Anyone you can be, I can be better: All About Eve and The Talented Mr Ripley

I must have seen All About Eve at least half a dozen times so far. Its writing retains the sharp wit it had when I first saw it, its performances still shine: Bette Davis is perfect as Margo Channing and delivers Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ lines with relish, but the rest of the ensemble, just as central to the success of the film, is also top-notch. As a piece of filmmaking, All About Eve may not be as audacious as its contemporary Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 caustic tale of an ageing actress, but its appeal has not diminished. I had the opportunity to see it again a few days ago – while cinemas are open again in these parts, you’re more likely to find them showing older films rather than new releases – and it remains a delight.

It has taken me these half a dozen viewings, however, to come to the realisation that All About Eve shares some striking similarities to Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr Ripley (and, to a lesser extent, the film versions made of Highsmith’s novel) and that the title characters of the two works can be seen as mirror images of each other.

(Note that when I talk about The Talented Mr Ripley in the following I am talking about the original novel by Patricia Highsmith; the film versions deviate from Highsmith’s story and characters in key ways, and especially Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film turns its title character from an amoral, even sociopathic chameleon into a tragic figure.)

Certainly, All About Eve and The Talented Mr Ripley belong to two different genres, which is reflected in their plots: Tom Ripley becomes a paranoid murderer on the run, while Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes a respected stage actress and wins the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. Nonetheless Eve and Tom Ripley are kindred spirits. Both are nobodies from poor backgrounds, both have a knack for creating different characters for themselves and using this knack to ingratiate themselves with those more privileged than themselves, and both home in on particular someone who seems to have everything they want for themselves.

Eve is drawn to Margo and her life, and as she gets closer and closer to her mark, she tries to obtain the things Margo has: a career as an actress, the adoration of her fans, the love of her friends. Eve has a knack for seduction, manipulation and social mimicry, she finds it easy to make others like her by performing a specific version of herself, and most of the film’s characters only realise what Eve is and what she is doing when it is too late. The only one who fully sees through Eve’s act is the poison pen-wielding critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who seems to share a quality or two with Eve.

Tom Ripley too finds himself drawn to the rich, young, careless Dickie Greenleaf. Ripley too is a master mimic and skilled at seducing others (if not necessarily in sexual or romantic ways), and it is never altogether clear whether he is drawn to Dickie because he wants him or whether he wants to be him. When Dickie grows tired of Ripley’s presence and hints at wanting to cut him loose, Ripley murders Dickie, takes on his identity and goes on the run, always afraid that one day his masquerade will no longer convince anyone and he will be found out.

Eve and Tom Ripley seem driven by a hunger for something they cannot have – or, perhaps, for being someone they believe they cannot be. While Eve is a consummate actress and her talent is recognised by others, her wish to become like Margo doesn’t end there: she wants Margo’s parts and her life, right down to her romantic partner of choice – one of Eve’s rare seductions that backfires when she throws herself at Eve’s lover, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), though even when Eve tries to romantically seduce men, there is rarely a sense that these men would be anything other than a means to the end of successfully making herself into Margo. Ripley wants Dickie’s life of means, and he knows that he has the very specific talents needed to become at least a version of Dickie. Both characters know that in order to succeed, they have to take the place of the one they’re trying to become in one fashion or another.

There also seems to be a queer subtext with both Eve and Tom (though it is stronger and clearer with the latter). There are lines of dialogue and even scenes where the characters’ wish to become the one they’re drawn to is expressed as more homoerotic – though neither All About Eve nor The Talented Mr Ripley suggest that their title characters actually love the ones they covet (something that Minghella’s film version changes, making its version of Tom Ripley an almost entirely different creature from Highsmith’s). If anything, they seem to desire them as idealised versions of themselves, so that this desire takes on a decidedly narcissistic aspect. (It is perhaps no coincidence that All About Eve as well as The Talented Mr Ripley, the books as well as the film versions, have key scenes that play out in front of mirrors.)

When Margo grows tired of Eve and her needy attentions, Margo’s self-doubt makes her doubt Bill’s feelings towards her, and in her insecurity she turns snide, insinuating that Eve’s interest in her may not be altogether pure:

BILL
Need any help?

MARGO
(pauses, smiles) To put me to bed? Take my clothes off, hold my head, tuck me in, turn off the lights, tiptoe out…? Eve would. Wouldn’t you, Eve?

EVE
If you’d like.

MARGO
I wouldn’t like.

While Eve’s sexuality remains ambiguous – the film never shows her clearly to have any genuine romantic or sexual interest in anyone else – this exchange suggests that at least Margo suspects she may be more than just an idol to young Ms Harrington. Eve finds something of a match in the effete dandy Addison DeWitt, a similarly ambiguous character who describes the two of them as “improbable”, contemptuous of humanity, unable to love or be loved. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Dickie’s girlfriend Marge begins insinuating that Tom is gay when she feels that her boyfriend is paying more attention to this new person than to her, Dickie himself drops homophobic comments in Ripley’s presence, and Highsmith never gives the reader much of a reason to think their intutions about Tom Ripley are wrong (even if Ripley is married in later novels in the series). Are the two characters homosexuals? They certainly don’t manage to fit the heteronormativity of their environments unless they try to mimic others, and their dissatisfaction with their lot in life doesn’t seem to go away even as they find way of getting what they want. Both seem to express a hunger for something they finally cannot have, so they try to fashion themselves into the person their desire latches onto.

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Highsmith’s novel turned much of its subtext into text – there is never any doubt that Minghella’s Ripley, as portrayed by Matt Damon, is anything other than gay and that his interest in Dickie Greenleaf (as played by Jude Law) is romantic and sexual in nature – and in the process made Ripley worthy of pity, though losing Highsmith’s chilling amorality in the process. All About Eve has little sympathy for its titular character: the film sides firmly with Margo and her entourage, showing Eve as a manipulative parasite. Margo’s true happiness finally doesn’t result from her professional success but from marital bliss:

MARGO
I don’t want to play Cora… it’s a great part, and a fine play. But not for me anymore – not a foursquare, upright, downright, forthright married lady… I don’t have to play parts I’m too old for – just because I’ve got nothing to do with my nights!

It is difficult to imagine Eve, or indeed Tom Ripley, finding that kind of foursquare, upright, forthright happiness. They don’t seem to be made for it. Whatever their needs finally are, both All About Eve and The Talented Mr Ripley suggest that those needs cannot really be met. For all their talents, Eve Harrington’s and Tom Ripley’s destructive compulsion to become someone else will always leave them unfulfilled.

Though at least Eve finds something of a place in the artifice of the stage, which has always been a haven for the improbable. Perhaps Tom Ripley would have been better off if he had headed for Broadway or Soho rather than Mongibello (and Dickie Greenleaf definitely would have!). Perhaps that world would have been more appreciative of Ripley’s talents. One can almost imagine those two meeting and finding each other kindred spirits – though perhaps it is exactly for this reason that such an encounter may not have gone well for the one, the other, or both, however talented the two of them are.

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