DEEP DIVE

Be Kind Rewind: Inside the YouTube Channel Chronicling Hollywood History

Move over, TCM.

by Juan A. Ramírez

golden oscar statue in front of hollywood sign
Courtesy of Getty Images. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

I’m sure I was checking in on two of my most-frequented corners—Cher YouTube; Liza Minnelli YouTube—when I first came across Be Kind Rewind, a channel dedicated to thoroughly researched, incredibly watchable deep dives on film history. Nevermind those two stars’ ability to hypnotize on their own, take a look at the channel’s explorations of Minnelli's 1973 and Cher’s 1988 Oscar wins and see how engaging these topics are for yourself.

If you made it through that paragraph, or those videos, without shooting down the idea that understanding that what goes behind Oscar wins, Cher and Liza, or famous women, could be essential to modern American culture, then Be Kind Rewind is for you. If you’re still skeptical, allow me to introduce you to its creator, Izzy. (Ostensibly because being a woman online, let alone in Film Discourse spheres, is hell, Izzy has asked to remain semi-incognito).

A New York-based digital content creator, she started the channel in 2018 as a casual side project she could point to and impress potential employers. In that first year alone, she published 19 videos, most centered around historic Best Actress wins, expounding upon why they were significant—not only in the actress’ career, but to the shifting sociocultural landscape. Did Barbra Streisand win only because then-Academy president Gregory Peck wanted to freshen up the voting pool by admitting younger members in the late ’60s? Was Jane Fonda’s second Oscar a return to mainstream acceptance following her Vietnam War protests? What do those wins say about how we treat women, what we put them through, and how we “reward” them?

The channel has since deviated from the strict Best Actress formula, looking at trends like #OscarsSoWhite and comparing versions of Hollywood staples like A Star Is Born, but always revolves around women. They’re sort of less time-consuming versions of “You Must Remember This,” Karina Longworth’s epic film podcast, another look at forgotten silver screen histories which Izzy cites as a major inspiration. But by sourcing from newspaper clips, television interviews, memoirs, and anywhere else film history exists, Izzy creates stunningly investigative looks at the women who have come to define cinema.

Below, she talks about our perception of stars, the role pop culture plays in history, and offers some thoughts on our current Hollywood landscape.

Your Best Actress videos are probably your best-known, how did that focus on women come about?

I think it just sort of naturally landed that way. I mean, sorry to those men, but I just don’t think about actors in my daily life. Initially, it was something to talk about during job interviews to demonstrate something I'm passionate about, but I eventually found it extremely fulfilling, because I found a community that I didn't have in my real life. I think it can be hard to be a fan of classic cinema, and the women in them, because it is something that a lot of people primarily experience on their laptops. There aren’t too many places to congregate and meet people who are interested in those same things, so the internet opened up the floodgates. When I declared loudly online that this was what I loved talking about, it allowed others to find me.

How big a part of American history do you think the Oscar and pop culture are?

Huge. I truly believe you could devise an American history course based solely on classic film. When you're seeing a movie where the only roles available for Black women are as maids… Why is that? What institutional laws or rules were in place so that that could be the only case? Studying classic film teaches you a lot about the systemic issues faced by people of color, women, the LGBT community, and I do think it's very instructive when you're thinking about the nostalgia conservatism likes to talk about. If they're looking back and saying they wish it could be the ’50s again, you can see the ways people weren’t allowed to live freely back then through the films of that era.

At the same time, though, so much of what I love about older films is how much they challenge that type of retrograde thinking. You look at roles played by Joan Crawford and it goes completely against the narrative we’ve been taught about women’s behavior and agency. We’ve been dealing with these same issues forever.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that, when you look backward, everything is going to be backward, everybody is going to be conservative. I would challenge anyone to watch a Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn movie and come away from it thinking like they didn't make their own decisions. They were strong women. A lot of this work is reframing that misperception and bringing to light stories that are actually subverting more common narratives about the early 20th century and certain figures from that time.

I’m thinking about your video about Madonna’s film references throughout her career and wondering: Is part of your project combating the ahistoricism that’s so prevalent on social media? I’m talking about TikToks you see where some 20-year-old is going, “Did you know there was this movie about a ship that sank called the Titanic? Why is no one talking about this?”

I'm sure I was like this too, when I was younger. You think, if you’re 15 and find something new, you're the first person who's ever seen it, because not a lot of people you know have probably seen it. I've seen a lot of those TikToks, too, that are like, “Did you know Liza Minnelli was Judy Garland's daughter?” that have 50,000 likes and a million views. I'm glad they're discovering this, but it's interesting to see the knowledge you take for granted be discovered by other people.

On some level, I do see this as keeping history alive and reminding people that we aren't the first to discuss certain things. I mean, there are lines from movies from the ’30s and ’70s that are things people now say verabtim about reproductive rights. When you see those things pop up in old media, it's frustrating because you're thinking, “Oh my God, we're still talking about this? Are we going to be talking about this forever?” And you also want something more out of what you're watching today. I want the next level of conversation, I want us to dig deeper. To me, providing context is extremely important and helps you become a more literate consumer of pop culture generally. If we haven't solved something yet, it's not from repeating the same things over and over that we're going to solve it.

What about an actress or a performance jumps out at you?

When I was in high school, I was really attracted to stories where women were aggressively stating their opinions. I was like that in high school; kind of obnoxious about it, and just really wanted to be smart and independent, and that’s what I saw these women do in classic films. When I looked at the women that were on TV at the time, they didn’t feel as self-assured and determined. I think I just wanted to see women who are earnestly trying to get a solid standing in the world, and for some reason they were the ones who resonated with me the most when I was watching them do that.

Do you think we have any current stars in that old mold? You know, that would make it in a mural on Hollywood Boulevard?

No, not really. There was that picture from the Oscars that went around Twitter a couple of years ago; the selfie with Ellen, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, a whole group of people. And the fact that that was the most engaged-with tweet is insane. Just think about how the celebrity landscape has changed since that moment. Even if you tweeted a picture of all of the highest-grossing Marvel stars together, it wouldn't get that kind of reaction. When we have TikTok and YouTube—apps where people feel like they have much more intimate relationships with famous figures now—I don't think we want to stand on the outside and look in at these people's lives anymore. We want to feel like they're like us and that we could potentially be friends with them. I don't think that’s how people felt about Elizabeth Taylor in the ’70s. You know what I mean? It sort of feels like that brand of stardom is dying or has already died.

The figure closest to that I can think of is probably Beyoncé, who is just so distanced from us and doesn’t really give interviews or access.

I think there are a couple of figures—honestly, most of them in music like Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, who straddle both worlds. I think Gaga’s Oscar campaign is a really interesting example, because I do feel like she was behaving the way movie stars behave. That entire press tour wasn't about the themes in the movie, it was like, “What is Lady Gaga saying? What is she wearing? What did she do on the red carpet?” That's movie stardom. Charged opinions about her were surfacing. I felt it was a very old school campaign taking place.

Do you think we’ve sort of deluded ourselves into expecting stars like Gaga to come out and say House of Gucci is about patriarchy, or capitalism, or whatever, whereas back then it would be, “I am fabulous in this movie, and that's all you gotta know?”

We have a higher standard now. I think stars are asked to do a lot more, even from a press tour perspective—the fact that they're doing a BuzzFeed video, and then playing all these games, and at the same time are expected to know feminist theory and have a hot take on Ukraine. They're asked and made to do a lot that actors weren't looked to answer for in the past. In a way, it's kind of dulled the extremity of celebrity. There are a lot more consequences to getting something wrong because, if you misspeak when talking about the theme of your movie, and the theme of your movie is a feminist issue, that's going to be the news. It’s what you’ll hear about online for the rest of the campaign. It’s made people a little more cautious, so you're not going to get these strange moments, kind of like what Gaga is doing.

Any thoughts on the current Oscar race?

I’ve been very bad at keeping up with the contenders this year. I think coming off of the second year of the pandemic, it's been harder for me to focus, but I just saw The Power of the Dog and really, really loved it. And I loved The Worst Person in the World.

Do you think we have star vehicles anymore? Aside from something like The Worst Person in the World, I can’t really think of a recent movie I’ve left thinking, “That was her movie, showcasing her talents; all her.”

I think a lot of people would say films like The Eyes of Tammy Faye are star vehicles, but we're sort of thinking about them in almost a reverse logic. If we're thinking about a classic cinema star vehicle, we know, for example, Bette Davis does X-Y-Z really well, this story showcases those traits, so we should put her in that and rely on her being excellent at those things to carry this movie. Now, stars are much more focused on the idea that they are versatile and have range. So when they're looking to star in certain things, it's more about, “What is this going to show? What can I demonstrate in this role?” We're so focused on transformation, and prosthetic-based performance where the goal is to forget that somebody is acting, that we're asking stars to disappear and considering that star-making instead of asking them to do the thing that they're famous for. So things like Being the Ricardos or Tammy Faye are star vehicles now, because they're meeting the standard of prestige that we’ve redefined. It’s interesting to watch that formula pop up in real time because, even five years ago, that wasn't the case.

What’s changed in the past five years?

Just thinking about the number of movies announced recently that are just about an actor transforming for a biopic, you can see a change. More and more, you see the announcement that an actor is starring as a famous person who has recently died. And then you get the tweet with a “first look” and two pictures side by side where you're comparing, for example, Princess Diana and Kristen Stewart. And everybody, for a week, talks about how similar they look. Then the trailer comes out, and you're talking about the accent. Then the movie comes out, and you're talking about whatever. That feels so standard and frequent now, in a way I don't recall being as prevalent even a couple of years ago. And it doesn't seem like it's slowing down, either.

Most importantly, what’s the best Best Actress win for you?

I always say Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. It’s a perfect movie and she's incredible, and iconic.