All About Eve isn’t the best movie, but it is the best kind of movie. It doesn’t announce itself or come out of the gate swinging, it’s too good for that. It makes you wait to get absorbed before you realize how involved you’ve become.
Which is interesting, because at first glance it might appear to fall into probably the worst kind of movie, or at least most overrated: “sumptuous” 1950s melodramas. We’ve encountered a few on the list so far, but none have survived the battleaxe: From Here to Eternity is glossy-eyed nostalgiaganda (“prostalgia” sounded too medical), and A Place in the Sun, for all its broodiness, has zero tension.
It makes sense, really. The 1950s was our Victorian Age with all its prudishness and stifling of open displays of human weakness. It’s no coincidence that Downton Abbey finds meaning in the era’s death the same way Mad Men finds meaning in the transition into the 1960s. The slightest bit of human emotion would be enough to cause an absolute scandal, and movies that deal with the topics tend to be remembered far too glowingly by the generation that grew up on them. Extended shots of Montgomery Clift’s face while he decides whether or not to kill his pregnant fiancee so he can pitch woo with Elizabeth Taylor must have seemed tense to a generation of kids who were taught to be terrified of sex. Burt Lancaster standing on the roof of his barracks as he shoots at Japanese planes with a machine gun braced against his dick must have seemed inspirational to anyone who lived through Pearl Harbor. But otherwise, they don’t resonate. They’re stuck in time in a bad way.
Excuse me if I reveal my bias here, but these films don’t hold hold up the way that All About Eve does because “sumptuous” isn’t praise; by definition, it’s surface-level. The trappings that make you comfortable, but not at all to the circumstances or quality. The luxury rooms on the Titanic were “sumptuous,” even as it sank.
The main problem here is the gap between stylistic choice and dramatic coherence, and here’s where All About Eve stands out. It shares some minor similarities with films that many people cling to as classic that are little more than superficially elegant, but for it, the form is the function.
The drama isn’t over-the-top and romantic for no reason. I had no problem believing that people who live in “the thee-uh-tuh” really would speak and act exactly this way, even with the elevated, performance-y dialogue.
A lot has been said on the various meanings and implications of All About Eve. There’s a level of homophobia, repercussions of the Cold War, normalized gender roles, psychology, all of that. Personally, I’m more interested in what made me like a movie in a genre I tend to avoid about somebody I would hate if I knew her in person.
Viewed on one level, All About Eve is the 1950s, campy equivalent of Single White Female. Aging and somewhat jaded actress Margo (Bette Davis in an enormous comeback role) takes in an admirer, Eve, who beings aping her. At first it’s sweet, if creepy. Eventually, she goes after everything about her; her fame, her style, her talent, her roles, even her husband. Eve’s initial sweetness and naïveté quickly turns out to be a big act, and she’s had a history of leaving ruin in her wake wherever she goes due to her machinations, often involving manipulating the sympathies of powerful people.
But there’s so much more going on here than that. Viewed another way, it’s the character study of an aging icon. The characters, dialogue, and themes are all interesting, but the plot of All About Eve is designed to strip away her pretenses that Margo has built for herself so that we can see what makes her tick.
Eve ends up not so much ruining Margo’s life as forcing her to confront her insecurities in the only way she knows how: theatrically.
And boy, are there insecurities. People like Margo are generally impossible to sympathize with in real life, let alone on screen. They come off like rich people with rich people problems. She knows she’s talented, but thinks her work is full of hypocrisy and that anyone who likes what she does is a fool, even when they idolize her. She yells about she looks foolish in a role she’s too old for, then when she’s not chosen she yells about not being chosen because she’s old. You can never just be friends with her without being on the hotseat over her imperfections, fishing for either compliments or insults.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that this film was a star-making role for Marilyn Monroe, whose life is another warning tale of how validation can often be the worst thing for an insecure person.
But Marilyn is a footnote in the context of All About Eve, because this is the quintessential Bette Davis film.
Davis had recently come off of a losing streak in the box office after being film royalty for most of her 20s and 30s, and she was on the verge of being a has been, too old to stage a comeback and too young to play mothers or supporting roles. The character of Margo had initially been thought of as more of a passive victim of Eve’s, but casting Davis made her more of a brassy, theatrical sort with problems of her own. Bette Davis playing the role of Margo is what most defines this film, and not just in a Jamie Foxx as Ray sort of way. She’s not the reason to watch it, she’s the linchpin that makes the whole thing work.
If the audience doesn’t view Margo as a force to be reckoned with, whether sympathetic or not, the film doesn’t work except as a good character study with pretty good performances and above-average dialogue. Instead, we have a terrific motion picture that set a record for most Academy Award nominations with 14, which would remain unbroken until Titanic.
Comments: A genre I don’t typically like about people I don’t typically like turned out to be a movie that I loved.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes, definitely, though — as good as it is — I would say lower on the list.
Inspired: Had it not been for All About Eve, Bette Davis’ name and style would still be famous today, but likely not the icon she became. Which means that we’d have no way to compliment someone who as “Bette Davis eyes.”
Next Week: #15 Star Wars
Last Week: #17 The African Queen
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