Hello and welcome to Ally’s hastily slapped together version of Women in Film Wednesday.
Why, might you ask, is it slapped together? Well, as it would happen, I forgot my days of the week and Wednesday came and went and I realized it was Thursday. Post-grad life is a scary, messy business, and I’m still learning how to wade through while staying afloat.
My pick of the week is recent to me as I just watched it for the first time ever a few days ago. All About Eve was released in 1950 and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Lead by an iconic performance from Bette Davis as Margo Channing as well as the opposing and shrewd performance of Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington, this movie is, if nothing else, a stage on which actresses get to perform beautifully. Luckily for the viewer, it’s much more than a simple vehicle, and instead has some of the most enlightened perspectives on woman’s place in culture to come out of the time period.
The movie tells two stories. It tells the story of the aging actress, Margo, who forces herself into much younger roles in order to keep her relevance. It’s about her insecurity, inner demons and self-reliance turning into relying on her loved ones. It’s also a story about Eve, the younger performer who plays the beguiled ingénue to a “T” and never allows her motives or ambitions to shine through. Two actresses, two women, in different stages of their careers, both trying desperately to fight their way to the top of the food chain.
Margo is a stunning piece of work, and much of it is due to how marvelously Davis embodies her. As someone who hasn’t seen much of her output, beginning with Margo seems like a perfect introduction. She’s cynical and she’s theatrical, she sees the world as her stage but also is afraid of being lost in the mayhem. She’s so vulnerable that she’s built a prickly exterior to conserve herself in. Above all else she knows the place she’s in, she knows her talent, and she knows that as a woman even talent can’t keep her around forever.
There’s an integral moment in the film where Margo and her friend Karen sit in their broken down car on the side of the road and Margo makes her apologies. In the midst of this we get some inner truths. Even with who she is, she’s been given limited options. Does she keep playing much younger parts to try and fool herself and the audience of her age and, with that, her importance, all the while she’s wasting her energy? Does she allow herself to age both onstage and off and potentially fade off into obscurity and possible unhappiness? Does she allow herself to fall into a routine where she can embrace her home life with her soon to be husband? These are the options she gets – nothing in between. We see this type of thing every day: women are judged on every personal detail of their lives from home to work. We judge women if they choose to keep a job right after having a baby and if and/or when they put their child in a daycare. We judge mothers for being single or dating around. We judge women for being in their forties and unmarried or without kids. We judge a lot.
It’s her frank outlook and her ability to speak these things out loud rather than keep them bottled up that makes her a modern role model. Even her relationship with Bill is progressive, with there being an eight year age difference and Margo being the older one in the pairing. She’s 40 and he’s 32. Even today in film and television, if there’s an age gap it’s the man who’s older and it’s rare it’s noted. Typically it’s things such as Silver Linings Playbook where we’re supposed to just accept the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. All About Eve did something with that pairing that hardly anyone does today without making a fuss about it. Davis and Merrill share a sweet chemistry that makes their romance all the more believable.
Eve Harrington is an entirely different type of character. She is ruthless, meticulous and calculated. She was going to destroy Margo’s career as well as her personal life; she strived to drive her friends away despite how helpful they’d all been to her at the start. It’s interesting to note all of that despite how she uses her sexuality and how society expects a young woman to act to exert control. Men want a dutiful, doe-faced innocent who needs a guiding hand in the world, and she plays the part. Men who want a seductress who can play coy but also know what they want? She can play the part. She isn’t succumbing to a role but rather is playing the game. Her ambition is destructive in nature, and she uses these different roles to disguise her motives. Many people who have dissected the film more see her as asexual – she used what she had but she had no interest in any of it. She was just being practical.
Where Margo made me laugh, Eve made my skin crawl. Two very different portraits of women but both true revelations. This movie isn’t just good on its own merits but it’s good for the representation of women it allows. Women are the villains, the heroes, the caretakers, the wives, the friends, the confidantes, the superstars, the understudies and, most importantly, the inherent voices of the film.
All About Eve is currently on Netflix, so watch it when you get the chance.