“Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”
#16 All About Eve
Bette Davis. Wow.
All About Eve was my first exposure to Davis, the first true Hollywood legend I’ve encountered on this list so far, and I was positively mesmerized by her. Everything about her was grand, stylish, spell-binding. She owned this movie for me. When she was on screen, she was all I could see. When she exited a scene, the screen felt empty, and wouldn’t be made right again until she returned. They really don’t make them like that anymore. I could go on and on, but I shan’t.
In All About Eve an aging star is eclipsed by a younger, fresher face. Anne Baxter plays the ingenue Eve Harrington, who orchestrates her own rise to stardom by studying her idol Margo Channing (Davis) and manipulating her friends and colleagues, invading Margo’s life until she has entirely displaced her hero. It’s a straight-forward narrative with little in the way of sudden turns or surprises. A story that I suppose we all take for granted is true: the dog-eat-dog world of stardom and celebrity, where the young and strong have the scent of the old and weak, and their knives are out for blood.
The film opens at a swanky award ceremony at which Eve Harrington is being awarded The Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater. A snooty, sophisticated narrator introduces the dramatis personae, all dressed to the nines and prepared to kiss one another’s asses. It becomes clear that the crowd has gathered to bear witness as a luminescent talent is inducted into the pantheon, to the supernal society of artist-kings. It’s a coronation, really. The queen is dead. Long live the queen.
That snooty narrator is Addison Dewitt, a theater critic who reveals himself as the most powerful man in the film. He is a character with unique insight and wisdom (not to mention blazing sardonic wit), aware of even more than what he lets on, and he lets on quite a lot. Dewitt makes several observations about pop-culture and celebrity that are as true today as they were in 1950. Waxing philosophical on the staircase in the memorable party scene (featuring a show-stealing cameo by Marilyn Monroe), Dewitt says, “Every now and then some elder statesman of the theater or cinema assures the public that actors and actresses are just plain folks. Ignoring the fact that their greatest attraction to the public is their complete lack of resemblance to normal human beings.” He goes on (and I exploded with laughter at this line): “we’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk.” And he believes it, too.
And so does society, really. It’s all true. It’s natural I suppose for man to make man into deity. But that’s what makes Davis’ character shine here. Eve “kills” Margo, but she doesn’t die. She actually transforms into a more authentic individual, more comfortable in her skin. In a very famous moment Margo asks “Who is Margo?… besides something spelt out in light bulbs.” She is a stranger to herself, and one would have expected her to collapse under the stress of an existential dilemma coupled with the impending sunset of her acting career. But she handles it with grace and lands softly, stylishly, while her young counterpart Eve learns a very different lesson. In the end both ladies, traveling in different directions, each get what they want, but find out that it was something other than what they had thought they wanted. In their final meeting, Margo says, “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Eve has got what she wanted, but has sacrificed herself to get it. Margo on the other hand has lost her place at the top but has found happiness. “You know why I forgive Eve,” she says, “She left good behind.” And that good is her newfound taste for authenticity: “No more make-believe, off stage or on.”
Slow curtain. The end.