Joseph L. Mankiewicz
All About Eve
I get so much pleasure from the interplay between Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in this film. My favorite thing is that long party sequence. I’m struck by the challenge of shooting something like that, of tracking all the people on-screen and letting the drama unfold slowly over an extended period of time. There’s something thrilling about the progression of Davis’s character into drunken sloppiness, as she watches her lover become more and more fascinated with this younger woman. Her emotional unraveling, and the way the camera follows Davis’s performance, shows what can happen when a great director gets to work with a great actor.
All That Jazz
Magical realism is very important to me, and here you have some wonderful fantasy sequences—including Roy Scheider talking to Death, played by Jessica Lange. And there’s so much humor in this movie. It’s very serious on one level, because the protagonist is reflecting on his own mortality and the constant presence of death in his life, but it’s also very funny. Even when the hero is having a heart attack, the movie can’t help but break into a bit of musical theater! And as someone who used to dance before becoming a filmmaker, I’m in love with the choreography—how Scheider watches it all happening and participates in it, and how sexy it is. The dancing is very of the period—it’s maybe even a little dated—but the movie itself is not. It completely holds up.
The music is so beautiful, and the people are so beautiful. I first saw this as a very young kid, and I just remember being captivated by the sensuality of the story and those moments with everyone dancing in the street. This movie opened up my world—I’d never seen black people’s lives portrayed in such an artistic, almost New Wave-y style. And I don’t know if I’d ever seen a film about black people that was this romantic.
Don’t Look Now
As a moviegoer, one of my favorite things is encountering a vision that you don’t understand. I love the scenario of this man having visions he has to keep secret from his wife, who’s been seeking out psychics to help access their dead child. That image of the funeral boat going down the canal haunts me. It’s spooky and gorgeous at the same time. I’m drawn to horror movies that treat the genre in an unusual way. And of course, this movie has one of the greatest love scenes of all time—it’s incredible to see that level of intimacy on the screen.
Do the Right Thing
The sense of place is what I cherish. I love the Greek chorus assembled out of all these characters in the neighborhood, and how specific each of them is. Spike’s work was a revelation for me, and I had been a fan since his first film. With Do the Right Thing, it felt like he was orchestrating his masterpiece—it’s so musical, so vibrant, and so brave.
I first saw this film when I started seeking out movies directed by women. This one stood out. There’s something so believable about that lead character—she’s a teenager I can understand. I loved her anger and her passion, and I was touched by her relationship with her mother. And I find Michael Fassbender’s performance so creepy in the midst of all this mundaneness, which Andrea Arnold depicts in such a raw and powerful way.
My parents got divorced when I was about eight, and after that I moved with my mother from St. Louis to Boston. I became her movie pal, and she would take me to some very inappropriate movies! This was one of them. The Graduate has one of my favorite montages ever—that one where Dustin Hoffman jumps off a diving board and lands on Anne Bancroft’s chest! It’s sexy and beautiful, but it also captures how this young man spirals into a state of jadedness over the course of a summer.
Harold and Maude
I love everything about this movie, from the way Bud Cort’s character is introduced at the beginning as he’s staging his own suicide to how he finds this unexpected, startling love with a much older woman. A perfect movie.
When I’m thinking about what draws me to some of these films, it’s really my love of watching great characters experiencing some kind of break with reality. And this movie illustrates that. First of all, I love the idea of someone trying to sell their first-born child to the devil for an acting part. Insane! And then the character of Rosemary, embodied beautifully by Mia Farrow, is so compelling. You see how a woman can lose herself in the process of protecting her child. It feels accurate to the experience of being pregnant.
This was the first political film I ever saw that had strong genre elements. I saw it when I was a teenager, so the story was quite obscure to me, and yet I fell into it because I was so enthralled by the pacing. It’s a brilliant portrait of what it means to be pushed into telling something other than the truth. I found myself riveted by all the different perspectives that can inform how we understand a single event.
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…