All About Eve (1950)

In my previous post I had planned a comparative study of Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story and Baghban. The deaths of two people close to me interrupted my schedule, but  also made me reconsider my thoughts about the three films that I will try and revisit in the future

All About Eve was the screening of the January U3A matinee at the Lexi and it attracted some non U3A members.

The contributions from the audience  included: the rounder shape of women stars compared to the very thin actors of today, the delight of seeing a film with an intelligent dialogue and slow pace, the insecurity of Margo both as an actress and the partner of a younger man, the implication that only if one is ruthless, one succeeds in show business.

As with other classics I will not analyse the film but make some observations that have not been made by other reviewers and critics. There have been numerous studies of  All About Eve.  Jodi Brooks’ chapter:  “ Performing Aging/Performance Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George- and Myrtle) in the book “Figuring Age” looks at ageing and its experience as crisis by these characters.

In Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard reconsider and compare Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve from a cinematic point of view and conclude :

“…revisiting these films now gives the impression that we haven’t made much progress at all, that women―and especially women in the entertainment industry―are still dogged by these unreasonable societal standards about youth and beauty, this aversion to seeing a woman age naturally. … These films (Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve) together make a compelling case that our society’s obsession with age, with youth and attractivenes, leads to misplaced values and stunted emotional growth.”

I  will concentrate on the first 7 minutes of the film and show how the youth ‘versus old’ theme is  exposed.

All About Eve is so theatrical and so based on dialogue, witticisms and performance that the main theme of the narrative – that there is no place in the theatre for older women- can be obscured. Yet the very first sequences encapsulate visually as well as orally the contrast between young and old, male and female and the overall dominance of the young female star in the theatre.

The cynical voice-over of the critic De Witt introduces the award ceremony of the Sarah Siddons society and the characters of the film. A close-up of a man  who is giving the award trophy  “distinguished looking gentleman is an extremely old actor” is followed by a zoom out revealing a festive assembly of people. The view is from behind the assembly and facing the stage. We see mainly the back of the mixed audience but the few men that are facing are all old men. Surprisingly, a cut focuses on a line-up of 11 waiters, all old men who stand to attention, all eyes on the stage. This relatively long take  is maintained for 6 seconds.  What is the function of this shot?

De Witt’s ironical, cynical voice-over then introduces the director, and author as minor players in the world of the theatre, himself as essential to the theatre, Karen, the playwright’s wife, the producer, and finally Margo  ‘ Margo is a great star. A true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.

We then go back to the award speech: “I have earned my place out of the sun “ says the ancient actor “Never before has this award gone to anyone younger than its recipient tonight. How fitting that it should pass from my hands to hers. Such young hands, – close up of plump smooth hands crossed  on a table – but no close ups of his hands – such a young lady… young in years but whose heart is as old as the theatre.”

The actor continues his speech and enunciates all her qualities and dreams and finally announces her name “Eve Harrington”. The applause explodes in the hall and a long shot shows the rush of reporters and photographers. A brief shot returns to the old waiters smiling and applauding precedes the close up on EVE who is framed between two old men. She bows and goes on stage to receive the trophy. A still shows the chairman’s extending his hands holding the trophy to the extended hands of EVE. Also an old man in the right hand corner of the frame applauds and his veined hands are clearly seen.

What is interesting in these introductory seven minutes of a film that deals with the young female star supplanting the older star is that the contrast between young and old is not played on the bodies of women but in the contrast between old men and young woman.  Women in the Sarah Siddons award ceremony are in the background and out of focus. In contrast old men are prominent and obviously all ‘working’ be it as waiters or in more exalted positions as  chairman or officials of the society.  The only ‘visible’  women are Eve, Margo and Karen. The close ups of faces, neck and hands of the last two show no sign of ageing. At the age of 40 and around 30 the two older characters are not expected to show any. It is common in cinematic terms to signify age by showing liver spots and prominent veins on hands. To my knowledge plump smooth hands are rarely shown as a sign of youth.

The conflict between the two women and Eve is simply expressed by their impassive faces while Eve is praised and the whole of the audience claps and cheers.

The rest of the film is a flashback to the process by which Eve achieves her ambition of becoming a star and Margo resigns herself to give up her acting career.

I will look briefly at the women.  Apart from Karen the wife of the author, there are five female actors. Miss Casswell, aspiring and talentless uses her sex appeal to make connections in the theatre world. Birdie is a retired vaudeville actor who works ( ‘slave labour’) for Margo, as her dresser and help. She is perceptive, sarcastic  and down to earth and suspects Eve’s devious manipulations. Eve uses everybody in blind ambition to become a star. Her whole life is a performance. She invents her past and acts the helpful admirer of Margo. She tries to seduce  Bill (Margo’s lover and director)  and nearly succeeds in doing so with the author, Lloyd.  But having reached the goal of stardom she is humiliated by De Witt, the theatre critic. Even in this scene where she throws herself on the bed, in tears, in true Hollywood cliché behaviour is more ‘acting’ than genuine.

Finally Margo in De Witt’s words  ‘a great star. A true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else’… Whereas Eve’s character is defined as of ruthless ambition, Margo is only seen as a star with a younger lover.  In her private life she behaves and ‘performs’ the crisis of her ageing to her friends as a star.

Margo at the age of 40 seems to have no choice but to bow out gracefully to let the young Eve replace her but this is announced only after Bill has asked her to marry him. Lloyd’s new play is about a young woman and it is inconceivable that Margo would ask him to write for her. So “No more make believe on stage or off…. I do not have to play parts I am too old for just because I have nothing to do with my nights”. In other words she leaves the stage to be a married lady. Wife as an all consuming role…

If All About Eve is about the theatre as Sunset Boulevard is about the cinema, both the introduction to the film and the narrative indicate that there is no place in the theatre for older women. 50 years after the film Harriet Walter confirms Ed Howard view.In an interview in the Guardian 0f   15/01/11: “We can’t impose on creative people the instruction, ‘you have got to write a part for an older woman’. Even the increasing numbers of plays written by women seem not to have parts “about the older woman. [She] is usually feeding into a story that is centred on somebody younger. And that means that we have to shrink to a more two-dimensional role than our actual lives are.”

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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