Six Damn Fine Degrees #128: A case for All About Eve

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!” ~Karen

Ah, voice-overs. Harrison Ford reportedly hated them. Still, there are two very famous films, about women, which used them to great effect. Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (both from 1950) have something more in common than the introductory voice-over, the first spoken by a dead man, the second voiced by the cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). They are both about actresses who have aged out of – or think they have aged out of – those attributes thought to define womanhood . Beauty and youth as virtues, ambition as the threat that may cost them their sanity and their very identity as women.

In All About Eve, the main character, Margot Channing (Bette Davis), is an actress with a capital A. A giant of the stage, none of that Hollywood tinsel for her. Her many foibles are usually quickly forgiven by her friends and her partner, at least at first. She’s a bit of a show-off, she is always late, she drinks more than she ought to, and her jealousy borders on the pathological. Her central struggle is that all her roles are for very young women, and she is rapidly approaching middle age. Her friends, justifiably, point out to her that it hardly matters. She is an actress, the roles she plays are make-believe and so in that sense she is ageless. She is, after all, a star.

Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). She is a young fan who has come to see every single performance of Channing in New York. She is spotted by the playwright’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who introduces her to Margot. Eve strokes Margot’s not-insignificant ego, and she decides to take Eve in as a kind of factotum, and she quickly manages to make herself indispensable. Margot and her dressmaker Birdie (the incredible Thelma Ritter), however, both veterans of the stage, soon have tingling Spidey senses. They know ambition when they see it, and the suspiciously meek and demure Eve seems off somehow. It soon transpires that the oh-so-saccharine Eve will enrol the unsuspecting Karen yet again, to weasel her way into being Margot’s understudy. Something that (perhaps understandably considering the states she gets herself in) is kept from Margot.

Meanwhile, Margot becomes more and more impossible to deal with. At the birthday party for her partner Bill (Gary Merrill, Davis’ real-life husband), she first picks a fight and then proceeds to work her way through a great many Martinis, very dry. She makes a spectacle of herself, albeit a magnificent one, which prompts what is perhaps the most famous line in the film:

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

At this party we also meet the actress who is famous for drawing to her all the light in the room, so that she herself seems to glow softly. Even this early in her career she is instantly recognisable, portraying the ‘dumb’ bimbo with a remarkable incisiveness and patented comedic timing: Marilyn Monroe. “Oh, you won’t bore him, honey”, she innocently tells Eve about DeWitt, “You won’t even get the chance to talk!”

When Karen, a fundamentally decent woman with an unfortunate tendency to meddle, finally decides to teach Margot a lesson in humility, the plot starts to thicken.

While the film’s central tension, that being unmarried, childless, career-focused and ageing can somehow destroy a woman’s very essence, may seem antiquated at first glance, Margot appears to be the only character in the film who believes this. Her screenwriter Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) calls her out on her nonsense, her partner is still physically very attracted to her, Eve even wants to be her. And the character whom the film punishes is ultimately Eve, for the Machiavellian way she attempts to claw herself to the top. When Bill is reluctantly forced to leave Margot – albeit temporarily – it is certainly not because she chooses to have a career. It is her own increasingly impossible behaviour that threatens to alienate those closest to her.

Margot’s saving grace is a capacity for self-reflection and an ability for change. She comes to see very clearly that her tantrums are infantile as well as destructive, and starts working towards a more balanced existence. It is Margot herself who, almost unprompted, decides that perhaps her unhappiness is of her own making and that, after all, her priorities have fundamentally shifted over the years. Eve, on the other hand, remains largely two-dimensional. A type, meant to contrast with the authenticity Margot is capable of. Eve is capable only of ambition through connivance, and when she meets a man who not only sees right through her, but outfoxes her and thereby renders her his possession, as the film puts it, we have a hard time sympathising with her, as the film never allows her to become fully realised as a character. She is an elegant, mercenary McGuffin to advance the character development that is not only Margot’s but also, significantly, Karen’s. After all, women, even talented ones the film intimates, have to make do in a male-dominated space. They are expected to behave: to be either saints, shrews or doomed – particularly as they age, a fate seldom assigned to men. That the film acknowledges this does not detract from its point. In portraying Eve as essentially a fake, it grants the other female characters room to defy those tropes and, incidentally, they also get to deliver the best lines.

Sunset Boulevard is often felt to be the more modern of these two movies. It certainly seems to have had more staying power. And All About Eve does, like the ancient actor chattering on at the beginning, perhaps go on too long. It hammers on about Eve’s flawed attitude towards life and exults in her comeuppance beyond what is necessary. Wilder is of course a great director. He may be a better director than Joseph L. Mankiewicz, or perhaps his distinctive style just sticks in the mind more than Mankiewicz’. But Wilder’s doomed protagonist and larger-than-life star ultimately have a harsher, more rigid view of their female characters. Eve‘s script, also by Joseph Mankiewicz – and yes, he is the brother of Herman Mankiewicz of Kane fame – allows for a view that Boulevard never examines. The idea that a female protagonist, though her own agency, has the capacity for growth. In that sense, though the two are often compared to one another, All About Eve may be the more radical of the two. Mankiewicz is interested in these women, he gives them gravitas, he salutes their idiosyncrasies. In his Rear-View Mirror piece, Matt states unequivocally that he could never choose between the two. But give me another film that celebrates a deeply flawed woman, who despite her foibles gets to decide for herself what her life should look like. While we, as a modern audience, may not approve of the less-than-modern choice Margot ends up making, that does not make it the forced about-face so many films of this, and earlier eras foist on their female characters. Nor is her decline inevitable, as it also often is in films of the era. On the contrary, her decisions are her own, and flow organically from the evolution of her character. Margot recognises there will always be more Eves, there will always be a paucity of mature roles for women, and with her personality defiantly intact, decides “Well, screw that”, and exits stage left.

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