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.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.