Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.

In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first.  In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role.  It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.

Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role.  But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.

Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound.  She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.

So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man.  When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant.  Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her.  Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans. 

Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child.  Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia.  On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.

The antics onset leaked into the newspapers.  On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.” 

Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints.  Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.

In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it.  On-set, at least.  Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”

Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified.  She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.

As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic.  They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.

It wasn’t far from the truth. 

“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

But the tension between them works onscreen.

It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women.  This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe. 

Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship.  Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy.  In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.

In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that.  Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults. 

Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.

Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.

Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.

The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love.  Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all.  Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke.  Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.

In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.

Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.

Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…

Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.

Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!

So one cannot have both critical and commercial success.  Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.

In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”

Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming.  A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.

Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.

As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”

Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.

Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take.  Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.

In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.

The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.

And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.

My Clothes Are Turning to Rags

When is the moment? 

You know, the moment when a piece of cloth goes from being a beloved t-shirt to something you use to dry off the car?

When do clothes becomes rags?

Is it when jeans are essentially worn away in the thighs?  When you can hold a t-shirt up to the light and see through it?  When a sweatshirt is coming apart at the cuffs?  When heels are worn away from socks, and the elastic in running shorts is stretched to hell?

By any reasonable definition, my 2020 wardrobe is in tatters.

I can’t blame the clothes.  Five-dollar Target t-shirts and Old Navy jeans were never designed for the gauntlet I put them through this past year.

No one would ever accuse me of being a slave to fashion or variety.  Back when I went into the office, I’d rotate through a stable of trousers and blouses suitable for a professional.  Outside the office I wore shorts and jeans.  Cute matching workout clothes have never been my priority—just ask my rowing club.

But left completely to my own devices for the past year, I wake up every morning and pull on my favorite pair of jeans, socks, t-shirt, and/or sweater.  I’m not one to spend the day in my pajamas.

Your mileage may vary, but my first rule of pandemic life is to always get dressed.

The second rule is that the clothes be clean.  I wear jeans for three days max, t-shirts one or two.  Socks get changed every day.  Sweatshirts and sweaters can be worn all week if the t-shirt underneath changes.  And since I’m always home, I can throw a load of laundry in anytime.

So what happens when you’re constantly washing clothes and your instinct is to always put on your favorite clean outfit?

You wear the same two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, one sweater and five pairs of socks.

And you wash the same two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, one sweater and five pairs of socks.

EVERY WEEK FOR A YEAR.

I know, I know….this one for sure has got to go….but it’s just so soft…..

And in the end, you have the ugliest but most comfortable wardrobe you can imagine—ripped and faded shirts so soft they’re like wearing blankets, threadbare jeans that fit like they were custom made.  Socks that mold to the shape of your foot, except for the heel, which has worn away.

And with no one around to tell you you’re turning into a modern-day Miss Havisham, you live in clothing bliss.

Until your perfect wardrobe disintegrates under the grind of fifty-two washings and your bubble bursts.

I know I need to order some new jeans from Old Navy and wear the other socks and t-shirts in my drawer.

Then again, do my thighs and heels really need to be fully covered if I’m not leaving the house? I think not. 

Jezebel: “Triumph of Bitchery”

It’s hard to pick Bette Davis’ best film, but Jezebel will always be in the conversation.  Davis plays Julie Marsden, a headstrong southern belle living in 1850’s New Orleans.  She’s rich and beautiful and she knows it.  She’s engaged to Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. 

She’s shrewish and obstinate—interrupting Pres at work and refusing to mind his orders.  But when she wears a red satin dress to a ball when convention mandates unmarried women wear white, she pushes Pres too far.  She wears the dress in a fit of pique to embarrass him, but ends up humiliating only herself.

Pres walks out on her, but Julie is confident he will return. 

A year passes and the plot thickens when a wave of yellow fever breaks out. 

I’d seen Jezebel twice before I viewed it for this blog.  I remembered Julie’s red dress, her stubborn pride, and the quaint southern customs.  The yellow fever subplot is critical to the film’s ending, but otherwise I didn’t remember the details.

But watching this time, during our own pandemic, every throwaway line about yellow fever sent shivers of recognition up my spine.

Our first inkling that something is amiss is a scene in a bar where men discuss the fever.  One says he takes a shot every time the death wagon rolls by, and that’s why he’s drunk.  Another says you can’t catch the fever if you’re drunk.  And yet another says that there are many more cases than reported because doctors don’t want to diagnose yellow fever and cause panic.

Buck Cantrell dismisses their concerns.  “Ain’t anymore yellow fever than this time last year.  You never hear fever talk in racing season, do you?  Why?  ‘Cause folks got something better to talk about.”

Sound familiar?

The part of Dr. Fauci is played by Dr. Livingston, the forward-thinking doctor who urges Julie and her Aunt Belle to leave New Orleans for their plantation.

He tells them, “The city’s not going to be so pleasant.  No parties, theaters liable to be closed as a precautionary measure.”

Julie doesn’t want to leave, dismissing the doctor as a fearmonger, but Aunt Belle remembers the last outbreak in 1830, and fears the worst.

In the end, they go to their Halcyon plantation

And finally, Pres returns—but with a Yankee bride.

Julie is devastated but not defeated.  She throws a party, scheming all the while to make Pres jealous and ultimately get him back.

She eggs on Buck Cantrell, who plays the part of an anti-masker. 

You see, it isn’t just the yellow fever that echoes today.  The film is set about a decade before the Civil War, but the country is already deeply divided between North and South.  When Pres returns after time up North with his Yankee wife, the cultural clash is on full display.

Each night, cannons boom across New Orleans.

Amy—the Yankee wife—asks why, and Cantrell tells her “It starts air currents to carry the fever away.”

Pres retorts, “They might better drain the swamps and clean up the city.”

“Is that what they do in Yankee land?” Cantrell sneers.

“They do.”

When Pres insinuates that the South might learn something from the North on handling the epidemic, Cantrell all but accuses Pres of betraying his Southern roots.

As the fever spreads, the lockdowns tighten.  Armed guards prevent anyone from going into or out of New Orleans.  We see a man shot dead for breaking the fever line.

They begin shipping fever patients off to Lazaret Island.  They won’t have a chance, and will die alone in filthy conditions, but they won’t spread the fever to others.

New Orleans descends into chaos.  Households lying about having the fever so they won’t be sent away, fires in the streets, wagonloads of dead and sick carried out each day.

When Pres passes out in a bar, the crowd disperses in fear.  No one will help the man they’ve branded a “yellow jack.”

Julie crosses the fever line in the dead of night to get to Pres, and takes care of him as he slips into delirium.

Pres’ brother is outraged when Dr. Livingston reports Pres’ condition to the authorities, thus condemning him to a death sentence at Lazaret Island.

Dr. Livingston defends his decision by asking, “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans if folks thought there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”

We know all too well.

The film ends with Julie accompanying Pres to Lazaret Island.  She has convinced Amy—and the doctor—that she should be allowed to nurse him back to health or die trying.  She’s more equipped than Pres’ wife to deal with the slaves, the Creole language, and the down and dirty fighting for food and water that will be required for Pres to survive the fever and Lazaret Island. 

She convinces Amy that she needs to redeem herself for the wicked things she’s done in trying to steal Pres away from her.  His wife reluctantly agrees, and on one level the film ends on a note of self-sacrifice.

But…Bette Davis herself and director William Wyler make the ending more complicated than a simple redemption story.  For though Julie has likely sentenced herself to death, she will be the one at Pres’ side in the end.

She has won.

It is, as writer Edmund Goulding said, “the triumph of bitchery.”

And it’s marvelous.

Privileges of Adulthood

Forging my own path

Figuring out what you do and do not like, and leaning into the former, is one of the great privileges of adulthood.

-Brett McKay, Art of Manliness

The other day my mother was visiting, and she was ordering me around.  We were just kidding, and I said, “This is my house, so I make the rules.”

(Side note:  I would not recommend saying that to your mother, no matter your age, no matter that she knew it was a joke, and no matter that we were in my house where I do make the rules.)  

All jokes aside, I got to thinking about it later.  It is my house.  I do make the rules.

Welcome to the privileges of adulthood.

Adulthood gets a bad rap.  I’ve written before on this blog my disdain for the word “adulting” when used by younger people to give themselves a pat on the back for doing some mundane task like washing dishes.  Don’t worry, I won’t go down that road again.

Childhood is often idealized.  Don’t get me wrong, mine was near perfect.  But it doesn’t beat adulthood.

This sentiment is best described in the last bit of a puff piece from Today in 2018.  Savannah Guthrie interviews Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein, the stars of the television show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

You can watch the entire video if you’d like, but the bit relevant to our discussion today comes at 6:00 into the video and lasts less than a minute.

Guthrie:  Is there one luxury you have now that you would not want to give up?

Brosnahan gives the practical answer of a dishwasher.  But Alex Borstein, who has been wise-cracking her way through the interview, gives a surprisingly profound answer.

Borstein:  I am the grownup and I would never go back.  I get to make all the decisions.  I get to decide what’s in my fridge and my pantry, what time we get up.  If I’m too tired, then maybe the kids just don’t go to school that day.  ‘Cause I get to decide.  I’m in charge. 

And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  No matter how great my childhood was, I still had to eat Sloppy Joe sandwiches and tuna boats.  When my mother thought I was sleeping too late, she ran the vacuum cleaner in my room. 

But I got my license for adulthood long ago, and I’ve been the one driving for so long that I would never again want to be relegated to the back seat. 

I’ve got a quicker trigger finger these days.  When I was a teenager, I’d nearly always stick with a film or a novel until the bitter end.  Oftentimes, something that started out slow surprised me.  Now, that rarely happens.  I know what I like, and when I see something that isn’t it, I’m quick to turn it off.

I will never eat another Sloppy Joe. I will never solve another calculus problem.

Life’s too short and I’m not in school anymore.

I can spend my time as I like, reading the books I like, writing the things I like, wasting an afternoon the way I like.

Sure, I have to go to work, and clean the house, and pay my taxes. If I waste that free afternoon watching You Tube videos instead of taking a hike, I have no one to blame but myself.  If something breaks, I have to fix it.  If I run out of money, I have to make more or go without.

As Spider Man’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But I get to do all these things on my terms, in my own way.  We adults call our own shots.

Except for the taxes, of course.

None of us gets to choose our death or taxes.