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.)