We discussed several elements of the film afterwards, including the Biblical references and feminist/anti-feminist messages in the film. There are several indications in the movie which allude to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Many of the lines incorporate language such as “venomous,” “poisonous viper,” etc. when describing other characters. We speculated as to whether Eve was supposed to represent her namesake or if she was more like the serpent itself, who is often depicted in religious art as female. The award given Eve could represent the apple. One theory proposed was that having finally made her way to the top, Eve finally is able to partake of the “forbidden fruit” which reveals all the evils of the theatre business.
We spent a great deal of time discussing how this film is really about women, though not necessarily in a very liberal way. Bette Davis‘s character, Margo, expresses her ideals of womanhood to her friend Karen (Celeste Holm) at a low point in the film when she is feeling vulnerable. She says, “in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman” (film clip below).We talked about the tension between career and womanhood as presented in this film. Someone questioned whether the theatre industry itself was being attacked as something that corrupted women or if it was career in general. The point was made that in the era in which this film was made, show business whether it be stage or film, was one of the few industries where a woman could really make a way for herself professionally. Therefore, the Business was often used to represent how any sort of life in public, away from husband, home, and hearth, would/could ruin a woman and her femininity.
Although this type of anti-feminist sentiment pervades All About Eve, there is yet a fairly strong woman in the character played by Celeste Holm, Karen. Though in some ways she represents the perfect supportive wife to her writer husband, she does have some lines which set her apart. First of all, we know that she is Radcliffe-educated, a fact that seems to rankle Margo because she was never given the opportunity of such an education. She also has a great line when her husband claims: “That bitter cynicism of yours is something you’ve acquired since you left Radcliffe!” to which Karen replies: “The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!” Karen also makes an acute observation about the shackles of “proper” womanhood when she lies in bed suspicious of her husband. I cannot recall the exact quote but she states that she was doing the only thing a woman with nothing else to think about could do – worry about her man.
We talked about how this picture is so much a woman’s picture about women’s relationships but that it is portrayed from a primarily male lens (Laura Mulvey). Margo’s boyfriend/fiancé becomes the hero of the picture, though he doesn’t have as much screen time or lines as the female characters (a typical trend in old Hollywood). Karen’s husband seems a rather indifferent character, easily berated and easily placated by the women in his life and work. Addison, the slick theatre critic becomes a very nasty character, if not as truly evil as Eve herself. But the whole show, the entire plot of the picture, is really following the relationships between the female characters: between Margo and Birdie, Margo and Eve, Karen and Eve, Margo and Karen, and ultimately Eve and Phoebe.
For the most part, our group thoroughly enjoyed the film, especially those of us who were seeing it for a second time. However, one member of our group pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to those of us who have grown used to watching old studio-era films. She commented on the melodrama of the whole picture, in particular the performance given by Bette Davis. Although we on team Bette (as opposed to team Joan) like nothing better than to sit back and enjoy Ms. Davis having a good tantrum, our companions perhaps would have rather a bit more realism. We then discussed the historical trend of melodrama which perhaps originated in the silent flicks when so much had to be expressed physically. Another theory is that it comes from the Vaudeville tradition of desperation trying to get a reaction from the audience. But ideals changes after WWII when Hollywood’s cinematic spectacular no longer impressed a more pragmatic post-war public. Another, less substantial theory put forward by yours truly was that perhaps the political shift in Hollywood from a more conservative group of actors, director’s, etc. in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, to the flaming liberal Hollywood from the ’60s on, led to the cinema of stark realism.
I would enjoy hearing your opinions on any of the theories, comments, observations made in this blog. Feel free to leave your comments!