We'd be lucky to live in a world where All About Eve was dated, however the 1950 film behemoth feels as timely and necessary now as I'm assuming it did all those years ago.
Just this weekend, we went through an Oscar ceremony in which not a single female-directed film took home a trophy, and there were only two opportunities to change that narrative—Ava DuVernay's 13th in Best Documentary Feature and Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann in Best Foreign Language Film. We heard not a peep about The Edge of Seventeen, Certain Women, Cameraperson, The Love Witch, American Honey, Things to Come, or any number of other deserving female-driven titles.
In terms of representation, it was as progressive an Oscar year as we've perhaps ever had, but on at least this one metric, the Academy is woefully behind. A cursory glance at one of its most lauded titles might have helped them realize that something is dreadfully and systemically wrong.
Joseph Mankiewicz's incredible film about an aging actress and the starlet angling to take her place earned 14 Oscar nominations at the 1951 ceremony and took home six gold statues. [La La Land, coincidentally, ties Eve on both counts, following Sunday’s stunning Best Picture reversal.] It stands to reason that most Academy members have seen it. In addition to being highly rewarded, it's also a GD masterpiece.
Much of the literature surrounding the film would lead you to believe that Anne Baxter's Eve is a conniving, villainous woman who'd lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead. While that's not necessarily untrue, I think the film explicitly and implicitly sets up Eve to be a rather sympathetic individual, while the men around her are far from the upstanding gentlemen their superior moral positions might suggest they are. Let me explain.
Both of the film’s leading ladies are trapped by men albeit in different ways. Margo, a more traditionally sympathetic character even if Bette Davis’ deliciously sharp edges are tough to embrace, has everything she could want—fame, adoration, money, love—but it’s dependent on the direction of Bill, the writing of Lloyd, and the reviews of Addison. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that her “best” days are behind her, but are they? As Felicia pointed out in her excellent opening take, there’s nothing preventing Lloyd from writing a part designed specifically his friend, a brilliant actress. Instead, he continues to create for her 20-something characters that prevent her from perhaps realizing her full potential as a creative force.
Similarly, these men’s unspoken grip on storytelling creates a world that practically begs for an Eve-like individual to manipulate her way to the top. We see from her first scenes what a talent she is—when explaining her past to this captive audience, they’re enthralled. But even after she’s “in” with the theater’s most powerful players, she can’t get a part. Finally, she bends circumstances to her benefit, and gets a big break. The result: awards and admiration. It’s suggested that her manipulation breeds her success, and while that’s true, if she was a shit actress, she wouldn’t amount to much. She simply needed an opportunity, and the death grip the film’s men hold over this world forces her hand. Told in another way, Eve’s story is extremely sympathetic.
While these two women are clearly at odds with one another, and while their rivalry is a source of great drama and entertainment, it’s hard for me to watch this film and not consider the similarities of their circumstances. Of course, the film goes there, too, in its final act with Eve assuming the Margo role and Phoebe sliding into Eve’s former position. Aging, competition for roles—these problems aren’t relegated to a single female character, and the film does a brilliant job at demonstrating their universality.
The men? They just chug along, as bloated, self-important, and aloof as ever.
Has anything changed?