Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
1950’s All About Eve is really all about the acting. The plot should be pretty standard for viewers of today: a manipulative woman befriends a famous person and works her way through her famous friends to land at the top, only to realize she is alone. I don’t think most people love the film because of the plot. Instead, they love it because of the characters and the acting. In an over-the-top yet real performance, Bette Davis leads a wonderful ensemble cast through their paces.
In an Oscar nominated role (there were many justifiable nominations for this film), Bette Davis portrays aging stage actress Margo Channing, who takes a young woman, Eve Harrington (played by the also nominated Anne Baxter), under her wing. When Eve starts manipulating situations and people, everyone stops being polite and starts getting real. However, neither Davis nor Baxter won an Oscar for their role, mainly because they split the votes so much that Judy Holliday ended up winning for Born Yesterday. Even two supporting actresses were nominated for the film: Celeste Holm for her role as Margo’s best friend and Thelma Ritter playing Margo’s maid Birdie, which also ended up splitting votes. Seriously, All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards that year, which was a record that lasted a long time. It wouldn’t be tied for nominations until 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic.
Are the 14 nominations justified? Most definitely. And the wins are also justified—It walked away with 6 of them, including Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor. I would like to single out George Sanders’s win for Best Supporting Actor. He plays theater critic Addison Dewitt to an acerbic tee—tolerated by the people he writes about, but not necessarily liked. His opening voice-over sets the whole stage for what we are about to witness.
Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, this movie passes the Bechdel test remarkably well. If you’re unfamiliar with this test, it was designed by the artist Alison Bechdel when discussing strong female characters. The “test” has 3 criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. With so many movies involving females as props for the male lead, it does shine a light on the disparity in the types of roles available for women. Not that the Bechdel test is the be-all indicator of strong female characters, but it is a good barometer to start conversations about it. The women do talk about men, but they also talk about their careers, their wants and needs, and each other.
One of the driving points of All About Eve is the idea of actresses passing their prime to be thrown away by society and replaced by younger, fresher models. Margo deals with this through the entire film. She’s just turned 40, but is playing characters that are 25, because there are no lead female characters written for someone her age. She’s considered too old by a number of people, and part of her struggle is addressing this disconnect with her director boyfriend and another friend, a playwright. It is also interesting to note that there was another film that year, Sunset Boulevard, which addressed a similar topic, but focusing on film instead of the theater.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the homosexual subtext running through the film. There are two characters who could be considered gay, but due to the morality codes of the day, their sexuality is heavily implied rather than explicitly shown. When I first watched this film as a younger man, I admit I didn’t even pick up on it (similar to the homoerotic undertones running through Spartacus—which is a column for another day), but having just re-watched it, I’m surprised I didn’t pick up on it sooner. It is no surprise that this film has a strong gay following.
Between the strong female characters, homosexual subtext, and campy overtones (have I mentioned it deals with the theater and Bette Davis?), All About Eve was and remains a huge hit. If you’ve never seen it, I’d recommend taking a chance on this old black and white film. There’s a lot there to like, and it is still very relevant.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix rental and streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.