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With her viral video essays, the somewhat elusive Isabel C delves into the intrigues, triumphs and upsets of the film industry. But her YouTube channel, Be Kind Rewind, also looks at Hollywood’s failings, and how it represents and treats women. “The Oscars have survived through several decades, so I knew they could be a good entry point for both exploring history and the industry’s power structure from a female perspective.” By Eliza Compton.

Be Kind Rewind creator Isabel C

Isabel C admires Katharine Hepburn’s Oscars at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Credit: Supplied

Be Kind Rewind is an odd name for a YouTube channel. And its creator knows the phrase, which conjures distant memories of VHS rentals or the Michel Gondry comedy of the same name, is an SEO nightmare. But then, New York-based Isabel C didn’t expect anyone, except perhaps potential employers, to watch her video essays about the history, evolution and art of cinema. “I was very lazy about naming my channel because I never thought it would actually matter,” she says.

But even without search engine optimisation, Be Kind Rewind’s videos have amassed more than 11.6 million views, and the channel has climbed to 129,000 subscribers, earning a nomination for a Shorty social media award for education along the way.

Granted, these metrics are modest when compared with the monoliths of YouTube fame – but Isabel’s videos, 10- to 25-minute thought-provoking gems, are something distinct in these days of wall-to-wall TikTok clips, giving viewers an escape into classic Hollywood while raising contemporary questions about gender, race, power and money in the film industry.

A lifelong movie buff with a particular interest in the 1930s, ’40s and ’70s, Isabel is the arch, velvety voice of the channel but not the face. The 29-year-old never appears on camera – and she has asked that her surname not be used here, both to protect her privacy and to avoid the vitriol that is so often hurled at women online.

Isabel doesn’t regard BKR as an awards channel; rather she sees the decisions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a useful lens through which to examine women’s standing in Hollywood throughout history. Who gets what, when and why broadly reflects the temper of the times.

“I want to get away from this idea that my channel is for people who love award shows,” she tells me. “Sure, the Oscars are a framing device, but in reality, I address much broader themes: what’s happening in Hollywood today, how the industry has developed, how women have been treated et cetera. I think saying, ‘This channel is about the Oscars’, is in some sense a barrier, because a lot of people don’t like them or think they don’t matter. It’s fair not to like them, but I think to ignore them is a little like burying your head in the sand.

“The Oscars have survived through several decades, so I knew they could be a good entry point for both exploring history and the industry’s power structure from a female perspective.”

The most popular of Isabel’s videos posted to date, which has been viewed 2.3 million times, is a comparative essay about the four versions of A Star Is Born. She shows that each iteration adapts the plot to reflect contemporary notions of fame: from a “sweet, raw” treatise of the studio system in 1937 to a musical shaded with tragedy in 1954. In 1976, screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and director Frank Pierson make Barbra Streisand a liberated rock star. And the 2018 Lady Gaga vehicle draws on elements of all previous versions.

 

It was Harvey Weinstein who first brought me to Isabel’s channel, via a video entitled “Harvey Weinstein and the Oscars” that popped up during a search about the Me Too movement. The essay revisits the 71st Academy Awards, at which Shakespeare in Love usurped the World War II drama Saving Private Ryan to win Best Picture, and explains why the Miramax head, who was last month sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault, was allowed to get away with so much for so long.

The video doesn’t underplay the gravity of its subject, nor does it gossip or preach – in fact, it celebrates the other Best Actress nominated performances that year, from Cate Blanchett, Fernanda Montenegro, Meryl Streep and Emily Watson – which is to say that Be Kind Rewind is clearly the work of a film obsessive who can enjoy the glamour of the Hollywood machine while acknowledging, and delving into, its darker corners.

Isabel’s channel started in 2017 as a professional calling card. “It was meant to serve as a kind of side project, [a] portfolio to talk about in interviews,” she says, “to demonstrate not only my skill set, but also to show how passionate I am about film.”

At the time, she was attempting a career “pivot”. Having gained her undergraduate degree in international relations, with an eye to working in the US State Department, Isabel realised six months after graduation that she didn’t want a life in Washington after all. She began to look for a way out of politics and into film history or programming, perhaps with a museum or festival. The channel was a way to showcase her media and tech credentials.

“I made a few test videos before deciding and embarking on the Best Actress theme – one about a Bette Davis movie [1946’s A Stolen Life],” she says, “and another mini documentary about Marlene Dietrich, which I never uploaded, just to understand the process of writing and editing a video.”

The second video takes in the 1947 Oscars race,  showcasing more than 10 films of 1946 – not all nominated – from that bumper year, from winner Olivia de Havilland’s performance in To Each His Own, to Gilda, The Yearling, Brief Encounter and The Big Sleep.

Isabel says she doesn’t appear in the Be Kind Rewind videos because she wants people to focus on the work – rather than her hair or the colour of her lipstick. “I’d rather just erase the possibility and force the writing to become the centrepiece,” she says.

It also makes production simpler and cheaper, eliminating the need for a set, a professional-grade camera, lighting and sound equipment. “Since I never anticipated the channel becoming big, those never seemed like rational investments,” she says. “I guess I’m not much of an attention-seeker. Turning the camera on myself would never be my first instinct. I have no ambition to be recognised in real life or to make myself seem as important as what I’m talking about.”

And the name? “I chose [Be Kind Rewind] because I thought the word ‘rewind’, as in seeking out the past, aligned with the topics I intended to discuss, and because people know the phrase from video rentals at Blockbuster and places like that… And I’ve never seen the movie.”

 

Isabel, who grew up in Ohio, now works on digital projects for a contemporary art museum. (She’s not sure if the channel helped her land the role, but she did talk about it during the interview.) She creates her BKR episodes in her spare time – usually researching, writing and editing the videos in her tiny Brooklyn apartment, working at a desk or on her bed. “I take notes on the computer, and then write a semi-stream-of-consciousness version longhand, before doing a final draft on my laptop,” she says. “Most of my good writing is done longhand because it’s just easier for me to focus.”

She sometimes spends four to five hours a day on BKR, and each video takes up to three weeks to make, so Isabel posts far less frequently than many on social media. “I’ve learnt to manage by taking more breaks, which I know can be frustrating for my audience, but it’s the only way I can prevent burnout,” she says.

Without space for a large library of books, and no DVD player, she uses online resources for research: academic journals, movie magazines, newspaper archives. She hunts down scenes from the silent era, black and white clips of screen icons such as Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, interviews with Oprah, paparazzi footage and, of course, awards ceremonies, going wherever the topic at hand takes her.

“I do stream a lot of movies, but I have a hard time focusing at home the way I can in a theatre. It’s much harder for me to notice small gestures or nuances in tone if I can hear my cat rummaging through the recycling or if I pause to heat up some food.”

Future subjects are decided by her Patreon supporters, who choose from a list of three options guided by Isabel’s own preferences and a need to avoid repeating herself. Her next video will take a break from the Academy Awards to focus on the career of Sydney-born actress Toni Collette, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for 1999’s The Sixth Sense.

About 90 per cent of the work that goes into BKR is writing the script. “I don’t go into any script with an agenda; I never know what the arc of the story will be until I’ve done a little research,” she says. “Writing a script is like putting a puzzle together. It’s very time consuming to figure out what needs to be cut, if you’re being clear et cetera, et cetera. Toward the end of the process I read out loud a lot to make sure it sounds okay with my voice.”

She does have an excellent voice, and a great sense of story. (The video about the three-year search for the perfect actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind plays out like a thriller.)

Through BKR, Isabel deftly puts the careers and controversies of superstars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda into their historical context. In one episode, we find out how Taylor (in the substandard “slut-shaming vehicle” Butterfield 8) beat Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) to the golden statuette at the 1961 ceremony – despite the backstory of Taylor stealing pop singer Eddie Fisher from America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. She compares the love triangle to the Brad–Jen–Angelina saga.

As she says, when it comes to the academy, “personal narratives matter”.

Like many at the moment, Isabel is working remotely, and has moved temporarily to her parents’ house in Connecticut, where birdsong replaces the cacophony of big-city life. She says the Covid-19 pandemic means her day job is busier than ever, maintaining the institution’s online presence while the building itself is closed. “So, you’d think working from home might give me more freedom to spend time on my videos, but it’s really been the opposite,” she says.

While work for the museum might be her present focus, it is Isabel’s background in politics that has proved a boon to BKR – evident as world wars, the Great Depression and social movements are threaded through the narrative. The episode on Halle Berry winning for Monster’s Ball (2001), and becoming the first African–American actress to take home the award, examines how Hollywood represents and sidelines women of colour, and Sissy Spacek’s win in 1981 for Coal Miner’s Daughter leads to observations about the kinds of women in biopics. This from the voiceover: “It comes as no surprise that the most common jobs for women in biopics are wives, moms, queens. There are more nuns than scientists, and more entertainers than anything else.” Biopics about men, on the other hand, include political leaders, businessmen, athletes, journalists and gangsters.

Isabel thinks the pandemic will force society to reckon with issues of inequality, celebrity, technology and isolation. “I’m interested in how [a movie] like Parasite has similar themes to what we’re feeling now.”

 

It was watching Turner Classic Movies as a child that ignited Isabel’s love of film and set up her encyclopaedic knowledge. “I got into film through actresses,” she told Cinema Femme magazine in February. “The way I would basically feed my love of movies is, ‘I like Katharine Hepburn in this movie, so I’m going to watch every Katharine Hepburn movie I could find.’ If there’s a person that grabs my interest, I’m going to watch all of her movies.”

BKR covers perennial stars – Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn – as well as actors such as Greer Garson, Susan Hayward and Anna Magnani (for whom Tennessee Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo), who are no longer household names.

Isabel’s favourite on-screen performances include Bette Davis in All About Eve, Lily Tomlin in Nashville, and Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. But she qualifies this: “I can’t even begin to make this list, or I will never stop.” Her companion to last year’s Judy fills in the gaps the biopic left out. The channel pays tribute to other notable groundbreaking actresses – including Anna May Wong and Pam Grier – in its stylised graphics by Massachusetts illustrator Alex Kittle.

She singles out, also, Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair as a great performance in a movie that didn’t do her justice. “The movie isn’t flawless, but I return to it again and again because she is.” And she believes Bel Powley’s turn as sexually precocious Minnie in the 2015 indie drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl should have got more attention.

So, in a variation on Desert Island Discs, what movies would Isabel recommend for self-isolation?

All About Eve, Cabaret, Harold and Maude, Mamma Mia! and The Thin Man,” she reveals.

Mamma Mia! ?

“I just love that it’s not trying to be anything but a good time. It’s very pure. Also, ABBA.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Girls in film".

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Eliza Compton is an Australian journalist who has been living in Paris and London since 2012.