Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
As someone once said, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. I know which side of that particular divide I’m on, but I sometimes get the impression there’s a similar divide among some movie critics and fans. Which of the two eviscerations of aging actresses is your favourite: Billy Wilder’s genre-busting, darkly comic Sunset Boulevard, arguably one of the director’s best films, or the sharp, witty, but stylistically relatively tame All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz?
In comparison, it might be all too easy to underestimate All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard is the showier, more ostentatious film, and even in 2019 it feels more modern, with its voiceover by a dead body or its po-faced funeral for a pet chimp. It’s not afraid of being tasteless, grotesque and over the top. At times it seems like a miracle that it ever made it past censorship at the time of the Motion Picture Production Code. On the surface at least, All About Eve is more genteel from a 21st century perspective. It is much more of an actors’ and a writers’ film and it could work reasonably well on stage, so in this respect it feels more in line with the many, many stage adaptations that made for a large number of productions by Hollywood studios during the black and white era. (Indeed, the film did adapt a 1946 short story called “The Wisdom of Eve”.)
However, looking at All About Eve as cinematically conservative would be doing the film a massive disservice. Its script is sharp and funny and offers great material to its female stars, not only Bette Davis (though her Margo Channing is one of cinema’s great female parts) but also Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and the ever-reliable character actress Thelma Ritter. More than that, the wit of the Mankiewicz-penned script isn’t just amusing, it is also used to give the characters depth, as the irony and sarcasm generally also express the characters’ anxieties. Double and triple meanings and ambiguities abound, and while the film can be watched as a comedy, and a very enjoyable and infinitely quotable one at that, it works equally well as a drama with tragic elements, and its various levels reinforce one another with intelligence and elegance.
Sunset Boulevard is undoubtedly the more audacious film and it is more original. It is, if you will pardon the pun, the wilder film of the two. I love the director’s more intimate, small-scale The Apartment (1960) to bits, but I will happily say that Sunset Boulevard is the more momentous film. Its subtleties shouldn’t be underestimated, though, and while Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is a monstrous creation, the film also shows her to be capable of pathos and tragedy in more relatable, human-sized ways – though Norma would be the first to stress that she is big and it’s only the pictures that got small. Several of the characters seem to exist both as a larger-than-life projection and as the small, frightened person underneath all that greatness (a shout-out to Erich von Stroheim’s wonderfully strange, undyingly loyal Max von Mayerling) Like All About Eve, the film works on several levels at the same time, it makes its audience laugh but it also frightens with its surprising potential for nightmarish darkness. And it is one of the rare films that has both a beginning and an ending that are both perfect.
Which of the two films do I prefer? I will gladly make a choice between Elvis and the Beatles at the drop of a hat, but don’t ask me to choose between Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve. Both are fantastic, and no less so 69 years after they were released. And if anyone tries to make me choose, I may just have to bury them, right next to that dead chimp.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.