In one of the many fierce arguments within 1950’s All About Eve, Lloyd Richards looks at his wife, Karen, and says acidly, “That bitter cynicism of yours is something you’ve acquired since you left Radcliffe.”
Karen shoots back, “That cynicism you refer to I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys.”
Karen and Lloyd — played by Celeste Holm and Hugh Marlowe — are not the protagonists of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film, but their fight format is repeated throughout it: The woman says something true, the man says she’s being hysterical, the woman asserts her gender, the man fails to comprehend. The movie’s “temperamental” star is the 40-year-old theater actress Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis. Margo hires an enormous fan of hers, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who turns out to be, as Netflix puts it, a “conniving upstart.” Said conniving upstart, and all the other women in the film, are trapped in a man’s world where the theater’s only female roles are for twentysomethings and society’s only female roles are for wives.
The ostensible villain of the story is Eve, and while it’s certainly true that Eve is a backstabbing weasel, it’s also true that Lloyd Richards, a successful playwright, only writes plays with 20-year-old female leads. And it’s true that nearly every man in the film aids Eve in her schemes because men can’t imagine that someone as young and as female as Eve would scheme at all.
The women realize Eve’s slimy nature first; their opinions are instantly dismissed by the men around them as ludicrous. Underneath its short description, Netflix tells you, “This movie is: Witty,” which is true — the quips just keep on coming. But this movie also directly confronts patriarchy. All About Eve, in a way, is all about mansplaining. In a year when Her is attempting to critique flimsy female characters with a female character whose sole function is to teach the male protagonist about himself, the fully realized women of All About Eve (1950!) and the vicious fights they have about misogyny are astonishing.
In one such fight, this one between Margo and Lloyd, the actress is infuriated by the playwright’s glowing endorsement of Eve’s acting talent.
“It must have been a revelation to have a 24-year-old character played by a 24-year-old actress,” she spits.
“Well, that’s beside the point,” he says.
“It is right to the point,” she says, to a playwright who doesn’t understand his own role. Later in the argument, he demeans her further, calling her “a body with a voice.” “It’s about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto,” he yells, graduating from “body with a voice” to an even more explicit object. You don’t know what you’re talking about, he is telling her, taking for granted his ability to grasp the situation.
Another inadequate grasper is Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the nasty theater critic who writes at one point in his column about “the lamentable practice in our theater of permitting, shall we say, mature actresses to continue playing roles requiring a youth and rigor of which they retain but a dim memory.” Does DeWitt think that perhaps these “mature actresses” would prefer to play older characters if such characters existed? The notion doesn’t occur to him.
Lloyd, a close friend of Margo’s, writes plays specifically for her and yet he doesn’t bother to write roles that are for a woman her age. When he considers casting Eve as the young lead in his next play, he’s thrilled. “For once to write something and have it realized completely,” he says. “For once not to compromise.” Creating a proper character for Margo never occurs to him either.
The film, made in 1950, is all the more poignant 64 years later, where we face the same problem. The Annenberg School reported that in 2012, 64.1% of female characters in the top-grossing films were between 13 and 39. Only 23% were middle-aged.
The limits of writer-director Mankiewicz’s imagination are readily apparent: Margo’s speech about how she doesn’t have to play a twentysomething after she’s married because she has a husband to busy herself seems quite out of character (she loves her career!), and although the movie takes place almost entirely in New York City, there are no people of color anywhere — not even in the background. Also missing from the film is a credit to the writer of the short story on which the film was based — Mary Orr, a woman writer. Even with these limits, the film’s politics are largely as forward-thinking as they were in the ’50s.
This deep understanding of women reveals itself in a seemingly superficial, little unspoken moment of a female frustration. During their first big fight about Eve, Margo and her boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill) stalk around Margo’s living room hurling accusations at each other. Having recently gained some weight, Margo angrily opens a little box of chocolates twice during the fight, and resists eating the candy.
Toward the end of their fight, Bill starts defending Eve vigorously, telling Margo the idea that Eve is trying to undermine her and move in on Bill is “paranoic” — all in her mind. And listening to this, Margo finally thinks fuck it and she eats the chocolate.
“Cut, print it!” she screams when he finishes talking and she finishes the chocolate. “What happens in the next reel? Do I get dragged off screaming to the snake pit?” Her attempt to turn the tables by painting his version of events as a fiction is unsuccessful, and they’re interrupted by Eve. Bill never just takes Margo’s word — in fact, it’s not until he sees something DeWitt writes about Eve that he realizes she was not, in fact, being “paranoic.”
Sometimes when a man is explaining to you how you’re being hysterical, you can say anything at all and he won’t listen to you, and there’s nothing you can do but eat a fucking chocolate.
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