Judy, Marlene and the Elusive Oscar: A Chat with Izzy, the Creator of Be Kind Rewind

BeKindRewind

A glimpse at Izzy, the creator of Be Kind Rewind. Illustrations by Alex Kittle.

Not long before I spent my first night in the Oscar press room, a remarkably insightful show about the ceremony and the history of its Best Actress category premiered online. Featured on the YouTube channel entitled Be Kind Rewind, the series delves into the studio politics and media narratives that hold considerable sway in determining the winner of each year, while illuminating the extraordinary and often undervalued work of women, particularly those who went home empty-handed. Since its debut in January of 2018, Be Kind Rewind has released 37 episodes thus far (a few of which are embedded below), and they are all instantly addictive, splendidly crafted analyses that rank among the finest video essays I’ve seen. Aside from examining the Best Actress contenders for a specific year, other episodes have focused on such topics as the #OscarsSoWhite movement, the chameleon-like genius of Toni Collette and the revealing doppelgänger motif in the 1946 Bette Davis classic, “A Stolen Life.”

This past February’s telecast marked my third year covering the Academy Awards for RogerEbert.com, and once large indoor gatherings of people can be permitted again, it is my hope that the creator of Be Kind Rewind—who currently goes by the name Izzy to preserve her privacy—will be among the knowledgeable cinephiles occupying future Oscar press rooms. Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of chatting on the phone with Izzy about her approach to creating video essays, her conflicted feelings about the historic 2020 Oscars and her aspirations for the future. We also found time to discuss some of our very favorite performances in cinema, especially those of screen icons Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich, neither of whom received a Best Actress Oscar.

What initially drew you to the analytical art of video essays? Were there any you had been inspired by prior to making your own?

Oddly enough, no. I wasn’t really familiar with video essays as a format until after I started making them. I had primarily used the podcast “You Must Remember This” as an inspiration because I had heard an interview with its host, Karina Longworth, where she spoke about how her process basically boiled down to her research, her narration and a microphone. Of course, it is much more complicated than that, but at the very bare bones level, that’s all she needed. Coming from a video background and having worked in digital media before, I just figured that I could do that too. I could do the research, get a microphone and use my voice to do the same thing, but put my own spin on it through video because that’s what I know the best. It was only after I started working on them that I got introduced to the videos of Lindsay Ellis and other people who are all thankfully in my life now. I’m a regular viewer of their channels.

What are the benefits of a video essay contrasted with a written one?

I personally love watching videos more than reading criticism because so often, I find that the benefit is in the details. You can talk about the magic that someone brings to the screen as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you need to see it to understand what somebody is talking about, and that’s what I try to do. I know there are some limitations, such as the fact that due to copyright law, you can’t include a full scene in your video. But even with B-roll, it can provide a little window into the beautiful things that people bring to the screen and some of the wonderful imagery we have throughout cinematic history. I would love to eventually transition into documentaries. I have no idea how to do that—I’d love for somebody to give me a pile of money to do that [laughs]—but I think this is good practice in how to formulate your ideas through a visual medium.

Raising money is an essential step in taking that full leap into filmmaking, yet your two most recent videos about the 1963 Best Actress Oscar race, taken together, are essentially a feature-length documentary.

Yeah, definitely. Distribution is also a challenge because there is a misconception that work that can be found easily online is inferior in some way. I’ve seen so many reputable critics make fun of YouTube because they think it’s only comprised of teenagers blogging, which to a large degree, is true. [laughs] There are also wonderful critics and other people who put together some of the best art and video we’ve seen in the past couple of years, and it’s just on YouTube. I hope that it can continue to grow into something that people take more seriously.

Why does the Best Actress category hold such fascination for you?

The way that I sort of started as a cinephile was through following the careers of actresses. If I watched a movie starring Bette Davis—and I love Bette Davis—I would decide to watch all of her movies. That’s how I became introduced to different filmmakers, different writers, different genres—all through simply wanting to explore one person’s filmography. Actresses have been my focus ever since. I’ve used them as my lens. When I was thinking about the kinds of videos that I would want to make, I prioritized things that I wanted to watch, and since these women are my lens, I decided that they would be a good place to focus my energy and enable me to talk about things that I love to explore.

The first video of your’s that I viewed was about the 1965 Oscar awarded to Julie Andrews, whom I recently interviewed. To me, this episode illuminates a central aim of your series, which is to champion the vital work often overshadowed by hurtful media narratives.

It’s so true. I’ve always been interested in keeping film history alive, and the more that I’ve been working on this channel, the more I’ve noticed that the stories that have remained present in our popular consciousness are not the ones that are particularly empowering for women. So I’ve tried to reframe the moments that are more scandalous to not only make them more realistic and less reality show-esque, but also to give the women behind those stories the credit that they’ve often failed to get in a lot of ways.

I loved that you highlighted Andrews’ skill in delivering a “100% sarcastic lullaby” in “Mary Poppins,” which is the sort of achievement more people should be discussing…

Exactly! I think when you watch the various videos that are on YouTube about the moment when Andrews won—beating Audrey Hepburn, who played the role Andrews originated in “My Fair Lady”—you realize that people have asked her about it a million times, and they always make assumptions like, “Oh, you must hate Hepburn,” which isn’t at all the case. When you go back and watch “My Fair Lady,” the film is so fun and Hepburn is really great in that role. I don’t think it’s fair to diminish that performance just because of an issue that wasn’t even really her fault. I just want to make sure that there’s a broader picture being shown on topics like that.

I asked Olivia Colman a question in the press room after she won for “The Favourite,” and though she was too flustered to answer, I took the opportunity to plug one of her lesser known films (“Tyrannosaur”) in my question, which she appreciated. How would you approach Oscar press room questions?

Oh gosh, I haven’t thought about that, honestly. I would love to do something similar to what you were doing. I get really tired of the routine questions, like, “How do you feel? Was this surprising?” Those don’t really illuminate anything. I think getting back to methods that actors utilized when approaching roles is much more interesting, and I feel like we have gotten away from that fairly recently in some respects. On the other hand, right after someone wins an award, it’s such a different moment for them. They probably don’t want to think super-deeply about anything either. One of the highlights of their lives just happened, and they’re not ready to give a Barbara Walters-style interview, so I’d probably have to give it a little bit of thought.

Does the fact that “no one who you want to see win usually ends up winning,” which you mentioned in your Olivia Colman video, further drive your interest in this category?

Yeah, sort of indirectly, because I think so often winning has a lot more to do with politics, with money and with the zeitgeist than it does with the performance itself. I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that this is a purely qualitative judgment. There are so many other factors, and so oftentimes my favorite performance—which is pretty much judged solely by what resonated with me the most, since I’m not influenced by advertisers or anything like that—is different than the people that have a much higher stake in this race, for lack of a better word. It ends up being different most of the time, but that’s kind of okay. I usually don’t have anger about it and I don’t think anyone should spend their time being upset about something like this. [laughs]

How have you gone about your in-depth research process spanning a century of media coverage?

I have access to a couple of different archives that are great. Newspapers.com is amazing just for narrowing down your search, and then there are some online archives of old photoplays and things like that. Thankfully, I still have access to JSTOR through my school, so I can search in an academic context as well. Then I search around for books that might be relevant. I think that books are generally the best way to go about things because they’ve already done the work in combing through what’s rumor and what’s not, for the most part. So I’ll check a good book, look through its sources and read those to see what I can dig up.

Has there been anything you’ve come across that subverted your perspective on a particular subject?

That’s a good question. I guess I’m always a little bit surprised because I never really go in with an agenda, except for the “Feud” video, because I knew what I was going to do with that one pretty early. [laughs] But I try not to go in with any expectations. I like to gradually find the strands of a story and see what common themes I’m picking up in different sources. I guess I am always a little bit surprised and let the story build itself as opposed to thinking one thing and needing it come out a certain way or discovering that it’s a different thing altogether.

You’ve clearly cultivated an understanding of pacing and timing, as evidenced in your blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags like the rainbow that materializes over Joan Crawford in the “Feud” video, or the repetition of a humorous expletive in the episode on “Little Women.”

I genuinely have no idea how I’ve developed that sense because I’ve never taken an editing class. I am totally self-taught on all of this stuff. Editing is also the thing that I feel a little less confident about because I am self-taught, and I know there are so many tricks that I am missing that I think could improve the videos. I also don’t have an editor, and I know a lot of other people online do, so I am constantly trying to improve on that front. That is super-vital. The visual gags are part of what makes video essays so unique and interesting, and that’s always a thing that I want to be improving upon.

For me, developing a sense of comic timing in the edit comes from consuming a lot of videos. I find that when you cut something a little prematurely, it can be really funny. There’s a Twitter account that features random videos where someone will do something really crazy and then the screen suddenly gets cut off at the last second of the video. Those moments are always so funny to me. It’s become my goal to replicate little bits of humor that are so bizarre but just work for some reason.

Not enough is written about the Oscar-winning female editors behind acclaimed male directors, such as Verna Fields (“Jaws”), Thelma Schoonmaker (“Raging Bull”) and Anne V. Coates (“Lawrence of Arabia”).

Absolutely. I was actually thinking about this just recently while watching a video about contemporary women filmmakers on Kanopy. It talked about a lot of those editors and how so many of them were so experienced when they were assigned to movies like “Jaws” to help newcomers like Steven Spielberg make their movies. The joke is always that the editor makes the movie, so how much of these first-time successes from these male filmmakers were actually really pushed along by women? It’s an interesting question, for sure.

Your analysis in the “Feud” video of how age has been prohibitive for women in terms of receiving deserved Oscar attention was fresh in my mind when I saw 56-year-old Marlene Dietrich—the woman who coined the term “deathbed award”—give one of the most astonishing performances in all of cinema in Billy Wilder’s 1957 masterwork, “Witness for the Prosecution.” The fact she failed to receive an Oscar nomination is outrageous. Why do you count Dietrich among your designated “goddesses”?

I think I owe her for everything. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to choose film as a major. I thought that it was a hobby because it didn’t seem very practical. So I spent all of my spare time thinking about movies and watching old movies while feeling very underwhelmed with political science, which is the major that I had chosen. When I decided not to pursue political science almost immediately after graduating, I knew that I wanted to do something with video but I didn’t know what. I was in Berlin at the time, and decided that since I didn’t know very much about Marlene Dietrich, I should watch all of her movies.

I ended up becoming obsessed with her, and did tours around Berlin looking at the various sites where she previously had been. Then I went to the Berlin Film Museum [Deutsche Kinemathek], and they basically have all of her stuff. There is an entire floor dedicated to her costumes and props and things like that. It was the first time that I had been in a physical space—as opposed to just being online—where I realized, ‘Oh my god, other people are interested in this. It’s valid to want to talk about it and preserve it.’ I realized there are jobs I could find that would actually allow me to be passionate about cinema and survive.

Because of Dietrich and my experience of being in that space devoted to her work, I realized that I needed to try making something of my own. It was about a week later when I came up with an idea for creating the Be Kind Rewind videos, so to me, Dietrich was the genesis of everything. The first video I made was about her, which I never put online because I was testing stuff out. I definitely want to make a new video about her, I just haven’t found the right topic yet, but it’s always on my mind. She is everything to me, and I love “Witness for the Prosecution.” I know she was very upset about not getting a nomination for that.

What was the first Dietrich performance that you saw?

The first movie I saw of her’s was actually another Billy Wilder movie called “A Foreign Affair.” Before that film, I just knew what people thought of Dietrich and I didn’t really get it because I hadn’t really seen any of her work. But when I watched that first number where she slinks into a bar in this glittery dress and talk-sings a song while literally seducing everyone around her, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this woman is incredible.’ She is so talented in such a specific way that I immediately needed to see more of what she’s capable of doing. I went straight into her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg after that.

There is a scene in their first American movie, 1930’s “Morocco,” where she steps onstage in a suit, much to the bewilderment of the audience, but by the time she kisses a woman in the crowd, everyone in the room is applauding her. It’s a revolutionary instance of bisexual representation that inspired fellow icons like David Bowie, who shares her final scenes on film in 1978’s “Just a Gigolo.”

She really pioneered it in a mainstream way in the United States. She came up as an artist in Berlin during the ’20s, where that was pretty par for the course and not necessarily subversive in any way, but the fact she came over to America and did it here—breaking the norms even by just wearing pants—is amazing. I love thinking about how the press reacted to her and how bold it was for her to come over here and do that on film. That scene in “Morocco” happens within the first ten minutes of the movie, so that was America’s introduction to her, and the fact that audiences were like, ‘Yes please, more of that,’ is so fascinating. I really appreciate her for being this subversive figure who stuck to it and made it a part of her persona as opposed to letting it survive on the margins of her identity. It was always centered.

What was your reaction to Dietrich’s performance in “Witness for the Prosecution”?

It’s incredible. There were moments I was like, ‘Why do I know this actress? Who is this?’ [laughs] I agree there was a snub there, but I imagine it was because she probably would’ve been in the Supporting Actress race and wouldn’t have liked that categorization. The word of mouth aspect is also important in things like Oscar races, and the studio’s reluctance to spread the word about her work definitely played against her. I was actually just on a podcast that did a deep dive into the Supporting Actress category for that year. Miyoshi Umeki won for “Sayonara” while Joanne Woodward won Best Actress for “The Three Faces of Eve.” Generally speaking, for that era, there’s a big investment in the future. The Academy was often awarding people who could star in a bunch of stuff moving forward, and you’re not likely to do that if you’re a 56-year-old actress in the 1950s.

Your excellent video, “The Judy Companion,” brought the context to Judy Garland’s career that was conspicuously lacking from last year’s Oscar-winning biopic, “Judy.” Would you say Renée Zellweger’s Best Actress win was a make-up for Garland’s notorious loss for 1954’s “A Star is Born”?

It’s hard to say. I’ve heard a lot of people say that, but I also feel like Renée’s story is a pretty standard comeback narrative. The thing is, no one was talking about Judy Garland at all during the awards season except when people were just straight up asking Renée about her. At least from a mainstream press perspective, it doesn’t feel like people were very interested in reliving the era of Judy Garland or talking about her in any deep way. The discussion was just about Renée and where she had been for the past couple of years.

The choice to have Zellweger sing rather than lip sync to Garland makes the film more about the actor showing off rather than channeling the person she is portraying.

Oddly enough, through making these videos for my channel, I’ve become a real anti-biopic kind of person. I spend so much time thinking about the lives of these women and trying to portray them correctly, or at least fairly, and I think it’s very hard to do that well in a way that’s interesting as a narrative form because so often these stories don’t end. They don’t have a specifically good arc. In most cases, the only honest ending would be, “And then they kept living…” Biopics have also changed the way we think about acting, which is what I discussed in my video about Sissy Spacek portraying Loretta Lynn.

We talk about how well the actor mimicked somebody’s actions versus what they organically came up with themselves to define a new character. I’m just not attracted to a diet representation of Judy Garland. That doesn’t interest me very much because I have Judy Garland, and she already did what she did better than anybody else ever could, so I just don’t need it. But I would love to see Renée try on something that she came up with and put her heart and soul into creating a new person. That is what interests me. Over time, I’ve become less and less apt to even watch those movies. It’s just harder for me now than it was before.

Though I had grown up loving “The Wizard of Oz,” the film that deepened my interest in Garland’s career was Robert Allan Ackerman’s 2001 TV biopic, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” The film’s star, Judy Davis—who delivers a true tour de force while brilliantly lip syncing to Garland’s musical performances—and Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, ensured that the picture was much more truthful.

I agree that “Me and My Shadows” is, in general, a much better portrayal. I liked Judy Davis’ performance a lot better, and I also agree that the fact that she lip synced was way better because I felt exactly the same way you did. When Judy opens her mouth in “Judy,” you’re expecting to hear this voice that is going to justify the fact that everybody needs her to be onstage and is struggling to making this possible. Then Judy sings, and you just hear Renée Zellweger. You’re like, ‘Okay, she’s not bad, but not worth rushing out onstage either.’ The 2001 film is also much longer, so it has more space to contextualize everything and to give more perspective on how vast her career was beyond “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s always frustrating to me that people think that “The Wizard of Oz” was this crowning achievement when, for most of her career, it really wasn’t. 

Garland’s performance in “A Star is Born” is also one of the greatest ever captured on film. Would you say it’s one of your all-time favorites as well?

It absolutely is. I actually have a still of the film framed in my bedroom. Those songs do so much to expose why Judy was such an incredible performer, because each of them reveal a different skill set that she had. There’s one where she’s literally kneeling on the floor singing to James Mason, and that is equally as engaging as when she is building herself different costumes out of her living room set to entertain him. It’s just as entertaining as when she’s doing a full tap number, so there’s all these different things that are revealed in each of the songs.

In “The Man That Got Away,” she’s standing there singing by herself while being framed by this whole brass band, and it’s so gorgeous. She doesn’t need anything big and crazy to expose the nuances that she brings to every song, and this is paired with her unsung dramatic capability, which doesn’t get talked about enough. There’s that scene where she goes to the dressing room in between filming takes of a production number, and she breaks down while talking about how hard it is to deal with someone who is suffering from addiction. You can just feel how personal that moment is for her, obviously because of what was going on in her real life at the time. The film is so raw, but also so joyous. All of those elements together make it very special to me.

The decision to frame that scene with her performing “Lose That Long Face”, forcing her to snap on a smile after her breakdown, turns the entire extraordinary sequence into perhaps the ultimate microcosm of her life.

Yes. That gets me every time. She’s covered in tears and then has to sing that song with a big smile. It’s so devastating.

I enjoyed your comparative piece on the various screen versions of “A Star is Born,” and when I wrote my own analysis of them, I found that Garland seemed to haunt every version, even the ones that preceded her own.

That’s partially because she’s the most famous person to have endured a tragedy like that. It’s interesting how 1932’s “What Price Hollywood?” and 1937’s “A Star is Born” were a mishmash of different Hollywood stories at the time that involved addiction, such as the decline of Barbara Stanwyck’s first husband, Frank Fay. That just speaks to how difficult the industry can be for people and the enormous pressure that was put on actors at that time.

After you recommended Chantal Akerman’s 1975 landmark, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” in your video about films that bring added context to “Mrs. America”—Hulu’s excellent series about the Equal Rights Amendment movement—the very next episode included a clip from that exact film, while the finale paid exquisite homage to Akerman in its final moments.

I loved that. I was actually walking on the treadmill while watching the show, and I literally stopped the machine when I saw “Jeanne Dielman” materialize on the screen. I was like, ‘Wait a second…’ [laughs] I felt extremely validated. That whole episode, “Houston,” which focuses on Sarah Paulson’s character, is just brilliant. I loved that episode so much, especially when she is in that “Alice in Wonderland”-like haze as Akerman’s movie comes on. They kind of spoiled the ending a little bit with that clip, which is fine. I was absolutely thrilled and I’m just glad that I was on the same page, I guess, of what they were trying to achieve in talking about a woman’s place and what was happening at the time.

You also recommended Shola Lynch’s 2004 documentary “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” which inspired me to watch the film and subsequently interview the director. Though Lynch had only seen the first couple episodes of “Mrs. America,” she believed her film had clearly inspired the show’s depiction of Shirley Chisholm.

I think “Mrs. America” did a good job of highlighting how women were stepping out and basically inserting themselves into a conversation that had never invited them. Shirley Chisholm probably provided the best example of how to assert one’s right to be included. She insisted on having her voice heard, and I don’t think her story is told enough. When I saw “Chisholm ’72”, it was one of the first times I really began to think in depth about Shirley’s journey and how she got to where she was. The film brought me the necessary context I needed to give Shirley the credit that she deserves and still isn’t getting, in my opinion, in terms of being such a trailblazing figure in American history. I hope everybody checks that film out if they can.

Lynch, who is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, said that diverse executives are an unsung key to substantial change.

I agree one hundred percent with that. There is this misconception that the more we see diverse representation onscreen that the better things will become, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. You need to have people behind the screen writing these roles correctly. You also need to have executives who have the power of the purse to determine what is being made and what isn’t to be involved in those conversations. That’s always the place where the most progress needs to be made.

To what extent did you see the Academy’s attempts to appear more progressive during the telecast this past February—such as dressing dancers in costumes that paid homage to films left off the ballot—to be disingenuous?

I agree that it did appear very disingenuous. But the way I see it is that the voters of the Academy and the people who are organizing the voting as well as the show are two different groups. It’s the institution versus the voters, and I think the institution is genuinely trying to diversify its membership and appear diverse and reach out. But the reason it always looks so disingenuous is that the membership is still falling short, and so as many good faith efforts as the institution can make to get different presenters or talk about these movies that were fan favorites, it’s just going to look bad because that’s not what’s nominated. It’s not their fault, so they’re just going to try and make up for it, but that always looks weird to me. I have a sympathy for the people who are trying to make the changes that people are insisting upon, but at the end of the day, it is up to the voters, and the industry really, to keep pushing for those changes to be made so that those aesthetic efforts can be actual mirrored reflections.

It’s also annoying how Oscar nominees tend to dominate other award shows, such as when Zellweger won a Spirit Award, thus preventing the wealth from spreading to such deserving contenders as Alfre Woodard for “Clemency.”

The Academy keeps asking why people aren’t tuning in, and it’s because it’s all monotonous. How many times do you want to see the same person give a speech over and over and over again, thanking the same people? It’s not interesting, and the Oscars are always the last show to air. I agree that there needs to be some more variety, though I’m not really sure what the answer is because I’m not too tuned in to how all of that plays out in terms of the politicking of some of the more indie awards. But I definitely agree that they should be more separate. I like when the Gotham Awards, for example, surprise people with different honorees.

The biggest cheer I ever heard in the Oscar press room was when “Parasite” won Best Picture. How transformative could that win be in the long run?

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I think that there are sincere efforts being made now by the Academy, and also by consumers, to be more mindful of the kind of things they talk about and what they purchase, like what tickets they’re buying, but I also think the historical trend is not encouraging. There are so many blips like this where you think that maybe this is the year that it is going to change, like when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won. You think that maybe this is a symbol of good things to come, and then it turns out that it’s actually just an exception. In this case, I could very much see it going either way, because unlike the year that Halle Berry won, people are talking about the need for change. They’re not just looking at “Parasite”’s Best Picture win and saying, ‘Oh, good, we did it.’ So I guess I’ll just remain hopeful about it.

Why have you decided against putting your name on your videos?

I’m not a very showy person. I don’t love attention, so it was never really my instinct or my intention to gain personal notoriety by creating this channel. I’d rather preserve my privacy and ensure that my channel remains distinct from my full time job as a content producer. However, I do have larger goals and I know that I need to think more deeply about how I am going to address that kind of question moving forward. I would love to work with TCM, Karina Longworth and all of these people who are doing things that I want to be doing, just on a much bigger scale and for a much bigger audience.

I don’t know what that looks like, but I just want to keep pushing forward until maybe some day in the future, I could go to the TCM Classic Film Festival or collaborate with the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. If they let me preview one of their exhibits, I would die. [laughs] I’m always on the lookout for those opportunities. There are so many directions in which I could imagine growing, so I will probably have to suck it up at some point.

Your videos are an important part of the larger conversation we’re all having in terms of reassessing our history and looking back at it with a clearer perspective.

Thank you so much. I am so glad that you are taking that away from them. Being honest about history is something that I am very much interested in doing, and I want people to take that away from my channel, so I’m glad that it’s coming through.

You can find all of Izzy’s videos at her invaluable YouTube channel, Be Kind Rewind. Also be sure to follow Izzy on Twitter and Instagram.

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