All About Eve
Shrivelling the Gaze
"There is nothing more terrifying for an actress than having to play opposite your romantic leading man who is younger than you are?" (The Girl Who Walked Home Alone) It is a remark Bette Davis makes in her biography while discussing All About Eve. Could we imagine a male star saying something similar? In many films featuring older men and younger women the age-gap is hardly touched upon even if enormous (as in Funny Face or Love in the Afternoon, North by Northwest, or Vertigo). These films, like All About Eve, are all from the fifties, a decade when age-gap relationships were the norm but usually moving only in one direction. The gap between Bette Davis and her partner in the film, played by Gary Merrill, was only seven years, a quarter of the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Funny Face. While the difference in age between Hepburn and Astaire is of little relevance in Stanley Donen's film, it becomes central to All About Eve as Margo Channing (Davis) fears at any moment she will lose Bill (Merill), and lose him because she isn't getting any younger.
Molly Haskell notes that like Sunset Boulevard released around the same time, "once again, the older woman-younger man relationship is shown one-sidedly, with the emphasis on all the insecurities it produces (these in the woman only), and with none of the mutual advantages." (From Reverence to Rape) There may be a reason for this which is much bigger than the fact both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve were films directed by men, and that is due to a culture dictated by men. As John Berger says, "men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorise it....And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence." (Ways of Seeing) Berger emphasizes the notion that a woman is looked at, internalises that look and then decides how she will see herself in that context. Berger offers the formula: "men act and women appear." In this sense, men act opposite a man but a woman appears opposite a man, and hence that added anxiety Davis speaks about is because her appearance is supposed to matter so much more than the man's.
That such ideas are entrenched needn't mean they are natural, as Berger makes clear. Central to numerous writers who are interested in attending to gender in film, is the wish to show how much that is deemed natural is merely conventional, and thus can be changed. Even if All About Eve pays attention to Margo's insecurities as a reversed-situation wouldn't, nevertheless Margo Channing as a character and Bette Davis as a star indicate if not a radical reconstituting of a woman's role then at least represents a tweaking of it. Margo is always more than a woman being surveyed, and in the film plays someone more than capable of surveying others, both men and women, and commenting too on what she sees. We should remember that not only is Margo dating a younger man, Davis is also in a film with two younger women. The first is Anne Baxter's Eve, the starlet who will usurp Margo by becoming the new stage phenomenon, the other is Marilyn Monroe playing Claudia Caswell, a small role but played by a very big burgeoning star. Youth is all around Davis/Margot, as a source of affection, anxiety, and threat. When Claudia comes out of an audition, Margo gives her a harsh stare but Claudia isn't really the problem; the greater one is Eve, whose talent is matched by her ambition, which is augmented by her youth. Margot can easily see that her playwright friend Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) has on this occasion written a role so much more suitable for Eve than for Margo. What Margo observes she can also articulate. In a discussion with Lloyd, she says that the latest play he has written hasn't been written for her as he claims, but for someone almost half her age. Lloyd doesn't think how old the character happens to be is of any importance but Margo insists it very much does matter. "Lloyd I am not twentyish; I am not thirtyish. Three months ago I turned forty years old. Forty. Four O." If Davis can express her reservations about accepting a role where the leading man is younger than she is, here Margot proposes that the audience cannot continue to accept her as a much younger woman. It is hard to think of a similar speech from a leading man, fretting about his age and whether the audience will accept him as a few years younger than he happens to be?
If All About Eve remains an important film about gender it isn't because it is self-reflexively feminist in its form as many theorists of the seventies were seeking from women's cinema, but it at least contains within it in Margo Channing a reflective and self-aware character. She does not easily fall into Berger's astute and general notion that "men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." (Ways of Seeing) For Eve that might be enough but for Margot looking back, and commenting on what she sees, is of utmost importance.
There were many films in the seventies and early eighties that challenged the principles behind what Laura Mulvey so famously called the male gaze, the idea that throughout film history the viewing position has been masculine. Like Mulvey, they wanted to try and find ways to escape it by making films not so much or not only for women but viewed as though from a woman's gaze. These would include Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann...Varda's One Sings, The Other Doesn't, Gorris's A Question of Silence, Von Trotta's Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness and Pat Murphy's Maeve all directed by women. But one of the features of gender studies is also stardom how a classic Hollywood actor like Davis, or Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn, may have been directed by men but who nevertheless portrayed 'strong' women, while also asserting their own persona on the screen. Davis always seemed shrewd enough to shrivel any gaze upon her, and sharp enough to reply with a witticism any remark a man could throw in her direction. Haskell reckons "in her film career, Davis casts a cold eye, and not a few dampening remarks, on sentimentality." Haskell notes too that Davis wasn't the only star from the thirties who in the forties managed to transform herself from super female to superwoman. "Perhaps reflecting the increased number of working women during the era and their heightened career inclinations, other stars made the transition from figurative hoop skirts to functional shoulder pads, and gained authority without necessarily losing their femininity." (From Reverence to Rape).
Haskell's 1973 book was concerned chiefly with story and character in cinema and wasn't backed up by a theoretical impetus but instead with a great knowledge of the films she was looking at throughout movie history. Mulvey's article from the same period was formalist and psychoanalytic, concerned with the ways films were made and the unconscious aspects involved. As Mulvey says at the beginning of the essay: "this paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him." ('Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema') Echoing Berger, Mulvey reckons "in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female figure which is styled accordingly." Mulvey sees the woman often presented as passive sexual object, or at least sexually iconic, while Haskell, less theoretical but more especially textual, sees in all sorts of ways how women resist the gaze upon them, no matter if almost all the films they were in were made by men. All About Eve may have been based on a short story by a woman, The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, but it was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a director of some importance but few would associate him with the film more than Bette Davis.
It is a point Davis herself noted, saying, "there is always talk about remaking All About Eve. I think it would be discourteous to remake Eve while I am alive. I believe I own that part while I am living, not legally, but morally. Margo was not me. But I was Margot." (The Girl Who Walked Home Alone) To understand an aspect of gender we needn't always attend to who makes the film, otherwise classic Hollywood couldn't be viewed in any other way than horribly, retrogressively, one-sidedly masculine, but we can look instead at who is behind the soul of the film, to find its essence. Few would disagree with Davis's remark here, and there are numerous other examples that come to mind: actresses who embody the role and make the director secondary. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas all come to mind. There was an earlier version of Stella Dallas (with Belle Bennett), just as there was a later version of Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslet) but the personification of the role lies in the performances Stanwyck and Crawford give. The more stardom has a place in film theory, the more room there can be to revise a cinematic gaze that might be masculine at its technological and formal base but that can allow the female a high degree of agency as a being on screen.
As a rule, stardom has been far less theorized than direction: the auteur theory is one of the most written about and discussed means by which to analyse cinema, from the Cahiers critics to Andrew Sarris, from Movie magazine to Peter Wollen, while stardom still relies very strongly on one key book, Stars, written in 1977 by Richard Dyer. "So influential is Dyer's work" Paul Watson notes, "that the critical vocabulary it proposes for discussing stars has provided the centre of critical gravity for almost twenty years." (An Introduction to Film Studies) Dyer himself stated in his introduction that "although stars form the basis of probably the larger part of everyday discussions of films, and although the majority of film books produced are fan material of one form or another, very little in the way of sustained work has been done in the area." (Stars) If stardom was critically regarded as far less significant than authorship, then it made sense that the agency within the film could be seen to be of little importance next to gaze upon it. While Mulvey, Gaylyn Studlar, Teresa De Lauritis and others attended to the gaze in its semiotic and structuralist complexity, they were also along with others increasingly interested in seeing stardom as an empowering means by which to understand cinematic freedom. It was obviously wonderful that films were increasingly made by women, and a 1986 book like Films for Women edited by Charlotte Brunsdon contains essays on films by, Akerman, Gorris, von Trotta and Murphy, but it also includes essays about films directed by men with important roles for women, films that would look at different ways in addressing female lives, including Personal Best, Mahogany and Coma. These essays may be critical but they are also determined to see in mainstream filmmakers the strengths and weaknesses available in films that are at least ostensibly concerning themselves with women's lives.
One can see All About Eve as yet another film directed by a man during classic Hollywood, or see it too as an example of assertive stardom which allows a film to reflect an actor's way of seeing the world, their interests and their preoccupations. In one scene Margo is sitting in the car with her best friend, and Lloyd's wife, Karen (Celeste Holm), and she says to Margo that they know her so well. "So many people know me," Margo says. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me." "You're Margo, just Margo." "What is that except something spelled out in lightbulbs I mean?" Comparing herself to a child, Margo adds, "infants behave the way I do you know. They carry on and misbehave...when they can't have what they want." Margo insists the one thing she loves is Bill "but I want him to want me and not Margo Channing and if I can't tell them apart then how can he?" Even though the film was originally to have starred Claudette Colbert, and even though Mankiewicz was warned off casting Davis since she had an exaggerated reputation for being difficult, these lines seem almost autobiographical in their intent. After all, Davis embarked on an affair with Merrill which led to marriage, and when she talks about acting like an infant it is as though she is attending to those who claimed she wasn't an easy person work with.
Yet it seems more that Davis wanted the roles she played to reflect a sensibility she believed in, to create performances that would offer what she thought would be authentic people. As she says, "I went to Joe in the morning before we started shooting, and I said, "there is a scene which is necessary for exposition to advance the plot. I understand that. But it is talky..." (The Girl Who Walked Home Alone) Mankiewicz proposed changes and Davis knew she was working with a director who got her character. This seems very far away from Berger's insistence that: "men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford and others don't invalidate the point but they resist it. In the early eighties, the French actress Delphine Seyrig made a film where she interviewed numerous actresses about their careers, with penetrating questions that forced Jane Fonda, Louise Fletcher, Millie Perkins, Juliette Berto and others to muse over the difficulties they faced. The film was called Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Beautiful But Shut Up), its title from a 1958 Marc Allegret film. Such a title would never quite have fitted Bette Davis yet has been a remark demanded of so many actresses over the years that Berger's comment chimes with cinematic expectation. It was no wonder Mulvey, Studlar and De Lauritis as theorists, Akerman, Varda and Von Trotta as filmmakers, wanted to change the nature of that gaze. However, we shouldn't underestimate at the same time the degree to which many classic film actresses also fought for themselves in front of the camera, and perhaps none more than Davis. Indeed, the degree that this essay has ignored the film and focused on Davis may be a reflection of her particular type of star appeal and her general usefulness to gender studies.
© Tony McKibbin