Friday, July 15, 2011

Rage Against the Dying of the Limelight: On Bette Davis in All About Eve

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 11:08 AM

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BAM's "Marilyn!" concludes this weekend; All About Eve screens on Saturday.

As long as she’s strategically parked in Margo Channing’s stairwell, a radiant young Marilyn Monroe walks away with every scene she plays as a cunning young climber in All About Eve. But even she can’t upstage Bette Davis’s Margo when they meet at the older actress’ real home turf: the thee-ah-tah, and that’s as it should be. All About Eve is all about Davis, a lioness raging against the onrushing winter with a rare opportunity to play one of her own breed.

Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose genius was strictly on the left-hand side of that hyphen, staged All About Eve pretty much like one of the plays its characters’ lives revolve around, filming mostly stationary actors as they pour out torrents of talk before a mostly stationary camera. But the syncopated symphony of wised-up wisecracks, snide asides, and perfect putdowns they throw down is so intoxicating I don’t mind the staid camerawork.

“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” says Margo’s dresser, Birdie (Thelma Ritter, God love her) after Margo’s meek acolyte, Eve (Anne Baxter), tells Margo and her friends her pathetic backstory—and that’s before Birdie sees through the cotton candy Eve’s spinning. And when Monroe’s Miss Caswell is pointed in the direction of a powerful producer, she pauses before going after him to ask: “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”

In fact, it’s Eve’s overplayed meekness and false humility that marks her as untrustworthy—and, ultimately, as an operator of the worst kind, “a true killer,” as cynical critic Addison Dewitt (the always imperious George Sanders) observes. Margo, in contrast, is all heart and soul. “Lloyd says Margo compensates for underplaying onstage by overplaying reality,” says her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), quoting her beloved husband, as usual.

Margo’s penchant for melodrama sometimes irritates her closest friends and boyfriend—Eve worms her way into their inner circle by exploiting its weakest link, Karen’s desire to take Margo down a peg or two—but it also makes her a complex and compelling character. Margo may “detest cheap sentiment,” but she loves the real thing, and she’s never shy about broadcasting her most vulnerable feelings and fears. “Infants behave the way I do, you know,” she tells Karen. “They carry on and misbehave—they'd get drunk if they knew how—when they can't have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure, or unloved.”

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Not that she doesn't have plenty of reasons to “carry on.” All About Eve is a tragedy disguised as a comedy, the portrait of an artist forced to face her own obsolescence just as she’s coming into her prime. Its two main arcs are the ascent of Eve and the descent of Margo, and though it looks for a while as if the first one is causing the second, Margo actually bows out of her own free will. The real villain isn’t Eve after all: it’s sexism and ageism that make this great star, whose talent is never in question, feel over the hill at 40, mortified by the thought of playing another ingenue and terrified of losing her 32-year-old lover. Davis, who was almost exactly Margo’s age when she played the part, was struggling with the same problem in her own career, and she gives a sometimes bravely unglamorous performance, perhaps her least mannered ever, encompassing everything from maudlin self-pity to loving generosity to diamond-sharp sarcasm.

So I’ve always hated the self-denigrating speech Margo makes to Karen as they sit in a stalled car. “Funny business, a woman’s career,” she says. “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.”

Granted, there’s some hard-won midlife wisdom in what she says. Most of us come to terms with the limitations of our options and our once seemingly boundless potential at some point—usually right around age 40. And with that realization tends to come a greater appreciation of the little things in life, and of the importance of having someone to share them with.

But that wisdom is all but drowned by the sexism drenching that speech. Mankiewicz was enough a man of the theater to love his magnificent heroine, but he was enough a man of his time to believe that she couldn’t be a real woman without at man at her side, and that having a career was somehow incompatible with being a woman. So how did he solve a problem called Margo? By marrying her off.

I could never quite buy her final retreat into happy housewifery—especially since it happens entirely off-screen, making me wonder if even Mankiewicz really believed that keeping house would keep Margo happy. But what lingers after watching All About Eve is not that unconvincing resolution but the tension underlying Margo’s gallant struggle—and the ever-younger, ever more ambitious wannabes crowding the wings as she fought to maintain her place, both onstage and in her partner’s heart.

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