For the past year few months I’ve been remembering every now and then that the essay for All About Eve is one of the few pieces that I not only wrote way ahead of schedule but also revised. It’s surrounded by all these gaps of movies for which I’ve yet to write a word of prose, movies I should be worried about, but mostly I’d just smile and applaud myself for having been so forward thinking. So responsible.
Well now’s the time to format and post it. So i go to the master doc of collected essays, most of them in bad need of editing, and I pull up the All About Eve essay and just…I can’t believe there was a period where I thought this was acceptable. It’s awful.
I spent about ten minutes just tryna fix the first paragraph and then, stomach hitching, I ventured a quick skim of the next few paragraphs and didn’t even reach the end before realizing it isn’t salvageable.
May as well start over. Just use the existing essay for notes.
And the reason I mention that is cuz it feels fitting for what the movie is addressing. Kinda.
I actually used the word “divine” to describe Bette Davis’s performance here as Margo, a middle-aged Broadway star who’s celebrated at the moment for her nightly knockout performances as a character half her age. She’s dating a younger man and they’re happy together (though her blooming insecurity threatens that happiness at times), she’s respected in her profession, but increasingly mindful of her age — especially when a young fan named Eve (Anne Baxter) shows up in her dressing room, ushered in by one of Margo’s friends. The young Eve is following Margo’s performances from city to city and ends up taking a gig as her personal assistant and professional superfan.
Turns out Eve’s got other motives, though. Sinister shit. And while there’s now a bounteous sub-genre of stalker horror, where a beautiful and otherwise compelling fan or friend or lover turns violently possessive over the object of his/her obsession and modern audiences can see that danger right away, it mighta been a fairly new trope in the 1950s — although it isn’t anything horrifying or violent here. It’s just the idea of a person’s admiration having some kinda sinister hue. An ulterior motive.
What Eve wants is to usurp Margo’s fame. Indeed, the movie begins at a ceremony where she’s being presented with an award for acting, so we know from the beginning that the whole story (told in flashback) is gonna build up to how she succeeded in snatching the spotlight. Meanwhile, the movie’s being narrated (or at least bookended with narration) by a pugnacious theater critic who seems to be recounting the whole story as an example of showbusinesses cyclically cut-throat nature.
But what I took away from it — and maybe this is just cuzza where my head’s at these days — that Margo, though very much concerned with her status as an actor and with age, is also finding redemption, and comfort, in…ahdunno, the simpler aspects of life. Her marriage (it’s eventually a marriage, so let’s just call it that), her friendships, the fact of her work. If she’s got an arc int he movie I think it’s that, while she begins as an accomplished actor who can lean on her achievements and find some validation in them, what she becomes is a person who’s learned to find comfort with herself, limitations included, to find stability with her friends and a solid understanding of who she is and what she’s good at and what she enjoys — which I realize might sound reductive or new-agey but there’s this scene toward the third act, after Eve has kinda betrayed Margo’s trust, where, in finding themselves at the same restaurant, together, we see in Davis’s face how, after being so tense and ambitious and self-conscious all this time, chooses not to be bothered by Eve’s presence, chooses to focus on the friend at her table and the drink in front of her.
It feels like the realization of a maturity, a self-certainty, that we’ve watched her grow into over the previous hour. That she’s choosing to just go on with her life isn’t a sign that she’s found peace, necessarily, but it does suggest a sort of…coming to terms.
Do what you do, and do it well.
Lately, tryna date, I find myself saying something embarrassing through an app or text or Facebook messenger (usually I’m oversharing) an then, in the grip of a terrible nervous/shamed energy, I run off someplace with my notebook and jot two or three urgent-sounding diary posts. Long, unpunctuated, blathering confessional sentences. Burning energy. Tryna reclaim my error and make something productive out of it.
An online magazine called VoyageMIA interviewed me about the Project recently, I think they’re gonna run it this week, and I mentioned in one of the answers that I feel like this is the only thing I’m really good at, is writing, and that rather than being insecure about this narrow slate of talent I instead feel kinda liberated (at least lately) because I know, in this case, what I need to double down on. This is where I find joy, validation, comfort. It’s free and I can do it as much as I like, and doing it will make me better, and then I can share it with people for zero cost. If I’m prolific enough then I just might manage to eclipse my shortcomings, embarrassments, inadequacies.
Maybe that sounds grim. But it’s good! Because otherwise I’d just be floundering in self-pity, dread, regret.
And I think what we see with Margo at the end of the movie, as she and her friends watch with thinly-veiled contempt as Eve accepts her award, is somebody who’s decided to double down on what she’s got, on what’s good, and to let the other shit (pretty young insurgents and ageing) do its thing.
In researching The Red Shoes I learned there’s an actual subgenre about putting on shows, kind of a glimpse-behind-the-curtain, and while All About Eve isn’t really about a buncha people tryna put on a show it is, in a way, about showbusiness, and the toll it can take on its participants. There’s this meta component of having Bette Davis, a figure of royalty on the screen, play a figure of royalty on the stage and speak honestly (in wonderful dialogue by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz) about the business of acting and about her insecurities. It’s a chatty picture, wherein everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s going on or a different sense of other characters’ motives, and (more meta-ness) the story of the movie’s production seems to be surrounded with way more gossip than other pictures on the List. The “Notes” page that Turner Classic Movies features for so many movies is usually a pretty compact collection of trivia. For All About Eve it’s endless. Rumors about who based their performance on whom, the actors who were considered for various roles and why they couldn’t perform it, the screening policies that Warner Bros. imposed on theaters (it had been standard practice that a movie theater, when they weren’t doing double features, would play the same flick continuously for several hours and patrons would walk in whenever. They could sit there and watch it twice if they pleased. Warner Bros wanted to stop this because they thought that, with people not watching movies from beginning to end, they got a wrongheaded impression of what the movie was actually about, and word of mouth would suffer). A weird amount of attention is also lavished on Marilyn Monroe’s tiny appearance (second one on the List, following Asphalt Jungle).
It’s a great movie that seems to somehow embody its own subject matter, to become a subject of the sorta scrutiny its showcasing, generating more interest in the behind-the-scenes than the actual film.