[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: On the same weekend that Robin Hood opened, Cate Blanchett turned 41. At least, most of her did. Watching her play Marion to Russell Crowe's Robin, I found it difficult to ignore the glaring (apparent) reality that some of the actress is considerably younger. Blanchett's cheekbones, for example, have such a suspiciously hard, dramatic contour that they look less like features of a human face than like accents of a sporty Mercedes-Benz, probably because they are equally unnatural. Blanchett, I think it's safe to say, has undergone some cosmetic surgery throughout her movie career. And while I want to make it clear that it's none of my business what Blanchett does to or with her body, I do feel I have every right to make the following observation: In Robin Hood, Blanchett's too-perfect cheekbones look neither middle-aged nor Middle Age.
For me, this is a problem, not just in terms of how Blanchett's face doesn't fit the film but also because of the way it continues a somewhat disturbing trend. Particularly over the past 10 years, cosmetic surgery has become a kind of epidemic in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman's forehead no longer wrinkles. Rene Russo's skin is tighter than it was when she got her big break in 1989's Major League. Meg Ryan hardly looks like Meg Ryan anymore. Meanwhile, almost every Hollywood actress over 35 seems to have Keira Knightley's cheekbones, which makes one wonder whose cheekbones Keira Knightley has. Increasingly of late, I'll come across one of these significantly remodeled actresses and silently shake my head, not in haughty admonition but in bewildered sadness, wondering what's gone wrong with society to impel these already attractive women to transform themselves into stiff-faced approximations of beauty, sacrificing their uniqueness for some Hollywood Barbie "ideal."
And then I remember All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. And then I realize that the only thing new about what's going on in Hollywood today is the available medical technology. Sixty years old this year, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard each tell stories of actresses who are effectively washed up as a result of becoming middle-aged—the only significant difference being that one of them sees the writing on the wall, while the other is so deluded that she doesn't even see the wall. This is certainly not the only way in which these films are united, but it strikes me that it's a good place to start. Ed, I wish I could tell you that the experiences of All About Eve's Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) strike me as something from our country's shameful past. Instead, I think the way that these films suggest that, for actresses, wrinkles amount to irrelevancy is all too contemporary. How about you?
Ed Howard: Both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are the kind of movies that one hopes, 60 years later, would seem like dated time capsules from an earlier era. Instead, as you say, revisiting these films now gives the impression that we haven't made much progress at all, that women—and especially women in the entertainment industry—are still dogged by these unreasonable societal standards about youth and beauty, this aversion to seeing a woman age naturally. It's such a well-known aspect of popular culture that it's taken for granted, and I don't think I need to dwell on it too much. As an actress ages, with very few exceptions, she will get fewer and fewer parts, and more and more limited parts, so of course most Hollywood actresses will do anything they can to maintain some semblance of youth as they approach or pass the age of 40.
In somewhat different ways, both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard (which were both released in 1950) deal with the phenomenon of an actress whose best years are behind her. Margo is a Broadway star who's increasingly aware that she's starting to look ridiculous playing 20-year-olds, and that maybe she isn't at the apex of her profession anymore. Norma, meanwhile, has already retreated from Hollywood fame into a solitary existence where, with the help of her butler/former director/former husband Max (Erich von Stroheim, himself a former director) she can convince herself that she still matters. The films also create an extra layer of metafictional commentary from the fact that both actresses were arguably reflections of the characters they played. Gloria Swanson had been a star in the silent era and survived the transition to sound but not the transition into her 40s; Sunset Boulevard was her first film in nine years. Bette Davis was still making movies regularly in 1950, but certainly her years as a young starlet were behind her, and like her character Margo she was poised on the brink of middle age, perhaps fearing that her audience wouldn't follow her into her maturity.
Maturity is perhaps a key word here, for while both films are concerned with the fear of growing old, neither of these characters is actually growing up. In fact, these films together make a compelling case that our society's obsession with age, with youth and attractiveness, leads to misplaced values and stunted emotional growth. Norma and Margo, as their bodies grow older and they can no longer hide the wrinkles in their skin and the bags beneath their eyes, cling desperately to the shallow preoccupations of youth. They're emotional children in aging bodies. Instead of embracing the maturity and wisdom that should come with age, they struggle to maintain an illusion of youthful "perfection," and they project the attitude of entitlement, capriciousness and superiority that comes with it.
JB: I think that's mostly right. To be fair, Margo ultimately does grow up: bowing out of a part she knows isn't right for her, marrying the man she loves and coming to terms with the fact that Eve (Anne Baxter) isn't a threat to her happiness. But Margo gets to that point all of a sudden, and only after a lot of kicking and screaming. In essence, she ignores reality until she has no choice but to confront it, lest she go insane, which is precisely what happens to Norma in Sunset Boulevard. So, yes, I do think these films say a great deal about how the desperate pursuit of external youth creates a kind of arrested development, because it's easier to never grow up than to never grow old.
I suppose all of this is obvious. No one could watch these films and fail to grasp that Margo and Norma demonstrate how difficult it can be for women to pass into middle age. This theme isn't just in the subtext, it's often in the text itself. (Margo: "Bill's 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.") And yet just because we're conscious of what these films are saying doesn't mean we're as good about remembering what they've said. Given that All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are about actresses under the extraordinary expectations of Hollywood (or Broadway as a stand-in for Hollywood, in the case of All About Eve), it's tempting to regard Margo and Norma as movie stars only, thus forgetting that they are very much regular women, too.
So it is that Sunset Boulevard's final scene, in which Norma slithers toward the camera like the vampire in Nosferatu, ready for her famous closeup, is often interpreted as a comment on Hollywood's twisted ideals and the corruptive effect of fame. It is that, no question about it, but on a much more basic level that scene also reveals a woman driven not so much by a desire to be loved by the world (or the camera) as by a desire to be loved by just one man. Given Norma's obsession with stardom, it's easy to forget that what sends her into madness isn't the realization that her movie career is finished but that her live-in screenwriter/quasi-boyfriend Joe (William Holden) is leaving her for a younger woman. For all the elements of these films that are specific to Hollywood, I think they each speak just as well to some of the inherent pressures of general womanhood, even if they tend to use dramatic, theatrical gestures to get their points across.
EH: That seems accurate. The Hollywood actress (and actor, for that matter) is often held up as some kind of paragon, an ideal of beauty and charm that "ordinary" people aspire to mimic. The Hollywood celebrity is a model for what the rest of us strive to be: attractive, successful, talented, poised and elegant. These films pierce that idealization to suggest that these rich, famous actresses aren't actually so different from the rest of us; they too worry about growing old, about losing their glamor, about being unable to find love due to fading looks—or about losing what love they already have. As you make clear in your intro, such concerns are particularly acute in the years before universal plastic surgery, when these celebrities, just like the rest of us, don't really have many options for avoiding the inevitable passage of time. The connection between these actresses and the non-famous women who go to see them is thus more pronounced than it is today, when those who can afford it don't have to age (visibly at least) at the same rate as everybody else. The drama is exaggerated and stylized, but to some extent these films are mapping ordinary concerns onto the kind of fabulous women who some might assume would be above such problems. In that sense, certainly, neither of these films is just a satire of the Hollywood/Broadway cycle of fame and irrelevancy; they're both also about the more prosaic concerns of "general womanhood."
But all of that exists on a thematic level. I don't think anyone would argue that, in other respects, either Margo or Norma (or anybody else in these movies) really seem like icons of typical femininity. They are very particular characters, played by very particular actresses who are drawing on very particular acting traditions to craft stylized, in some ways absurd performances. Although I'd agree with you that both these films resonate with universal concerns that aren't limited to the insular worlds depicted onscreen, the actual textures and aesthetics in both films are far from realistic. Norma Desmond is, as you suggest, derived equally from Nosferatu and the tradition of the silent vamp, from literal vampires and vampiric screen seductresses. She spends much of the film with her hands gnarled into claws and her eyes nearly bugging out of her head. Sunset Boulevard, after all, isn't only about the physical degradation of age, but about losing touch with societal norms and the rapid pace of aesthetic change.
Norma has lost relevance as much because she represents an outdated aesthetic as because she's started to grow old. The silent movie stars acted with their faces and their bodies because they couldn't use their voices; Norma lives her everyday life as if she's still in a silent movie, still mugging for the camera, projecting her emotions in every twitch of her expressive face. Mitigating against the idea that Norma is a woman like any other is the way that the film surrounds her with the trappings of Hollywood's past: not only von Stroheim as her butler, but cameos by other actors whose stars dimmed in the sound era (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner). At one point, Norma even dresses up like Charlie Chaplin to do a mime routine as the Tramp. Norma's biggest crime, as far as Hollywood is concerned, is her refusal to adapt to the times; in some ways the film suggests that society might be willing to forgive a few wrinkles, but it can't countenance Norma's intransigent devotion to silent movie (over)acting and old-school epic extravagance. The rest of the movie industry has moved on, and Norma's been left behind, punished for sticking to her aesthetic convictions, as cheesy and out-of-touch as her preferences might seem to post-silent era audiences.
JB: That actually segues nicely into another of Sunset Boulevard's famous moments: when Norma responds to Joe's assessment that she "used to be big" by demanding, "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!" It's a magnificent line—truly one of the best in cinema history—and, like the film's equally famous final shot, it's tempting to think of that line as nothing more than a sharp dagger to the heart of a misguided Hollywood. I mean, just think of the countless essays you've read that use Norma's quote en route to a proclamation that Hollywood's best years are behind it. Sure, there are lots of movie lines that are more celebrated or better recognized, but I'd be hard pressed to come up with one that cinephiles, on the whole, find more personally resonant. Because we've all been there: staring up at the closing credits of a lackluster movie with that empty feeling that Hollywood used to make 'em better. Whether that's true or not is beside the point. When Norma sneers that the pictures have gotten small, cinephiles reflexively nod their heads in agreement. We love her in that moment.
But let's look at that line carefully, because it's also evidence that Norma is, as you noted, tragically out of touch. With her card games among silent film stars (the "waxworks," Joe calls them), her private silent-movie screenings and her antique car in the garage, Norma is doing everything she can to live in the past (not altogether unlike modern actresses trying to live in the past by undergoing cosmetic surgery). The truth is that Norma doesn't actually know that the pictures have gotten small, because she doesn't watch those pictures. Norma assumes—or convinces herself—that the movies have declined in quality simply because she isn't in them. So it's interesting that the same piece of dialogue that can make cinephiles high-five one another in triumph, as if Norma has reached into the future to bitch-slap Jerry Bruckheimer, can also be seen as the stubborn, clueless ramblings of someone bitter that the world has changed on them—the kind of stuff served up these days by Andy Rooney, who recently ranted against the micromanaging of medical professionals by bragging that he's never brushed his teeth twice a day. In that light, Norma isn't the woman that more reasonably disgruntled cinephiles should want as their spokesperson.
EH: Yeah, it's funny that her words have become such a battle cry against mediocrity, because in fact Norma herself isn't exactly a paragon of artistic integrity and inventiveness. She doesn't miss the good old days because they represented a high water mark in cinematic aesthetics; she misses the movies of the past because they were more glamorous, more lurid, because they better suited her own particular talents and, as you say, because she was in them. Norma doesn't fit in the modern movies because she's too melodramatic, too over-the-top in her acting—whether she's onscreen, trying out for a part or simply playing herself in her increasingly theatrical everyday life. The movie she wants to make is an absurd soap opera about Salome, the kind of movie that Cecil B. DeMille might've made in the silent era, which is why she wants DeMille to direct. But even DeMille, in the middle of directing a probably-not-so-different-on-the-surface sword-and-sandal epic, recognizes Norma's ideas as outmoded. The pictures didn't get too small for Norma, they simply changed, and she was unwilling or unable to adapt with the times, to adjust to new aesthetics and new ways of making movies. (Witness the overhead mic swiping her in the head as she sits on DeMille's set, as perfect a metaphor as any for Norma's relationship to sound.) As I said before, there's something to admire in Norma's refusal to compromise her own vision, but at the same time it's a very conservative outlook, a desire to halt the natural evolution and development of a medium striving for new and different means of expression.
Director/co-writer Billy Wilder is striking a delicate balance here. Sunset Boulevard is a lament for a lost era, for those forgotten stars who failed to make the transition to sound, whose careers faltered when faced with the new economies and aesthetics of sound filmmaking. There's something poignant even about the mere appearance of Buster Keaton, looking somehow wasted and gaunt, a premonition of the meditation on mortality and performance that he'd later deliver in the Samuel Beckett-written Film. There's no doubt that Wilder feels genuine regret for the talents lost or forgotten during the transitional period from silents to talkies. At the same time, the film doesn't idealize the past, doesn't suggest that everything was better before sound came in and ruined it all; surely that would be hypocritical and silly coming from a director who started out as a writer and always knew the value of good dialogue. Instead, the film suggests that commerce always ruled, that the silent era represented not some golden age of artistic creativity but simply a different form of commerce, catering to different tastes and serving up different forms of spectacle. In the film, DeMille (gamely playing himself) rejects Norma and her ludicrous vanity project script not because he's dedicated to his own noble artistic vision, but because he's learned how to tailor his commercial products to new temperaments, while Norma is still serving up old-school kitsch. She hasn't learned how to make modern trash.
Wilder, for his part, counters this artistic bankruptcy, which bridges the old and the new Hollywood, with some of his most compelling filmmaking. The film is packed with iconic images, like the early shot of a corpse floating in a pool, ingeniously shot from below the water, looking up at the body. Wilder matches Norma's extravagance with baroque compositions that give the film the feel of an overblown Gothic fairy tale. At one point, Wilder shoots Joe's arrival into a room from a distance, placing a pipe organ keyboard and Max's white-gloved hands in the extreme foreground. Coupled with the film's consistent depiction of Norma as a Nosferatu-like vampire, these shots further solidify the film's links with the past, with Murnau and the German Expressionists—in other words, with the real artistic touchstones that might lend some credence to the argument that the pictures used to be bigger.
JB: Bigger, right. But, I agree, not necessarily better. As you said, it would be hypocritical, or at least inauthentically self-deprecating, for Sunset Boulevard to suggest that sound, and more specifically words, cheapened cinema. Sunset Boulevard is powered by words, in Joe's omniscient screenwriter's narration and even in the form of routine dialogue. And if other films, prior and since, have been made with such an obsession for "talk, talk, talk" that very little thought has been given to what's within the frame (ahem, All About Eve, are you listening?), well, we can't blame the technology (or the "words, words and more words"), only the filmmakers.
And so I wonder if over time the true meaning of Norma's famous quote has become somewhat lost. Perhaps now we instinctually interpret the phrase as representing Sunset Boulevard and movies of its era, rather than the silent movies Norma is actually attempting to defend. On that note, I have to admit that over the past two years, when I've come across critics blasting away at 3-D as if its (re)arrival is the death knell of cinema, I'm startled at how much their diatribes (which I largely identify with, by the way) can come off like Norma Desmond offering her own technology-inspired obituary for movies: "They're dead! They're finished! There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn't good enough for them. Oh, no. They had to have the ears of the world, too. Look at them in the front offices. The masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them." Ed, is it possible we could reach a point, perhaps only 15 years from now, where the anti-3-D crowd and/or the anti-Robert-Zemeckis-motion-capture crowd sounds this loony? I shudder at the thought. In fact, don't answer that question.
I'd rather get back to Sunset Boulevard's images. You already mentioned one of my favorite shots, of Max's fingers hammering on the organ keys, and the shot of Joe floating in the pool, which, incidentally, I think of every time I watch the opening credits of Mad Men. But there are so many other examples of this movie's visual richness, particularly in contrast to All About Eve. For starters, consider that terrific moment when Joe first ascends the stairs toward Norma's bedroom and Max steps into the frame to deliver one of the film's best laugh lines: "If you need help with the coffin, call me." Genius! Consider the shot when Joe walks into the parlor for the first time, and the camera pans left along with Joe and pulls back to take in the enormity of the room. Consider, of course, the famous scene in which Norma stands up into the projector light, drawn like a moth to the flame, in a maybe-somewhat-accidental moment that she milks for all the theatrics it can provide. Consider the very simple slow zoom over Joe's shoulder as he peers into Norma's empty bedroom trying to understand the woman who lives inside it. And, just because I have to stop somewhere, consider a few of the various shots during Norma's trip to Paramount, like her touching moment in the spotlight, or the way the camera takes in the chaos of the set and then slowly zooms to frame Norma and "Chief" DeMille for their intimate conversation. Visually, as well as verbally, this is very much a "big" picture. And, as I've already implied, I can't say the same of All About Eve.
EH: Neither can I. Talking about these two films together is interesting in all sorts of ways, but one way in particular is very fascinating from a meta perspective: All About Eve might be the textbook example of the kind of movie that Norma Desmond is railing against in Sunset Boulevard. It couldn't be more perfect. This is what happens when words take over and the visual virtues of the cinema are neglected. Joseph Mankiewicz's take on the subject of aging actresses really is all about "words, words and more words." Though I find All About Eve reasonably interesting in terms of themes and, to some extent, performances, I have to confess that in virtually every other respect it's a profoundly dull, aesthetically bankrupt film, with little to offer beyond the ideas that prompted the script. It might as well have been an essay about female aging for all the visual or aesthetic interest Mankiewicz brings to this material.
Virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and little more. Mankiewicz frames the characters and occasionally moves the camera to follow them around if they happen to move—which they often don't. It's a shockingly static, theatrical film, which is perhaps fitting for its Broadway milieu but doesn't really translate into satisfying cinema. I can hardly think of any shots, any camera moves, that enhance the themes or say something substantial about the characters or their relationships—at least, not until the very last shot of the film. This final shot is so striking, so potent, that it seems to have come from a different movie altogether. In the last scenes of the film, the narrative has already moved on from Margo, who has come to terms with her aging and gotten her happy ending. At the end, Eve has essentially become the next young Margo, a rising star, and when she returns to her hotel room she finds a young woman named Phoebe (Barbara Bates) waiting for her. The cycle is beginning anew, with Eve as the established star and Phoebe as the young wannabe who noses her way into her idol's circle in order to get ahead. In the last shot, Phoebe dons one of Eve's glittery coats and poses in a segmented mirror while ritualistically bowing as though accepting an award. Behind her, the fragmented mirrors create a multitude of Phoebes receding off into the distance, suggesting that this story will be played out again, and again, and again, one crass opportunist after another waiting to take over for those who grow old and tired of the game.
This one shot demonstrates the power of such visual inventiveness. If the rest of the film is an often tiresome gabfest with characters spitting out so many witty one-liners that it's quickly deadening, this last shot is an elegant and memorable image that makes its point entirely without words. Norma Desmond would love it, but there's not a whole lot else to love here. Jacques Rivette wrote, after revisiting this film in 1998, that "every intention was underlined in red, and it struck me as a film without a director! Mankiewicz was a great producer, a good scenarist and a masterful writer of dialogue, but for me he was never a director. His films are cut together any which way, the actors are always pushed towards caricature and they resist with only varying degrees of success." I'm not sure I entirely agree with Rivette's unqualified positive assessment of the dialogue—which is so on-the-nose that it's maddening as often as it's clever—but otherwise I think that sums it up nicely.
JB: Well, I guess I don't disagree with you that the writing is on-the-nose, at least by contemporary standards. But it is very effective in places, and it remains one of the film's strengths on the whole. However, as for your charge that "virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and nothing more," I wouldn't disagree. Sure, the last shot stands out, as you noted. And I've always rather liked the shot of Eve standing just offstage at the end of one of Margo's performances, watching her idol taking her bows. And yet, in the context of the rest of the film's visual blandness, that shot is utilitarian, too, upon further reflection; the only difference is that we're given something comparatively interesting to look at. So much of All About Eve is nothing more than the actors centered in the frame, barking their lines (some memorable, some not), often in front of rather bland backdrops. And so it is that one of the most memorable shots in the film is the one of Eve and Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) walking down a sidewalk—memorable, alas, because it's so clumsily staged in front of rear-projection.
Sadly, in terms of the cinematography, that's not the only time that an oddity stands out. Of late, I've been puzzled by a shot at the end of Bill's not-so-happy welcome-back party: The party sequence ends with Eve saying goodnight to Karen (Celeste Holm) and reminding her to put in a good word for her about becoming Margo's understudy. Karen, standing at the top of a stairway, assures Eve she won't forget and then descends the stairs. As soon as Karen leaves the frame, the camera zooms past where she was standing to focus on a painting that had hovered unremarkably over Karen's shoulder during her conversation with Eve. In a very brief closeup, no longer than a second, we see what appears to be woman sitting in a chair, looking to her right, with figures standing over each shoulder—perhaps an angel over her right shoulder and something that looks almost like a court jester over her left shoulder. The painting is there and gone so quickly that it's hard to say exactly what it portrays. In fact, right now I'm studying the paused image on my computer screen and I still can't quite tell what I'm looking at.
It's entirely possible, of course, that the painting is quite famous. I freely admit that my knowledge of that art form is limited. Furthermore, I recognized Toulouse-Lautrec's Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret hanging in Margo's living room (hence, she likes famous art). So perhaps you know exactly what that slow zoom reveals, and maybe I should, too, and maybe that's why neither of the two commentary tracks on my DVD makes any mention of the zoom or the painting. Then again, unless the painting is as recognizable as Mona Lisa, I find the haste with which Mankiewicz cuts away from the painting, after going through the effort to (a) hang it there and (b) zoom in on it, to be baffling. Giving Mankiewicz the benefit of the doubt—and thanks to my close examination of the painting on my computer—I'll assume that the painting symbolizes Karen's place between an angel she sees (Eve) and a kind of demon she doesn't (Eve again). Still, I think it's telling that one of Mankiewicz's few attempts at cinematic storytelling is essentially mumbled.
EH: Interesting analysis. I don't recognize the painting either, so maybe I'm missing something obvious too. But I think you nail it when you suggest that Mankiewicz rushes through this insert too quickly to make whatever point he wants to make, presumably something about good and evil, or the hidden machinations behind a seemingly sweet young woman's blankly pretty face. The film's overall undistinguished visual style makes me think, not that I'm missing out on a clever reference, but that Mankiewicz just isn't getting across whatever he thinks he's getting across.
That said, I will admit that the over-the-shoulder shot you mention of Eve watching Margo from the wings is another rare exception to the film's general blandness, especially since it mirrors the earlier shot when Eve sees the inside of the theater for the first time, and Mankiewicz similarly sets up behind her, looking out into the empty rows of seats beyond the curtains. These shots aren't showy, but they're substantial, especially in comparison to the purely functional images throughout the rest of the film, in which Mankiewicz often seems to have paid little attention to composition or mise-en-scène.
This approach naturally puts the film's emphasis on the performances, relying on the actors to carry the story. In that respect, at least, All About Eve acquits itself well enough. Bette Davis as Margo isn't as iconic or as overpowering as Gloria Swanson's Norma, despite some almost equally famous lines ("Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!") but it's a fine central performance. We feel, through Davis, the desperation of this woman, the way she lashes out at those around her because she seems to feel that's what required of her in her star diva role. Her face, realistically worn and aged without losing its striking qualities, radiates this aura of unmistakable sadness beneath the rage. Anne Baxter's turn as the treacherous Eve is a little less convincing; she's great at selling the angelic sweetness of a small-town girl awed by the theater, not so great at selling the switch to a conniving manipulator. Nevertheless, the subtle touches are very satisfying, like the way we occasionally catch Eve giving Margo an almost leering evaluation whenever the older actress isn't looking. The rest of the performances do pretty much what they need to, which is to convey the wit of Mankiewicz's admittedly witty script. The only other notable turn is by Marilyn Monroe, who shows up in a small role, pre-fame, and of course completely steals every scene she's in with her characteristic bombshell enthusiasm and some delightfully naughty lines: "You won't bore him, honey, you won't even get the chance to talk." Now that's funny, and proof enough that Mankiewicz is a good writer, if not quite a good director.
JB: Yeah, I think that's fair. Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Mankiewicz's underwhelming shot construction isn't always detrimental to the story being told. As you noted earlier, the stage-like presentation of the drama seems perfectly appropriate for a movie about Broadway. On top of that, the basic camera set-ups and the frequent long takes (at least by today's standards) allow us to appreciate the art of actors acting; that isn't always the ideal, but it works here. A perfect example would be Margo's spirited argument with Bill after he's come back from Hollywood. Their three-minute verbal sparring session is composed of only a few takes, and the final one puts Margo and Bill in the same frame, first facing one another, and then standing almost side-by-side, with Bill looking toward Margo and Margo looking off into the distance, toward the fourth wall. Bette Davis is particularly fun to watch in that last setup—staring intensely at Gary Merrill as she listens to him, standing quietly when he's talking, so as not to distract from her fellow actor's performance, and even timing her biggest reactionary facial expressions for the moment he finishes a line. These are stage tactics, of course, but Mankiewicz is filming his actors in a theatrical style, so it's appropriate. Plus, there's a throwback appeal to that scene as an alternative to today's shot/reverse-shot norm.
On the whole, Davis' turn isn't as impressive as Swanson's, but then the character isn't as interesting or as well-written. It's an interesting bit of trivia that both actresses, and Baxter, went up against one another in the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards, although none of them won the Oscar. (The award went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a film that was nominated for Best Picture in a year that The Third Man was overlooked, by the way, which should be a reminder to the Oscar-outraged that those awards have never been particularly successful at identifying classic performances or films. But I digress.) As for Baxter's performance, it now strikes me that we probably should have been referencing it in our conversation about Mulholland Drive Her affected performance, which even from the beginning feels like, well, acting, and then turns out to be exactly that, is more or less the blueprint for Naomi Watts' approach to Betty. I'm kicking myself for not realizing that earlier.
The only performance you might have left out in your recap would be George Sanders' as Addison DeWitt, which is really an achievement in writing more than acting, which is why it's no surprise that Sanders did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, beating out Erich von Stroheim as Max in the process. (To fill out the Oscar recap, while we're here: All About Eve also took Best Picture, Best Director (really), Best Costume Design and Best Writing/Screenplay, while Sunset Boulevard took Best Art Direction/Black-and-White, Best Music and Best Writing/Story and Screenplay.) It's a good cast, and Monroe's brief appearances add some charming zest, but I admit to being partial to Sunset Boulevard in this area, too. I'm not so sure the actual acting is vastly superior, but, man, those are characters!
EH: Yes they are. I'm reminded, in a strange way, of your stance on Tarantino, that when his characters speak you hear them, not as individual characters, but as undifferentiated mouthpieces for the writer/director. That's how All About Eve hits me. I often felt like I was listening to Mankiewicz himself orating, particularly in the insufferable info-dump voiceovers (Sanders' smug, trite narration being the worst offender in that regard). The performance style makes sense for Baxter's Eve, who as you astutely point out is intentionally projecting an exaggerated innocence that hides an equally exaggerated manipulative evil beneath the surface. It works, too, for Davis' Margo, a woman so used to being on-stage that she acts as though she is even when she's stalking across her own living room rather than walking the boards. The rest of the cast, however, has the same style. They all speak in the same stilted rhythms and ornate language, with the same tortured enunciation of every word. There's no sign here of the balancing presence that Joe Gillis and his down-to-earth romance with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) brought to Sunset Boulevard.
It also helps, as you point out, that Norma and Max, that film's most stylized and outrageous personalities, are true characters, with real histories and a real sense of the events that brought them to this point. In that respect, Wilder's clever use of real Hollywood history imparts another layer of tragedy to these characters. When Norma watches movies of herself in her glory days, the actress Gloria Swanson is watching herself as well, in Queen Kelly, a 1929 film directed by, of course, Erich von Stroheim. The pathos of this scene is well-earned because it draws on deep wells of feeling involving these characters and the actors playing them; the audience that knows of Swanson and von Stroheim's shared career paths with their characters will feel the heartache of that scene even more intensely. And even for those unaware of these metafictional layers, those scenes—and the loving pans across the rows of old photos that seem to be everywhere in Norma's house—suggest that this character came from somewhere, that she has a rich past that informs her wild current behavior. We've compared her to Nosferatu's Count Orlock, which suggests that she's a monster, but if so she's a very sympathetic monster, a woman driven to caricature and insanity by the relentless downward trajectory of her life.
I'd argue that this depth, this richness of character, is what's missing from All About Eve, in which the voiceover often gives us the only background information we get about these characters—words, words, words against the emotionally precise imagery of Wilder's masterpiece. Maybe that's why Sunset Boulevard hits me so hard, with all these intimations of nostalgia, melancholy, loss and change, while the ostensibly similar themes and story of All About Eve seem somewhat abstracted.
JB: Yes, whether it's the characters, the dialogue, the sets or the camera techniques, All About Eve feels a little unfinished. It reminds me of one of those making-of extras for a modern blockbuster in which a computer animator shows off the featureless skeletal frame used to map out a digital character's movements before other animators add the detail. All About Eve feels on the way to being Sunset Boulevard, but it needed another round of revisions and fine-tuning.
That said, before we move on, I want to keep the conversation focused on the characters for the moment, because I want to give more credit to Nancy Olson's performance, which I think is Sunset Boulevard's most underrated strength. Olson's Betty doesn't just balance the cocksure manner of Joe Gillis, she balances the entire cast, almost singlehandedly. On one side of the scale we've got Joe, Norma and Max, these three outrageous personalities. On the other side of the scale we've got Olson's Betty, a comparatively small part, and also Cecil B. DeMille, an even smaller one. Even though Joe, Norma and Max are distinctively different, the same way that, at least in theory, Mr. Pink, Jules and Stuntman Mike are distinctly different across three Tarantino films, I wonder if that undifferentiated mouthpiece effect might still apply to Wilder's film if not for Betty's calming presence—so unaffected, so normal, and yet by no means uninteresting. (She's got personality.)
Part of the reason that Betty has such a balancing influence is because of the way she's written, and because of Olson's lovely performance. But equally significant is that Betty never steps foot into Norma's house of horrors until the very end of the picture. She doesn't belong there. It's a clashing of the real (Betty) and unreal (Norma & Co.), and to combine the two too often, or too early, would be to blur the all-important line between them. Wilder clearly grasps this. I've always loved that when the doorbell rings, announcing Betty's arrival at the end of the film, Norma recoils in a horror movie pose as if it's Betty who is the monster, as if the chainsaw killer has found her doorstep. Likewise, when Betty steps inside, Max looks her up and down as if she is the oddity. Then when Betty urges Joe to leave with her, she tries to pretend away the entire scene, saying: "I've never heard any of this. I never got those telephone calls [from Norma] and I've never been in this house."
It's Betty who allows us to see that Joe, in his own way, is almost as monstrous as Norma and Max. Without Betty, Joe would always be contrasted by the unrivaled extremes of Norma, leaving him to seem normal, pure. But he isn't pure. He's tainted. It's because Joe was as desperate as Norma for attention and fame that he allowed himself to live in her house in the first place. It's because Joe senses his own Norma-esque traits that he doesn't run away with Betty after all, even though he realizes he can no longer stay in Norma's grasp. And it's because Joe has allowed himself to live in a morally corrupt fantasy that he's punished for his sins. Norma goes crazy. Joe gets three bullets to his torso. Neither of them can escape their illusions.
EH: You're right, Betty is crucial to this film. Among other things, she represents the freshness, creativity and idealism of the young artist, which is otherwise entirely absent from this film about the cynical, corrupt Hollywood establishment. (It's absent from All About Eve altogether.) Virtually everyone else in Sunset Boulevard is artistically bankrupt, warped by Hollywood's warped value system. Joe once had that idealism, the desire to write something good and meaningful—but at the beginning of the film, years of failure and poverty have made him content just to make a sale, to scratch up some money, even if it means churning out countless formulaic scripts. His first meeting with Betty is the first indication of the gap between what he is now and the promise he'd once shown; she holds his lame scripts to a higher standard because she was aware of his one-time talent. Later, she awakens a new energy and enthusiasm in the washed-up writer, encouraging him with her purity and her hopefulness until he finally begins writing something personal again, collaborating with her on salvaging and reworking some of the best aspects of an earlier story he'd written.
The brief moment of optimism that takes over the film during Joe's collaboration—and eventual love affair—with Betty makes the tragedy of the denouement even more poignant. Of course, there was never any illusion that things could've worked out fine. The film opens with the story's tragic conclusion, and the whole thing is narrated by a dead man, which naturally creates an inescapable aura of destiny. Even so, even knowing in advance how it all ends, even when I've seen the film countless times over the years, those interludes with Betty are so moving, so suggestive of an alternative to the tragedy, that I can't help but hope that Joe will wake up, will make the right choice for once. It's not just the romance, of course, but the fact that Betty is a creative partner for Joe as well, and she reminds him that there's more to this movie business than money and fame. At one point, while they're wandering around the shadowy studio lot one night, she tells him a story about her brief flirtation with being an actress, and how it taught her that she should remain true to herself and her talents rather than twisting herself into something she's not—the exact opposite of Norma. Wilder stages the scene in the kind of moody, romantically dim lighting that suggests love blossoming, but the point of the scene is the other emotions that Betty awakens in Joe: self-respect, hope, the satisfaction of honest work, the pride in one's substantial creations.
In that light, I see Joe's belated rejection of Norma slightly differently than you do, in a way that arguably makes the conclusion even more heartrending. Sure, Joe was desperate for fame, and sure, he stayed with Norma as long as he did because he didn't want to give up the comfort and security she gave him, as opposed to the scary freedom of being his own man. But when he refuses to leave with Betty, when he tells her to go get married to his friend Artie (Jack Webb) instead, he does so not because he's still obsessed with these ideas about fame and security, but because he's realized it's too late for him, that he's too corrupt to be any good for the naïve, good-hearted Betty. His tough-guy act with Betty when she shows up at Norma's mansion is just that: an act. He's playing the unrepentant gigolo for her because he knows it'll turn her away from him for good, but the obvious subtext is Joe's desire to do just the opposite, to run away with her and try to regain his one-time optimism and self-sufficiency. Joe, by the end of the film, has escaped his illusions. He just hasn't been convinced that he deserves a second chance.
JB: I think we're on the same page here. I agree with you that Joe puts on an act for Betty (he implies he's going to stay with Norma, even though he's clearly made up his mind to do otherwise) and that when he leaves Norma it signifies that, yes, he has escaped his illusions. What I was trying to suggest is that Wilder doesn't let Joe get away with it, any more than he lets Norma get away with it. There are consequences to their extended make-believe. Joe hasn't been convinced he deserves a second chance, and Wilder confirms Joe's sins for him by having him murdered, even though a few minutes earlier Joe selflessly lets Betty escape with her purity intact. This is a grim ending, one that's hard to imagine coming from a Hollywood movie today, and you're not alone in finding yourself wishing that Betty can somehow save Joe from his foretold doom. (Incidentally, that's an unusual emotion for me to have in regard to a William Holden character, because I usually find Holden tremendously irritating; his Sunset Boulevard performance is the only one in his career that I truly enjoy.)
You know, considering where this conversation started, it's interesting that the scene in which Betty's purity is best revealed is the one in which she describes having undergone a nose job early in her ill-fated acting career. Betty went through with the surgery, without regret, it seems, but it's as if that was the moment she started to realize that coveting the attention of the camera and an audience can be dangerous business. And that turns us back toward All About Eve: Until now our discussion, like every other comparison of these two films that I've ever seen, has given the impression that Norma and Margo are the most similar characters in these pictures—the aged (by Hollywood standards) forgotten actresses, infatuated with themselves and clinging desperately to their fame. But, really, it's Norma and Eve who are most alike. Even though Mankiewicz's film implies, particularly in its conclusion, that Eve is a younger version of Margo, the next in a long line of glory-hungry stars, a closer examination spots some differences.
For example, I don't think it's insignificant that when Karen first shows up with Eve, Margo doesn't want to see her. Margo actually looks down her nose at her most adoring fans, partially out of elitism, but perhaps also out of healthy skepticism. There's no denying that once they meet Margo is flattered by the attention. But can you imagine Norma turning down a chance to let one of her fans bow at her feet? I can't. Also, I think it's only fair to point out that some of Margo's less attractive behavior, particularly her paranoia that she's going to lose Bill to the younger woman, turns out to be not altogether unjustified. Yeah, Bill's faithful. But Margo's intuition about Eve is acute. Eve really is desperate not only to be like Margo but to be her. It's not the acting Eve cares about. It's the fame. I don't mean to imply that Norma isn't genuinely in love with acting. She is. Or at least she was. But at the end of the day, Eve turns out to be much more like a young Norma than a young Margo, wouldn't you say?
EH: That's an interesting thought. Certainly, at the end of All About Eve, Eve's wannabe successor Phoebe desires the fame and the glitzy lifestyle, the possessions and riches, rather than the acting talent. The line of succession that we see in All About Eve is one of regression, in terms of substance. It suggests, as does Sunset Boulevard, the degradation of creative standards over time; where earlier generations wished for talent, successive ones seem to want to skip that step and jump right to the fame part. (That reminds me of all those modern starlets, reality show contestants and pseudo-celebrities who, as far as I can tell, are mostly famous for promoting themselves really well. Marilyn Monroe's character in All About Eve suggests, quite presciently, that TV is the place for those without talent to get famous based on their, uh, other assets.) Margo, of course, is in it at least partly for the acting, as someone who really loves the stage and the craft of acting, or so we can presume anyway, from the way she talks about it. Eve, for her part, is awed enough by her idol's acting to obsessively watch Margo's performances and, again based on second-hand knowledge, we can assume that she's a fine actress as well. Still, for Eve the acting seems secondary, at least the acting she does onstage—acting and manipulation have become a way of life for her offstage as well. She's in it for the fame and the acclaim, for the glamor, and her own protégé, Phoebe, seems even shallower, even more single-minded in her pursuit of wealth and glory.
Norma, too, hungers for the admiration of her fans more than she does for the creative rewards of acting and performing. Yes, she loves being under the lights on the set, but that's more because she loves the attention of being in the literal spotlight rather than because she's so committed to the profession in itself. Norma is at her most alive when she's the center of attention, as when she visits DeMille's set and an old stagehand turns a spotlight on the former star. A crowd is drawn to her, drawn to the light that glitters around her in the spotlight; it recalls the earlier scene where she stands up into the light of the projector and closes her eyes in pleasure, as though she's basking in the glow of the sun. She's obsessed with the fame, and with herself, as evidenced by her parlor, which is packed with photos from her prime and boasts a movie screen on which she never shows anything but Norma Desmond movies.
This brings me to one other aspect that unites these two films: the less than flattering depiction of female ambition and the female ego. Sure, none of the male characters come off too well either (except for the ultimately loyal Bill in All About Eve, I suppose), but the women especially are depicted as greedy, superficial, self-obsessed and often manipulative. So while both films are certainly concerned with the unfair expectations placed upon women as they grow older, it's hard to ignore that in the process, both women are also turned into bitchy, fanged-and-clawed monsters. Margo eventually steps back from the edge of destruction—and finds happiness with a man, retiring from the stage into an implied domestic role as a married woman—while Norma pursues her monstrous path through to its (il)logical conclusion. One monster is tamed, with the implication that maturity means abandoning ambition, while the other monster remains vile and caricatured to the end, chasing her ambitions into insanity. I'm not sure which is more limiting.
JB: I'm not quite sure that Margo's retirement into domesticity suggests that "maturity means abandoning ambition." Close, but not quite. The problem with framing it that way is that it implies her ambition is always sensible, when we've already demonstrated that it isn't. Actually, a line from Joe to Norma applies best here: "There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." Both Margo and Norma are ambitious in ways that are unrealistic. Unrealistic in part because of Hollywood's contemptible habit of ignoring women who show their age. (Even now, Hollywood pretty much has two classifications for female actresses: Potential Sex Object, which Hollywood apparently defines as looking under 35, so that even the "cougar" type actresses do everything in their power to hide their age, and Grandma, the nonsexual senior citizen, who might actually be played by a sexy older woman like Helen Mirren but who Hollywood doesn't demand we find titillating.) Unrealistic also because Margo and Norma are trying to play something they are not—young women.
So I think what these films show is that maturity means letting go of one's illusions. Margo does that, and she finds happiness with Bill. Eve does that to a degree, thanks to Addison DeWitt calling her on her bullshit, and although she doesn't find happiness she at least finds a place in the real world. Meanwhile, in Sunset Boulevard, Joe lets go of his illusions, and that gets him away from Norma, and gives him integrity, even if it also gets him killed. Even Betty gets a wake-up call that she needs about the messiness of adulthood and the prevalence of impure people, signaling that perhaps her square boyfriend Artie isn't so bad after all. The one who doesn't see the light is Norma, and we know what happens to her. (Max, by the way, operates in a strange middle ground, because he's always been aware of the truth and yet he's completely devoted to manipulating it on Norma's behalf, so that in front of her he's a slave to the illusion.)
That said, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard both provide limited and limiting options for women, which is what you are getting at. Both pictures imply that a singular existence, one without a man, is either less happy or less realistic. Margo and Betty submit to marriages that at least seem to make them happy enough, but in doing so give up lifestyles that they seemed to want more. (The films conveniently ignore this.) Eve sees the light when Addison takes ownership of her, and they're by no means a happy couple, but at least they operate without illusions. The one who doesn't find peace is the one who loses her man, Norma. So while I think it's anti-feminist to imply that women can't find happiness in a relationship, if that's what they want, these films certainly aren't rallying cries for women's lib. No question about that.
EH: Yeah, both films have a complicated view of gender, so it's not a simple either/or proposition. The problem with Margo's retirement, as I see it, is that it suggests the impossibility of a compromise, a happy middle ground: she's either a miserable, out-of-touch bitch trying to maintain unrealistic ambitions of extended youth, or she's a contented housewife who gives up her career altogether in order to be a full-time wife. Sure, you could interpret that as an indictment of the limited roles available to women in acting, as in life: you're either a young sex kitten or a grandma, and there are by far more roles for the sex kittens. But the film itself seems to accept this reality a bit too easily. There's no hint of any regret from Margo, at the end, that she's been forced to make this choice, and that rings a little false to me. Norma, at least, goes out kicking and screaming against an industry that's left her behind in her old age—she may be delusional and insane at the end of Sunset Boulevard, but she's not acquiescing to the system's insistence that actresses remain eternally young or get off the set.
That's a big part of what I love about Norma, what makes her such an unforgettable character. In spite of her monstrousness, in spite of her insanity, in spite of how her doting on Joe risks ridicule, she has a certain dignity to her—even Joe has to begrudgingly admit it, though he tries to laugh it off, watching her bury her monkey with such solemnity on his first night at her house. It's there in the way she drawls out her signature phrase, "It's the pictures that got small." She says it with such certainty, such contempt, that it leaves little room for doubt. We spoke before about the irony of so many nostalgic cinephiles unquestioningly adopting Norma's pronouncement as their own, and maybe that's why. The way she says it inspires that head-nodding reaction. She insists that, as a silent star, she doesn't need words—"we had faces"—but at moments like that she seems like a born orator, stirring up her audience with grand rhetoric and anecdotes of the good old days.
It's a complex film that can inspire such contradictory responses. Sunset Boulevard makes Norma a vampire, a diva, a legend, an icon of a sadly overlooked earlier era, a figure of pathos and pity, a symbol for all the women like her in Hollywood and beyond, for better or worse. Sunset Boulevard encompasses all of these facets and more. It is simultaneously an elegy for a lost Hollywood, a satire of the industry's present and a commentary on broader issues of gender roles. It is also, of course, a fabulous and clever melodrama, with some of the most memorable characters to ever grace the Hollywood screen. I wish I could say the same of All About Eve, but as much as there is to admire in that film, its accomplishments seem more limited, more prosaic. It seems more bound by the conventions it depicts rather than straining, as Sunset Boulevard does, messily and angrily against those bounds.
JB: That's true. Sunset Boulevard is an all-around fantastic film: funny, thoughtful, mysterious, romantic, nostalgic and critical of its own characters as well as of the mostly unseen forces that made them the way they are. Any film can be plenty great and still pale in comparison. In that sense, discussing these pictures together is the worst thing we can do to All About Eve. In effect, it's like putting an aging actress next to a young sex symbol and expecting them to look the same. Sunset Boulevard highlights all of All About Eve's flaws, including the ones we don't notice when looking at that film by itself. To alter Joe's quote from earlier: There's nothing wrong with being All About Eve, unless one tries to pretend it's Sunset Boulevard.
And that talk of pretending brings us back around to the start of the conversation, to Cate Blanchett and her curiously sharp cheekbones. Given that I've been to a grocery store and spotted the tabloids by the register, I didn't need to revisit these films to realize that Hollywood tells actresses (implicitly or explicitly) that their relevancy is directly related to their "beauty," or to realize that Hollywood has some twisted ideas of what "beauty" is. But it's impossible for me to come in contact with these films without feeling an extra dose of sympathy for aging actresses (and women in general), not to mention an extra dose of frustration with the system. I think what bothers me most isn't that actresses feel compelled to look younger but that they feel compelled to look a specific kind of young—small noses, symmetrical chins, angular cheekbones, pouty lips. If an actress doesn't look like that when she finds fame, her plastic surgeon is likely to alter her face that way in order to maintain it. "We had faces!" Norma says proudly in Sunset Boulevard. Yes, and now? More and more, actresses have one face. It's enough to make one yearn for the good old days, whenever those were. Margo and Norma could relate.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.