Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.
All this month, Old Ass Movies will be celebrating the 103rd anniversary of Bette Davis‘s birthday. The iconic film star acted in far too many movies to care to count, but it seems as though she’s been reduced to a pair of eyes in popular culture. She’s the subject of a 80s pop tune, not the star that she should be recognized for being, and that needs fixing.
This week’s movie is an ensemble where Davis proved once again how to stand out even in a distinguished crowd. She plays the famous stage star Margo Channing who is getting on in years at the ancient age of forty. But this isn’t her story, and it’s also not the story of Eve – a young woman who slinks her way into Channing’s world with supreme modesty and sly trickery. It’s the story of all actors. It’s also the story of all audiences.
All About Eve (1950)
Written and Directed By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, and Hugh Marlowe
There’s a lot of talk about meta-stories these days, but it takes more than commenting on the nature of performance and film to be great. In fact, if a movie is too overt about commenting on movies (or commenting on commenting) it ends up seeming like the kid waving his hand violently in the back of the class. He may get the answer right, but you hate him for it.
All About Eve succeeds by caring more about story than commentary. In doing so, it provides all the commentary it needs. The movie belongs to that disgusting sub-genre of movies about the arts. It’s a despicable little group because it mostly consists of writers and directors trumpeting how clever they are for having their head completely into their own lower intestine. Yes, we’re fascinated by the theater and by movie-making, but we often don’t need it shoved back down our throats.
Digestive tracts aside, this sharp flick manages to deliver all sides of the argument tucked away inside a compelling story that could have been about anything. It’s a story about power, trying to achieve it, and what it all means. That it takes place inside a theater is almost irrelevant.
In fact, the movie opens with a voice over (the narration will change hands several times) in which the critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) speaks over an old actor about to give an award – directly mentioning that it doesn’t matter if we hear what the performer is saying. This same theme is repeated later once Eve Harrington (the recipient of the award, played by Anne Baxter) is shown sliding herself into the inner circle of diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and Lloyd’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm). She tells her life story in brief, talking about growing up and playing make believe. She mentions that the things she made up weren’t important. Her desire to act is all that matters, and the film makes a note of never showing her actually acting (even once she’s secured a role). Her performance in real life is really what matters.
What we know is that Eve is receiving an honor. What the movie sets out to do is explain how she rose so quickly in the ranks. All of that starts with her seeing every performance of a play that Margo stars in. Karen invites her to meet Margo, and Eve tells a sob story about her Air Force husband being killed in the war. The only thing that comforted her was a stretch of performances Margo did in San Francisco. When the play ended its run there, Eve headed for New York City.
Through the movie, there’s a considerable Single White Female feel. Eve is modest to the point of annoyance – constantly not wanting to be a bother, constantly helping out without being asked, constantly praising other people and insulting herself. Margo begins to grow paranoid and at any given time, someone in her friend group is suspicious of Eve or raving about how great she is. All of it first comes to a head when Margo reveals her fear to long time love (and director) Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) – a scene which is immediately followed by Eve asking for the same drink Margo requests.
It all takes place at a party that’s negative turn is foreshadowed by the mention of Macbeth (well known in the theater for being bad luck to name). That moment is, of course, followed by Bette Davis turning flashily at the stair and uttering the immortal line (that should have acted as a warning at the beginning): “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
And it is. Eve shows the first hints that she’s conniving instead of earnest. Margo erupts at everyone before going to bed. The onlookers are left to somehow choose sides.
It’s also notable for a scene in which a hot, young thing named Ms. Casswell (and played hot and young by Marilyn Monroe) sits opposite Eve on the stair. The critic sits with Casswell, the director sits with Eve. Casswell represents politicking your way to the top. She’s demure and slightly sexual as she charms the producer into giving her an audition. He relents, but he isn’t happy about it. She has flirted her way into a shot. Eve represents the concept of working hard to achieve greatness, and she says as much – lavishing praise on the concept of lavishing praise. She lets loose her deep desire for applause while vehemently agreeing with Simpson that it’s the blood, sweat and tears that one grinds out on the way to success.
It won’t be until much later that the scene is revealed to be ironic. Casswell and Eve are both falsely selling themselves. Eve is just far, far better at it. Her self-centered nature is a different brand from Casswell’s or Margo’s, but it’s absolutely there.
How does Davis stand out in a story that’s not even hers? For one, she’s the sun that the characters revolve around. For two, she’s just that damned good an actress. She’s so good that she doesn’t need a spotlight. The writing here is a perfect blend of cynicism, sarcasm, and sincerity. Margo is self-aware, so she’s far from being a tragic figure. She knows exactly who she is to the point that she apologizes and truly feels regret for the bigger diva moments of her life. Even with stardom, her true goal is to keep her friends and lover close.
By the end, this is what separates Eve from Margo. Eve wants to be what Margo appears to be – to have the trappings of wealth and fame, to say witty things, to be loved by strangers. But Eve is willing to sacrifice real relationships to get it, and that’s something Margo was either never willing to do or something she learned better of along the way.
Oddly enough, the snobbish critic DeWitt ends up representing all audiences. At the beginning, his claim of the critic being essential seems like self-aggrandizing, but as a representation of the audience, he’s exactly correct. Eve loses the plot as far as that’s concerned. She sees the audience from behind the shine of the spotlight in her eyes. When DeWitt finally reveals that he knows all about her, his claim that she belongs to him becomes clear. The actor needs an audience. It’s the audience that propels her. It’s the audience that gives her love. It’s the audience that holds the power to destroy her. Even with his dry, East Coast accented delivery, the things he says in that moment of truth prove that he is all of us. It’s the audience, not the critic, that’s essential.
This is a vital film – one that was nominated for an unheard of 14 Oscars and won 6 of them (including Best Writing, Directing and Picture). Bette Davis was nominated, but didn’t take the gold as she had 3 times before. It’s a brilliant ensemble cast, and the name on the marquee reads Eve, but it’s undoubtedly Davis’s movie. She is the star that shines brightest, and her character that earns the audience’s true respect and admiration. She’s not young or exciting anymore – she’s something much, much more important than that.
Next week, we head into the future of her career by heading into the past. We’ll be looking at Davis’s 66th movie (but not nearly her last), The Virgin Queen. For now, here are the 7 steps to becoming a star:
- Make yourself stand out by attending every single performance that an actor gives.
- Find a way to meet that person and deliver a tragic tale (whether true or not) of why you’ve come to worship them. A war hero husband’s death works fairly well.
- Appear like a victim by consistently putting yourself down, raising the star up, and becoming indispensable as an assistant.
- Tell everyone what they want to hear and slyly suggest yourself as the new understudy. Asking as a favor will make it seem like the person helping you is doing a good deed.
- Wait for your moment to prove your acting talent.
- Get the critics there, and impress the writer, director and producer.
- Get ready to be friendless.