An essay by: Witney Seibold
“There’s always someone younger and more ambitious coming down the stairs behind you.”
-Dialogue from “Showgirls”
It’s usually considered wittier, at least in certain critical circles, to wait until somewhere back of an essay to tip one’s hand and come crashing through with a proved thesis, but I shall dispense with decorum this time around. And, seeing as the subject of my essay is the superb venom-laced 1950 classic “All About Eve,” a film about using dubious honesty and underhanded tactics to manipulate and alienate the people around you, I guess it is appropriate, in similar spirit, to dispense with a little decorum:
Margo Channing is a wonderful dramatic creation. She is deathly afraid of aging; of being considered by all around her – her audience, her friends, her lover – past her prime. She is considered by her friends and critics to be one of the greatest living actresses; she can put the table on a roar, open a play successfully. Yet she is insanely insecure of being supplanted by someone half her age. Insecure she will be discarded. And yet, she comes across as such an overbearing personality; she, like her friends, is open, frank, insulting, and noisy. And yet, and yet, we love her. She is a drama queen, through-and-through, and we understand her, and we love her. We see her insecurities, open and bald, despite her every effort to conceal them. And we fall into her, admiring every bit of her strength, sass, and bitchiness. She has, as most actors do (and I should know, as I was an actor at one point in my education. I also use the first person a lot in my essays), a monstrous ego. Her friends see her ego, know when it should be stroked and when it should be demolished, and she seems to love and respect them for knowing. She herself doesn’t know that well, and knows she doesn’t know.
In many cases (as evidenced by her boyfriend’s birthday party, in which she gets drunk, demands to her “Liebestraum” over and over, and mouths off at everyone; or when she appears in a theater nearly two hours late to discover that Eve has become her understudy), the only way Margo knows how to deal with her anger, her confusion, and her deep-seated fears, is to open her mouth, and let the insults and outrages just pour out. She may not know exactly what it is she wants, but she knows she’s not getting what she feels is right.
This is not a film about sitting down and explaining about how one feels; it’s not psychotherapy. This is a film about the immediate feeling one is having at this very moment, and thank goodness we have eloquent and witty people in an eloquent and witty screenplay to express themselves so beautifully.
And thank goodness we have the perfect actress for the role, Bette Davis, to play Margo.
Davis was 41 when she played the role, and, unlike Margo’s fears, only seemed to get better with age. This film marked the absolute turning point in her career (which probably began with “Now, Voyager” in 1942), when she shifted from the cute little ingénue with Bette Davis Eyes, into a colorful, sarcastic dynamic actress with more range and passion than most actresses of her day. It was considered a “comeback” for the actress as most of her 1940s films, while occasionally good, were mostly disappointing, especially at the box office. Davis’ career was riding on “All About Eve,” so when we see the aging on-screen actress in utter fear of being forgotten, of being supplanted by the sexbombs of her day (indeed the most popular of said sexbombs, Marilyn Monroe, had her first screen appearance in “All About Eve”), it’s easy to think that much of it was genuine. It was lucky she even got the role, as it was slated to go to Claudette Colbert, who had just suffered an injury.
In fact, here’s a bit of interesting trivia: Bette Davis, in 1961 when she was suffering from a dearth of roles, actually placed a help-wanted ad in the newspaper asking for work. I appreciate that level of sarcasm. The ad, incidentally, led her to tyrannical role in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” opposite real-life tyrant Joan Crawford for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
Davis wore her age well. The age of forty, especially these days, seems to be some kind of corner for actresses. I have heard in interviews how admired 40-year-old women (Like, say Demi Moore or Sheryl Crow) are for appearing in scanty clothing in film or magazines, or if they’re comfortable “still playing sexy” at age 40. I guess 40 in
Hollywood is death of some sort. Women 40-plus are resigned to playing “the mom” character, or perhaps the wife on whom the husband cheats.
Davis proved back in 1950 that a career can start at 40. That life is only just then starting to make sense. Margo Channing is in her forties. Bette Davis is in her forties. Both of them are just starting to get it.
With friends like these:
The camaraderie in “All About Eve” is something very palpable, very real, very warm and inviting. We have seen these people at one another’s throats, poking playfully at one another’s wounds and fears, gently jibing and kidding one another. There’s a lot of acid flying about. “We’ve seen that look before, Margo,” Karen (Celeste Holm) says at the outset of a possibly volatile party. “Is it over, or is it juts beginning?” Oh, they know her so well. Bill (Gary Merrill), determined to love Margo at all costs, grabs her by the shoulders and shouts “I love you, you dope” (Indeed, for Merrll and Davis got married at the end of the shoot). It seems that all of these people get on one another’s nerves. And that, I think, is a mark of true friendship. When you may not exactly always like the person, you sure do love them. Karen talks with her playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) frankly. Bill is not afraid to say something Margo might find slightly offensive. Even the jaded cynic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) has little choice but to speak the truth (only his view of the world is a little more Machiavellian).
I love the relationships in this film. I love the way the characters relate and talk like real, albeit very sophisticated and unusually honest, people. The honesty can, of course, often be brutal. Sometimes intentionally so. But it’s refreshing to see so much honest to goodness pain being openly dealt with.
In fact, at the end of the film, it seems to me that their friendships have remained in tact. Eve has charged into this circle of friends, mucked about things to her own ends, and ended up on top, just as she planned. She goes back to her hotel room to brood. The other four, while not exactly in great positions of love for the world around them, or in a very celebratory mood, still seem to be getting along o.k. At the hands of Eve, lives came to the very brink of ruin. People very nearly backstabbed their friends, sold them out, or alienated them. But she didn’t kill off the friendships. Margo and Bill will still be married. Lloyd and Karen are still married. And the four of them, I like to imagine, are still going to go to some
New York deli, sit down, and spend the night eating really big sandwiches, laughing, and badmouthing Eve until the sun comes up. Under the cynicism and brutal truths, there was love.
Celeste Holm reportedly did not like Bette Davis, as David was a foulmouthed chainsmoker, and Holm as a little more mannered.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted the screenplay from various sources including a stage play and a radio drama, and it was his dialogue that really brought out a lot of this friendship. Davis and the rest of the cast took these words, added some warmth, and we get open sores and harsh treatment of them up on screen. Many of the actors did not actually get along (e.g. Holm and
Davis as mentioned above. Anne Baxter insisted that she be nominated for the best actress Oscar, and not the assumed supporting role. It is still held today that Baxter’s move split the vote in the category, causing
Davis to lose. David and Merrill’s romance irked some people. Davis and producer Darryl F. Zanuck were at odds long before the film shot over some ancient conflict), but the dialogue helped shape that displeasure into something fuller, well-rounded, warm.
George Sanders was the only actor of the entire cast to win an Oscar.
Addison DeWitt seems to know exactly what’s going on at all times. He sees the manipulation, is honest about it, and seems to enjoy the oncoming train wreck. If Margo represents renewal and eventual grace in the face of aging, then
Addison represents doubt and wicked irony. Since I spend a lot of my time going to see films and them writing about them, I can relate to Addison DeWitt a little more closely than is comfortable. Critics have to suffer through scads of horrible art to find the true gems among them. They see bad art so that you won’t have to. A critic’s job is to sit down, watch a play or film, then point out the good bits. It’s a job that requires literacy, poise, intelligence (though having read some reviews by peers, it appears that’s arguable), and above all, honesty. It’s a curse to be honest all the time, especially if you run into an actor or director whose work you specifically do not like.
Some critics take the high road, take into account the kind of person the director might be apart from their body of work, evaluate their character, and perhaps offer some constructive criticism. Others go the way of the snobby, aloof cultural elite, who are honest no matter whom they may be hurting, and feel free to blast every minutiae of anyone they see. Guess which one
Addison, as a defense to the painful parts of his job, has become a cynic. And this art world needs a few, as there are so many huge egos in the theater that someone wandering around with a needle, poking the egos and deflating them a bit keeps the structure from collapsing under its own self-importance. He is also the devil who sways people’s choices based on what he prints, causing Margo to worry about her roles and Eve to push on to higher things. He is the catalyst. The voice of the people. He is immune to any criticism himself. An Olympian mind with the master talent of writing, and morals that would make Machiavelli himself smile.
Addison sees Eve’s talent (“all that fire and music”), knows it’s a threat to Margo, and goes ahead anyway. It his critical opinion that Margo is getting too old for the types of roles she plays, so she changes her mind about things. He is outside of the circle of friends, the four all know he’s full of it. Eve only uses him to advance her own career, and yet he never seems out of control. He’s slimy as all get out, but he’s never unsure of himself. I love this character.
George Sanders, a large British man with a deep voice seems to be the only one to play this role. Perhaps Dirk Bogarde could have done something nice with the role, or maybe David Niven could have brought his ineffable sense of class, but Sanders grips it by his teeth and doesn’t let go. We smile because we hate him. We want to smack him right in his smarmy mouth, but cheer him on nonetheless. It’s a difficult line to walk. And we end up cheering for him in the end for being able to: a) not only get the upper hand on Eve – spot her lies – manage to reign her in, keep her under control, but b) to muck though all of this emotional deadweight, ego, and serious threats to genuine relationships without himself getting hurt. Is he a role model? No. But he does come across as a twisted sort of antihero.
And now we come to Eve herself. Anne Baxter, herself an up-and-coming young actress, as I mentioned, did indeed try to eclipse Bette Davis fame in the making of the film. I’ve not heard any substantiated reports as to whether or not Baxter flattered
Davis at all, but she sure did her best to become a star in
Eve is, in many ways, a Shakespearean classic character. She is the liar, the dubious innocent, the ambitious and determined one, the one who seems harmless while growing up within the royal court, and then slowly begins to turn, earning trust, backstabbing people, lying, and trying to work her way to fame the easy way: by stepping on people. Sounds like Richard III to me. Eve is a shallow character who knows how to manipulate people by playing on their sympathy. She wants one thing and one thing only: fame. Love. She is the Charles Foster Kane of this film, but rather than seeking love by doing favors and showing strength, she simply lies. She is a fresh-faced adorable innocent, and she knows that fresh-faced adorable innocents are given opportunities, no questions asked, by those who are experienced and, yes, sympathetic.
Eve, however, does not ever come across as sympathetic herself. Except at the beginning of the film, when we the audience are just as caught up in her stories as the rest of the characters. She is a horrible villainess with endless ambition and no qualms about – indeed a very clear plan to – harm those around her. She uses subtle emotional tricks like a con artist. Note she only asks for something when someone offers it to her, or when it seems like not much of a favor after all. She only seems to be doing good. Everyone is convinced she is a golden child.
Except Margo, of course, which brings us back to the start of my brilliant essay.
Eve is, when you think about it, actually a less interesting character than any of the others. She, it turns out, is only implementing a complex scheme. She is not as rich or sophisticated as the friends and lovers and cynics. She is only ambitious. Her ambition defines her. So by the end, when she has been exposed by
Addison, is hated by the friends she claimed to like, and has finally won the imaginary Sarah Sidden Society award, she returns to her room without the statue. Hollow. Robbed of her ambition, and without her master plan hidden, she is a husk of a human. She sure knows how to play people, but she doesn’t know how to relate to them.
Is she jealous of the friendship shared by Karen, Lloyd, Bill, and Margo? Perhaps. I like to think she is.
I majored in theater in college. I know the allure of the deep emotional camaraderie offered by the theater world. I know the glory of having someone clap for you as you display yourself and your ego up on a stage. Anyone who has tasted it usually wants more. I like to think that Eve, talented and savvy, is only reaching for that. Not the fame or the awards. When she discovers that her means have destroyed what she was really after, she knows that it was human relationships she wanted. She just lost sight along the way. But it’s too late now. And now there’s another young and ambitious hound in her room, looking to go after the fame without having to suffer through the glorious humanity. Hm.
“All About Eve” deals with some real nasty human emotions, but, for better or worse, it is also the forebear of every television soap opera. In fact, there’s kind of a nasty Joan/Jackie Collins-type thrill in the bitchiness of the characters. They whine and moan. They hate each other. They’re upper-class and take thrill in sticking it to one another. They’re society’s finest, and they still get a kick out of cruelty. Were it not for the great acting and well-written dialogue, this could be an episode of “Dynasty.” Soap operas depend on wild situations, usually based on things like manipulation, infidelity, vice, ambition, wealth, and sometimes crime. Pushing things along is the overacting. Soaps today may no longer resemble very closely the intrigue of “All About Eve,” but they are a definite child of it. “Showgirls” is a direct spawn of “All About Eve.”
The screen bitch is a glorious dramatic creation, and a fun and campy one. Bette Davis and Anna Baxter were having a sneaky manipulative relationship onscreen, and a rather tenuous one off, and all of the gossip and drama exploded into a kind of mythic, overblown Queen Bitch. A Richard III in nylons, high heels and expensive hair. A symbol of upper-class glitzy screen drek, not to mention queer art.
This legacy, at least for me, does not distract from any of “All About Eve’s” humanity, but enriches it, brings it into a contemporary dramatic context. True the contemporaries are trash art at best, and plain old crap at worst, but it’s something modern kids can relate to; it’s interesting to trace its history.
All hail Queen Bitch. Long may she reign.
And in the meantime, if you’re not into soaps, watch “All About Eve,” because it is extraordinary. Watch Bette Davis, watch the drama, watch the glory of it all.
And for god’s sake get another classic under your belt. You owe it to yourself.