May 18, 2022

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #16: All About Eve

An aging Broadway star finds a doting fan is actually a cunning rival in this drama.

I may have never seen All About Eve before, but The Simpsons did a parody episode once where Lisa somehow replaced Krusty the Clown as the most popular entertainer in Springfield.  In retrospect, having now seen the film, that combination doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  We could debate whether or not Lisa is actually a funnier performer than Krusty–part of the joke about Krusty is that he generally isn’t funny–but one thing is certain is that Lisa was never a fan of Krusty’s the same way Bart is.  And the episode does play that up.  Plus, though Lisa can go overboard like any character on that show, she is inevitably too nice a person to be that ruthless to Krusty the way Eve Harrington treats Margo Channing.  Eve seems to have a plan from the beginning while Lisa just sort of falls into stardom when a chimp is stuck in traffic.

Yeah, that sort of thing happens on The Simpsons.  All About Eve is not a comedy.

What it is is many things.  Commentary on the treatment of older actresses?  Yes.  A set of universal characters scheming for things that probably don’t matter outside of their own social circle?  Also yes.  A film where the most powerful character may be a critic?

Oh hell yes to that last one.

What else do you say when the ultimate “savior,” the one who stops the conniving Eve in her tracks from ruining more lives than she has perhaps already in her endless quest for fame and adoration is the highhanded critic Addison DeWitt?  DeWitt is one of the film’s two voiceover narrators, a device that I would argue shouldn’t usually work but does here for reasons I’ll get into shortly.  DeWitt is something of an Oscar Wilde type, full of put-downs and condescension, but he’s not an ally to Eve the way she assumes he is once she enters his orbit.  DeWitt’s main concern is the preservation of the theater as an art form.  His opening narration, where he introduces the main characters in his own way, makes it clear he thinks of Margo Channing (Bette Davis) as a real star.  Sure, he does seem to want to see other, younger talent like Eve (Anne Baxter) step in and gain some attention as well, but he’s not on her side or Channing’s side in the grand scheme of things.  He’s on the side of the theater, and that doesn’t mean he is a completely callous human being.  He finally calls Eve out on her lies in a devastating penultimate scene where he outlines every lie she told him throughout the course of the film, starting with her real name, how she’d clearly never been to places she’d mentioned, and that she wasn’t a young war widow so much as an unmarried girl chased out of her hometown after seducing her married supervisor.  Her current scheme, to break up a marriage between the second narrator and her famous playwright husband so she could marry him and get parts written specifically for her, may very well be the straw that breaks DeWitt’s metaphorical back.

As for the other narrator, that would be one Karen Richards, a woman DeWitt describes as marrying into the theater world.  She’s an outsider married to one of the biggest insiders of the theater world.  She’s the one who introduces Eve to Margo, and she’s the one who is often blackmailed and pushed into getting Eve more of the limelight than Eve may deserve.  After Margo, Karen is Eve’s biggest victim.  And as second narrator, I think she makes a nice bookend to DeWitt.  He’s the ultimate insider and power broker, whose word can make or break a career.  She’s only there on the side, happy enough in her role, but with little real power to do much of anything aside from whatever social skills she has to persuade Margo to do certain things.

But what about Eve and Margo?  Eve wouldn’t be out of place in a noir.  She’s not the innocent, adoring fan she presents herself as in the beginning of the film.  She has a plan, she has no problem with lying, and she will push for blackmail when she can.  She’s the type who will attempt to seduce another woman’s husband or boyfriend, and for Eve, she may be a talented actress, but what she really wants for herself is fame perhaps for fame’s own sake, a phenomena I’ve seen described as a specifically American occurrence.

As for Margo, Davis makes the character extra acerbic, giving a penetrating look when words won’t do, someone who advised seat belts might be needed before a party.  She’s a surprisingly sad character at times, noting she’d love for a man to be in love with her and not “Margo Channing,” but even she isn’t sure where she begins and the diva ends anymore.  She may be late to catch on to what Eve really is, but she is the first, and her complaints are legitimate.  Though we’re never told how Channing got to the top, DeWitt approves of her, suggesting she got there the old fashioned way and not by pushing an aging star out of the way to get there.

Of course, the film ends with another young girl pushing herself into Eve’s life the same way Eve pushed into Margo’s.  DeWitt, seeing the girl, recognizes the situation when he sees it and doesn’t really do anything to stop it.

All About Eve actually got 14 Oscar nominations, but most impressively, four were acting nominations for women.  Davis and Baxter were competing for Best Actress in a scenario that could remind viewers of the actual onscreen rivalry.  However, both lost the award to comedic actress Judy Holiday for her role in Born Yesterday.

Somehow, given the film plays with the idea of two titanic forces vying for attention on the stage, there is some irony in neither of the women actually winning a real award for her work.

NEXT UP:  It’s Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars…

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