1950, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray (2020), 138 minutes
If there’s one thing that most moviegoers can agree on, it’s that Hollywood today just ain’t what it used to be. The TV renaissance and streaming services have lured viewers away by the millions, iPhones allow anyone to film whatever they want, and most of the movies that people actually go to see are built on comic book franchises. In the public eye, meanwhile, Hollywood has become associated with Harvey Weinstein’s despicable record of serial harassment, intimidation, and rape—punished, at last, with a conviction. The fact that Weinstein finally got his comeuppance is definitely a good thing, and a testament to the bravery of those who spoke out, though we can only imagine what it might have looked like if Hollywood producers of old had ever been called out on their behavior. It’s widely understood that power-drunk egomania is endemic in Tinseltown; in that respect, at least, today’s Hollywood is just the way it used to be.
Indeed, there’s a whole subgenre of classics like Sunset Boulevard, the original A Star Is Born, In a Lonely Place, and Ace in the Hole that unsparingly demonstrates how the celluloid sausage gets made. One of the most eloquently damning is the 1950 film All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which has recently been given an extensive re-release by The Criterion Collection. Brilliantly written and impeccably acted, All About Eve works its cynical spell because it understands both what Hollywood pretends to be and what it actually is, a contrast that couldn’t be timelier.
All About Eve features three main characters, all of whom not only know what they want but what it takes to get it, and who don’t question the rules of the game. The titular Eve Harrington enters the story as an adoring (and slightly stalkerish) superfan of the grandly named Margo Channing, played with snarky sophistication by Bette Davis. Channing has lived her whole life in the theatre and has long been the toast of Broadway (a clear stand-in for Hollywood) but she also knows perfectly well that her days in the spotlight are numbered. The then 42-year-old Davis knew it, too. That a female star’s bankability is often reliant on her youthful good looks and implicit sex appeal is more openly discussed these days, but in the 1950s it took a veteran screenwriter like Mankiewicz to cop to it. Margot is amusingly blunt about the fact that her career has peaked as she knocks back martinis in her kitchen. “I am not twenty-ish. I am not thirty-ish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh—that slipped out. I hadn’t quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as if I’ve taken all my clothes off.”
Davis gives wisecracking Margot a dignity and a ferocity that bypasses victimhood and makes her a worthy adversary for all the (mostly male) hustlers and opportunists all around her. She gives as good as she gets in the perpetual battle of wits, which is an extension of the battle of the sexes, and helped make the film a camp classic. Having learned long ago what the industry is like from the inside, Margot doesn’t expect showbiz to be anything other than a ruthless competition that is always chasing after the next big thing and the payday it promises. When Ann Baxter’s adoring Eve inveigles her way into Margot’s dressing room, her starstruck awe wins the diva over. But there’s something a little unnerving about Eve’s obsession with Margot and her own sketchy personal history, where she attended plays over and over again until “the unreal seemed more real to me.” It isn’t just Margot’s glamor or talent that intrigues Eve but the applause she compels: “like waves of love pouring over the footlights and wrapping you up.”
Today, Eve could easily be addicted to social media and captivated by the idealized image of a celebrity culture that she wants so desperately to enter. Adrift in a sea of images, craving her chance to claim the admiration of an audience to validate her humdrum life, she sees Margot as her way into the world of finally being someone. Eve doesn’t just want to hang out with Margot, she wants to be Margot. As we see how far Eve will go to satisfy that craving, the film subtly suggests that it’s precisely this need for audience identification and validation that keeps the gears of the Hollywood dream machine running.
The third in this trio is the perpetually tuxedoed Addison De Witt, a sardonic theatre critic who relishes the power of what a sharply phrased review can do to a play’s chances. George Sanders, a notorious playboy in real life, effortlessly captures De Witt’s unctuous charm. De Witt is no high-minded aesthete; his influence provides him a way of being simultaneously within and above the hustle. Hollywood—and media in general—always needs someone to help stir up some buzz and De Witt is more than happy to oblige, as long as it’s done on his terms. He knows that Margot is on her way out, and that Eve is slowly working her way up, and he doesn’t hesitate to use these facts to his advantage. Why should he be caught up with scruples? As far as De Wit or Channing or Harrington are concerned, scruples just get in the way of how the world really works.
The then little-known Marilyn Monroe appears at a party scene at Margot’s house, which subtly juxtaposes the changing of the cultural guard. Margot is in a dark dress, tossing back martinis, and making wisecracks like “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Marilyn is in a glittering white gown, brimming with enthusiasm, and getting coached on which bigwig to go flirt with. She nods and listens in that famously faux naïve pose. Once she locates her mark she straightens up, squares her magnificent shoulders, and goes sashaying into history.
It’s an oddly prophetic moment given the subsequent trajectory of Monroe’s career. Part of the reason why she became so iconic is precisely because she knew how to play the game. That “dumb blonde” gave the public what they wanted, which is what made the producers money, and became incredibly rich and famous because of it until that very wealth and fame ate her alive. Marilyn offers another example of how America kills the things it loves. Margot is ultimately too streetwise to self-destruct like that, though the much younger Eve is more than happy to do whatever it takes to get her crown, even if she has to snatch it off of Margot’s head. We know by the end that it’s only a matter of time before the next adoring young fan will do the very same thing.
And this is what makes All About Eve so contemporary. Its witty distrust of what it really takes to make it big in Hollywood drifts through every frame like the smoke from the cigarettes the characters hold like stage props. This suavely unsentimental attitude to the City of Dreams was a revelation at the time, making the film a surprise hit and winning an armful of Oscars. (It’s the only time a movie has received four female acting nominations.) The film resonates even more now that the long overdue conversation about Hollywood’s self-satisfied complacency and the exploitative internal structures that reinforce it have been given a signal boost. As All About Eve demonstrates, so wryly but precisely, the rules of the Tinseltown game have been rigged for a long time.
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