Films on Stars: All About Eve 1950

25 09 2010

Has it really been almost a month since my last blog post? Starting the new job and teaching three courses has got me in a constant whirlwind of course prep. Finding time to do research related things, let alone write blog posts, has been tough. The fact that my blog hasn’t been updated in quite some time is always gnawing away at the back of my mind, especially since there’s still a lot that I want to cover. I’m reminded of Walter Winchell, who said he had to constantly be working to “feed the maw” of his column. Of course, I’m not trying to write a daily column, like Winchell did, but if he felt overwhelmed in the old media days, imagine what he would think of Twitter. Which reminds me, I am tweeting a bit more often, so you can always follow me there (erin_meyers) for small tidbits of pop culture goodness.

On to today’s topic! The 1950 Bette Davis classic, All About Eve. Much has been written on this wonderful film, which I re-watched a few weeks ago, and here I’ll focus, naturally, on how the film depicts stardom. If I was to create a “canon” of films about stardom (which I suppose I am with this series), this film would be near the top, along with the two versions of A Star Is Born, as the definitive word on classic era stardom. In the film, we are presented with both the process of achieving fame (in ways both deserved and nefarious) and the fading of a major star. Basic plot summary from IMDB here. My quick version: Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a diva theater star whose talent has brought her fame and admiration. She is introduced to a devoted fan, Miss Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who becomes her assistant and eventually (and diabolically) works to usurp Margo’s fame and her boyfriend, director Bill Simpson. The seemingly naive Eve is, spoiler alert, actually working the angles at all times in order to secure fame and fortune for herself.

So on one hand, the character of Eve presents us with a view of stardom as something entirely constructed. It’s not that Eve lacks acting talent, as we are shown that she is quite talented. Rather, it’s that she is actually “acting” at all times, being what you want her to be in order to get ahead. She doesn’t leave her acting on stage and become a “real” person, she is always putting on a facade. Eve wants to become a star like Margo, or, more accurately, to become Margo in both public and private.

This is a particularly gendered view of stardom, because Eve’s ascent to fame rests on constructing an idealized version of a feminine self to get what she wants. She initially plays the shy ingenue, a small town girl who dreams of acting on the stage. But she is ultimately revealed to be a schemer who manipulates everyone and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. In a fun twist at the end, the now famous and revered Eve meets her biggest fan, a young woman who wants to be just like her idol, just as Eve did when she met Margo. The aging female star is always going to be threatened by, as Margo says earlier in the film, “a new, younger version.”

Margo presents us with a different view of fame as a gendered phenomenon, one in which female stars (no matter their claims to talent) are always deficient and always replaceable. Margo’s fame is genuinely presented as rooted in her talent as an actress. She is a success because she is good. The cost of this talent, however, is her inability to have successful relationships. She does have a loyal friend in Karen (Celeste Holm) and a devoted boyfriend, Bill, who is also her director (an interesting merging of her private and public self), but generally treats them poorly and takes them for granted. This diva attitude is tied to her performance of stardom…she has to act the part of the star and put on the facade to “be” Margo Channing. She is unable to find her “real” self, and the fact that she is getting older and losing her grasp on her fame means she’s losing the facade as well. Of course, this “real” self is framed as a more properly feminine woman, one who is essentially the opposite of the boozy, brash and snarky Margo.

Again we see the price of fame: that the female star is unable to maintain personal relationships because of a deficient femininity brought on by public fame. Margo must give up the public life of the star in order to be a “proper” woman and to actually find happiness with Bill. In this scene, she finally drops the facade of “Margo Channing” and admits that stardom has kept her from true (feminine) happiness.

Margo’s awareness of her deficiency is rooted in her recognition that she is getting old, and even though she was never exactly framed as a great beauty because her fame came from her innate talent, an aging (female) star is a fading star. She describes herself at one point as “an old kazoo with some sparkles.” Eve can replace Margo as a star and as a woman because she is younger, more beautiful, and therefore more desirable. Everyone else fails to see this point, but Margo is keenly aware of it, as evidenced in this fabulous scene:

The fact that she can be replaced with a younger model means that she will have nothing. That’s the price of fame, and only Margo as the female star is able to see it. But she’s not going down without a fight, and the film is based around the idea of female competition between Eve and Margo. Margo is admonished at one point for not recognizing what she has and instead focusing on what she is “losing” to the younger Eve. Bill says, “You have every reason for happiness but take every opportunity to let that kid turn you into a hysterical screaming harpy.” This version of femininity is most undesirable, both on a private and public level, and Margo’s struggle is she is losing her place in both. Her fame has made her a pathological female who is unable to maintain any part of her life. This clip is long, but this scene perfectly encapsulates the problem of the female star and also the awesomeness of Bette Davis:

In the end, Margo does give it up and learns to be “real,” in part through the exposure of Eve’s facade and realization of the importance of her personal relationships (see the monologue in the first clip above). Margo essentially “recovers” from fame through more proper femininity. Eve, on the other hand, is betrayed by her false facade of femininity because, in the end, fame has not brought her happiness. In fact, since she is presented with the new, younger model in the form of her biggest fan (the same way she met Margo), we are told that the cycle of female stardom is simply going to begin again. Eve will get old and hard, and the new model will take her place. But unlike Margo, Eve does not have any personal relationships, as she simply used people rather than connected with them. So the moral is that she will ultimately get her punishment without any hope for redemption through a return to proper (read: authentic rather than constructed) femininity.

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