An excerpt from “Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era” on "The Night of the Hunter."
April 5 would have been Bette Davis's 104th birthday. I was reminded of this interview I did with her in 1988, which appeared on my CinePad website 10 years later:
When my former Seattle Times editor called me, a few months after I'd moved to Los Angeles, to say he wanted me to interview Bette Davis, I wasn't as thrilled as I probably should have been. I realized it was a rare opportunity -- she was giving only three interviews to promote the paperback version of her book about recovering from her stroke -- but Bette Davis had never been my glass of lemonade.
I just never really got the whole Bette-Davis-As-Icon thing. To me, she was a movie star, a part of Hollywood history (I admired the way she took on the studio bosses when they -- and she -- were at the peak of their powers), but with the exception of All About Eve (where she really used her movie-star mega-wattage as part of the role), I hadn't regarded her as a great actress. I mean, she was no Barbara Stanwyck, who was equally adept as a screwball comedienne, a tragic heroine, or a femme fatale.
But of course, I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to interview a screen legend; there just weren't that many of them left. I remember thinking it was kind of funny and appropriate that she was living on the outskirts of West Hollywood (in the Century House on Havenhurst), mecca to the gay men who really worshipped her. But why did they? Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn't aged well? Or was it that she was Larger Than Life, a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both...
Well, I'll say this: She sure knew how to be Bette Davis. She was cantankerous and flamboyant, but I also thought there was an undercurrent of playfulness to her behavior. Not that I thought she was "performing," or putting on a Bette Davis Act; I think she was probably like this most of the time. But I also think she rose to the occasion, somewhat, because she liked the attention, and liked the feeling that she was communicating -- albeit through me -- to her public.
It was a stellar afternoon...
Call it a bloodbath. Not literally, of course, but it sure felt like one.
It was a Friday afternoon in late spring 1993 at The American Film Institute. The Class of 1992, which had pretty much killed itself making short films ("cycle projects") since starting the program in September, was waiting for a list. Dreading it, too. Because everybody'd known all year that of 168 "Fellows," as AFI calls them --- only 40 (or just 8 across 5 disciplines - directing, producing, cinematography, editing, production design) would be invited back, making that coveted Second Year cut for the opportunity to produce a second year film.
A top secret selection committee debated late into the day. Even I, then Special Projects Coordinator and right hand to the Dean of Studies, didn't know who was meeting. There was tension everywhere, clinging like the humidity of a Midwestern summer, as the committee decided, and the Fellows waited.
All lists of the "greatest" movies are propaganda. They have no deeper significance. It is useless to debate them. Even more useless to quarrel with their ordering of titles: Why is this film #11 and that one only #31? The most interesting lists are those by one person: What are Scorsese's favorites, or Herzog's? The least interesting are those by large-scale voting, for example by IMDb or movie magazines. The most respected poll, the only one I participate in, is the vote taken every 10 years by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, which asks a large number of filmmakers, writers, critics, scholars, archivists and film festival directors.
1. The Night of the Hunter, 1955
That one at least has taken on a canonical aspect. The list evolves slowly. Keaton rises, Chaplin falls. It is eventually decided that "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's finest film. Ozu cracks the top ten. Every ten years the net is thrown out again. The Sight & Sound list at least reflects widespread thinking in what could be called the film establishment, and reflects awareness of the full span of more than a century of cinema.
The IMDb list of "250 Top Movies of All Time" is the best-known and most-quoted of all "best movie" lists. It looks to be weighted toward more recent films, although Keith Simonton, who is in charge over there, tells me they have a mathematical model that somewhat corrects for that. Specifically, it guards against this week's overnight sensation shooting to the top of the list on a wave of fanboy enthusiasm. Still, the IMDb voters are probably much younger on average than the Sight & Sound crowd. To the degree the list merely reflects their own tastes back at them, it tells them what they already know.
As part of its ongoing national effort to lead the nation to discover and rediscover the classics, the American Film Institute (AFI) today announced the 50 greatest American screen legends - the top 25 women and top 25 men naming Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart the number one legends among the women and men.
Q. I have a love for laserdiscs because they are letterboxed (most of the time), but rarely is a tape that way. The only way for me to see them is to have a friend of mine use his laserdisc player and copy the movie for me so I can watch it in its widescreen splendor. Do I have a potential problem with the FBI? (David Ingersoll, Philadelphia)