Salvation in All About Eve

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content. Best laid plans… I don’t remember why the other folks didn’t make posts. “I have taken a wife, I have five yoke of oxen…” Anyway, I found the posts buried in my LiveJournal and so now they’er here. This one is All About Eve. There are spoilers so you may want to watch the movie first.

ONE THING POPULAR CULTURE DOES does really well is clone things. There was a whole culture called “clones” in the 70s: slender, trimmed mustaches, hair feathered just so, in the “wet look” or the “dry look” as was needed that week. Now there are just different “subclones”. There are clones called bears and clones called twinks, etc. They’re just all clones of each other, roughly interchangeable in a social sense. But outside of the culturally inbred bayous of San Francisco and Manhattan, there are many such cones. In the normal world of there are clones of housewives and clones of jocks, there are clones of movie stars and politicians. They are cloned for a reason: to make plentiful certain traits or genes or memes. What is the difference between a person and a clone? It’ll be hard to tell until judgment day.

Eve Harrington is a clone, a sort of proto-Fembot. We hear several versions of her story through the movie: it changes several times. We have no idea if the last one we heard is right. Eve is a self-made clone. Like all clones today she did it to herself. But there is a way out.

Evidently, the plot of All About Eve (20th Century Fox, 1950) is based on a true story that was fictionalized in Cosmopolitan, sometime in the mid40s. The Director and writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz rather liked the Cosmo article and developed the story. When the screenplay was done, everyone who touched it liked it: even Bette Davis, notorious for rewriting scripts, had no complaints. Of all the scripts she saved, only AAE hasn’t any markings at all. According to the documentary on the disk, it seems one of the reasons everyone liked it is because everyone realized it was true and not a few people realized that it was true for the stars as well. Was Bette Davis playing Margo Channing or was she playing herself?

The plot is simple: Ms Channing, now 40, feels insecure about her age and her ability to play the young and beautiful Broadway starlet. Her friends – the writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), and the director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) – are all at great pains to reassure her. Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter) arrives, pretending to be a devoted fan, who strives in every way to be like Margo Channing. Finally, conning Margo and her friends, and playing them off each other. she succeeds in her real goal: replacing Margo in her own play and then in a new play written for Margo by Lloyd. She makes a play for Bill – and fails. She makes a play for Lloyd – and fails. She ends up with Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a bitter critic whose own purposes are not clear, but who values the power politics of the Theatre World and moves well among the temperamental, artsy folks who inhabit it. Addison’s hold on Eve turns out to be blackmail: where Eve had been playing people off of each other, Addison has tracked Eve. Addison plays Eve’s lies off of each other and Eve is thus trapped in the net of lies she created to entrap others.

Along the way, everyone has fights, there are a few choice zingers, at least one oft-quoted line (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”), and some very memorable dialogue. But who gets saved?

The answer is not only on-screen but off. Everyone who played in this movie and everyone who comments on it, noted the near painful parallels with off-stage life. Bette Davis was, in fact, very much like Margo. Nearly everyone knew of her temper, her rewriting of scripts, her own fear of turning 40. Nearly everyone knew of her developing love for co-star Gary Merrill – Margo Channing not only had the same life as Davis, but she also had the same taste in men. So much is this true that as soon as all the correct papers were filed and all the divorces finalized Merrill and Davis were married.

The hitch comes in the middle of a drive through the winter countryside. The car is stopped. Action is, by virtue of having run out of gas, stopped. But more, the winter snows add another level of meaning to “frozen”. Everything is locked. Margo confesses her sadness, her weakness to Karen:

Funny business, a woman’s career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It’s one career all females have in common – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it no matter how many 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 a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but you’re not a woman. Slow, curtain, the end.

Without that, you’re not a woman. Indeed, you’re only a simulacrum. The Movie takes great pains to draw a line between real people and simulacra. Hollywood – the world – produces a host of simulacra. We follow along, becoming each, in our own way, Rock Hudson or Larry the Cable Guy, Roseanne or Doris Day. But we do it alone – copying only what we see to “be ourselves” rather than to be in communion with others. And without that – without being in communion – you’re not a person. At all.

There lies the key. When Margo concedes her inability to go it alone, her need for a man in her life to be complete, her need for that man to be Bill Sampson, everything is set aright. It is not good for woman to be alone either.

Coming as it does at the end of the “Rosie the Riveter” era, this portion of the movie may be seen as a call to women to come back to the home. Baxter’s role of a displaced war-widow might be seen as highlighting this. And this is echoed at the end of the movie, where triumphant Eve is lured to Hollywood, instead of her own marriage to Addison, and so is trapped by her own doppelganger in the person of a young High School Girl, Phoebe, liberated on her own by schooling and Urban Culture. She is a simulacrum of a simulacrum – she is only a copy of Eve who is only a copy of Margo. But we go on making copies: because real people, persons in communion, are downright scary.

The rise in divorce and sexual immorality – both hinging on Women’s Lib and “Working Women” – may be seen as a failure to hear the call of this movie. Liberated Women – without the community of (eg) the Home Church are, at best, only females. But there is something more here than just that.

The movie notes not only Margo’s salvation, but also Bill’s. We are not saved alone. Margo’s salvation saves those around her, most especially her husband. They are saved together. Modern Men – without the community of the Home Church are, at best, only males. They are not men.

We are all pained by this loss. Mankiewicz focused on women because that’s what he liked to write about, but this could just as easily be told about men. Yes, some of the cattiness would be missing, some of the issues about clothing, unless we made the movie about the emasculated MetroSexuals, or a group of gay “Bears”, then the cattiness would stay. But masculine men would have a different dialogue and still convey the same truths about communion and personhood – or lack of communion and thus a real lack of real personhood, a relegation to simulacrum status.

There is a final painful parallel: Davis and Merrill divorced after ten years. Davis said, “A strange thing happened. Gary wanted to marry Margo Channing, instead he got me. I wanted Bill Sampson, and instead I married Gary.” This happens in nearly every situation in the world today – we do business with, we interact with, we fall in love with, we lust after simulacra. When reality pops up we run away.

Communion only happens with persons: simulacra can not commune.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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