This weekend I netflixed “All About Eve,” the 1950 classic about the rise of an ambitious young actress. Well, actually, it’s about the taming of powerful women and the fate of aging women. It’s a cautionary tale for career women. And it’s a reminder that you’re no woman without a man.
Which makes the story all the more tragic, because the woman who is successfully tamed by film’s end is so outrageously fabulous. I wanna be Margo Channing!
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a Broadway legend, a woman who lives life large. She’s smart and witty, even acerbic, a superior sparring partner to any man in the film. She speaks her mind. Pulls no punches. And never apologizes. What style, what style.
But poor Margo has just turned–gasp–40! She’s worried about losing her lover, a man eight years her junior. And when she figures out before her pals that the apparently devoted young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is actually a scheming back-stabber, she is called out as a “hysterical, screaming harpy.”
If she doesn’t want to sign on to the role of hysteric, the cultural narrative offers her only one other option. To play the wife. Well before the movie ends, Margo has literally disappeared into happily-ever-after. She withdraws from her brilliant career to “work” at being a woman.
This is her “a-ha” moment:
“At best, let’s say I’ve been oversensitive to . . . well, to the fact that she’s so young – so feminine and helpless. To so many things I want to be for Bill . . . funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted . . . and, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is. Without that, you’re not woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings – but you’re not a woman . . .”
It’s no coincidence that the woman who sets off this entire melodrama is named “Eve,” the archetypal woman. In fact, each female protagonist represents an aspect of “Eve.”
Eve is the aspiring career woman, filled with pure, pulsing desire. Alas, things don’t end well for her. She succeeds, but she ends up alone, controlled by a man and taken in by the flattery of an even younger woman with even more ambition.
Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) is the happily married woman, a gal pal somewhere in age between Eve and Margo. She’s Radcliffe-educated: all the better to serve as helpmate to her playwright husband. She dabbles in painting but claims no ambition of her own. She’s the consummate “woman-behind-the-man.” She manages to hold onto her man, but not without some maneuvering of her own. Karen, clever girl, has the best line in the film. After being accused of acquiring a “bitter cynicism” after leaving Radcliffe, she sets her husband straight: “The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!”
Just as the youngest women initiate their careers by slavishly serving their role models, so the oldest female character, a retired actress without a man of her own, settles back into that same role. “Miss” Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) is Margo’s faithful womanservant. I wanna be Birdie, too! Oh to have that low, gravelly, sardonic tone. She is not working at being a woman; she’s enjoying being herself. And, do please note, she is the only one of this self-absorbed crew who doesn’t fall for the sad tale Eve tells to introduce herself: “What a story,” Birdie blurts out, as Margo is dabbing her eyes. “Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end . . .”
“All About Eve” was released 60 years ago. I wasn’t expecting feminist enlightenment. What I’m gonna do is have fun reinventing the film’s narrative. I’ll give Margo a Do-Over! Maybe she’ll start her own clothing line, or run for president. After all, stories, like lives, are meant to be reinvented.
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