Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve - a comparison

Bette Davis and Gary Merrill in All About Eve. This picture is glorious - click on it for a higher resolution.
Trivia: Davis and Merrill fell in love during the filming of
All About Eve. Even though they both were married , they got divorced and married each other. They were married for ten years.

I've recently re-watched two of my favourite films from the 1950's - Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve, both from 1950. I saw a lot of similarities between them, both in the films themselves and the story behind them. I thought that they could do great in a post together.

Sunset Blvd.

Director: Billy Wilder
USA 1950
115 min

Joe Gillis - a B-move script writer and the narrator of the film.
Norma Desmond - an isolated, forgotten silent movie queen.
Max von Mayerling - Norma Desmond's butler and ex-husband.
Betty Schaefer - a script reader wanting to become a successful script writer.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an aging silent moviestar, living in a gigantic mansion with her butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), isolated from the outside world.
One day Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself stranded at Norma Desmond's driveway with a flat tire. The time couldn't have been better - Norma Desmond is planning a come-back to the audience she thinks is still waiting for her, and wants Gillis' help with the script. Gillis, full of unpaid debts, feels he has nothing to loose and moves in with Norma to become her toy boy.
Soon though, he tires of the unadventurous luxuary in the mansion, and starts sneaking out at night to write a script with his best friend's fiancée Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), while Norma battles with her paranoia, jealousy and fear of aging.

All About Eve
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
USA 1950
138 min


Margo Channing - a successful theatre actress not longer in her golden years of youth.
Eve Harrington - a theatre devotee, Margo's greatest admirer, who wants a career of her own.
Addison DeWitt - an intelligent theatre columnist.
Bill Sampson - director at the theatre and Margo's lover.
Lloyd Richards - the theatre playwright.
Karen Richards - the playwrights wife and Margo's best friend.

This film tells the story about the charming and secretely manipulative woman Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), and how she found her way from being a nobody to become the most admired actress in the theatre world. The path she chooses to reach her goal makes it necessary for her to charm, cheat and use everyone in her way.
Eve Harrington's way to the stars begins with her getting to meet her greatest theatre idol - Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a hardened, skeptical and articulate woman in her 40's, tiring of always getting parts playing 20. But that is something Eve soon shows willing to change.

So, the similarities are...?

Begins with the end.

The first likeness between Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve is noticed right from the beginning - both films begin their story by revealing the end. Both movies are also narrated. While Sunset Blvd. has exclusively one narrator, All About Eve shifts its narrating between the different characters, but dominated by Addison DeWitt.

The first scene in All About Eve takes place at the Sara Siddons Award, where the award for Best Actress is just going to be presented. We hear the voice of Addison DeWitt (played with great bravura by George Sanders), who presents the characters, starting with himself ("My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre.").
Margo Channing is introduced to us with the following words:

Margo Channing is a star of the theater. She made her first stage appearance at the age of four in Midsummer Night's Dream. She played a fairy and entered, quite unexpectedly, stark naked. She has been a star ever since. Margo is a great star, a true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.

After that we are introduced to Karen (Celeste Holm making a wonderful performance), the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and director and Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). And last, but not least, Miss Eve Harrington, receiving the award, with all the earlier mentioned skeptically glancing toward her.

Sunset Blvd. begins with a corpse in a Hollywood moviestar's pool. Policemen and photographers surround the body, which we get to see both from above the surface and from an upwards angle, under the water. The man had been shot three times - twice in the chest and once in the back. The narrator, Joe Gillis, informs us that it is he who lies in the pool:

The poor dope - he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.

Gillis begins to tell us the story about how a B-movie script writer ended up dead in a movie star's pool.

Comeback parts.

Another similarity concerns the leading actresses, who both made great and successful comebacks with their parts in All About Eve and Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson belonged to those who made the step from silent to talking pictures in the late 1920's, but still her career declined a bit into the 1930's. From 1934 she didn't appear on screen (apart from one film she made 1941), but instead she used her time to politics and art.
When Mae West, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford all had declined the role of Norma Desmond, however, Gloria Swanson received the offer. She accepted, and there it was - the part she would be most remembered for in movie history.

Bette Davis was one of the most celebrated actresses in the 1930's, but a bit into the 1940's even her career began to fail. Her films became flops, and she was on great bit on her way to be all forgotten.
When Darryl F. Zanuck (the producer to All About Eve) wanted someone to play the role of Margo Channing it was out of the question that Bette Davis could play her. (They couldn't stand each other, going as far back as 1941 when Davis walked out on her post as president of The Motion Picture Academy.) He had visualized Marlene Dietrich in the leading role, and director Joseph L. Mankievicz hoped for Claudette Colbert, whom they eventually settled for. Unfortunaly (or fortunately), Colbert suffered a raptured disc while filming Three Came Home (1950), and had to decline.
Bette Davis stepped into the part, saved her career and did an immortal performance as the aging diva Margo Channing.

Both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were believed to actually more or less be their characters. Gloria Swanson wanting a comeback, Bette Davis bitter about getting old. But to quote Gloria Swanson:

It's amazing to find that so many people, who I thought really knew me, could have thought that Sunset Blvd. was autobiographical. I've got nobody floating in my swimming pool.
And I guess that goes for Bette Davis too. After all, it demands quite a lot of self perspective to appear on screen with no make up, tape in her hair and a thick layer of some strange moist in her face.
A lot of people also thought that Margo Channing was based on actress Tallulah Bankhead (which it wasn't), but it was that rumour who made Bankhead say following about Bette Davis:

Don't think I don't know who's been spreading gossip about me . . . After all the nice things I've said about that hag. When I get hold of her, I'll tear out every hair of her mustache!

Older women falling for younger men and aging paranoia.

One of the main themes in both of the films is the trouble of successful women getting older. Both Margo Channing and Norma Desmond falls for a younger man and are plagued with the knowing that women are no longer seen as attractive when they passed the 30-mark, while men on the other hand always have the charm of the grey temples.
In short, oth the leading female characters in the films are worried deeply that their men soon will be tired and leave them for a younger woman.

Immortal quotes.

Sunset Blvd:

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

Norma Desmond: All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up.

All About Eve:

Margo Channing: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!

Birdie: All of a sudden she's playing Hamlet's mother.

Perfect cast. (Left to right: George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim.)

Down to the smallest supporting roles, both of these films have been perfectly cast. All characters symbolize something, and if you had taken away any character (feel free to choose anyone) the film wouldn't be as great as it is. Notable in All About Eve is Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen appearances as Miss Casswell. See film clip:

Of course, there are also a lot of differences between the films and their characters. For example Margo Channing is a quite normal (?) woman in a crisis, while Norma Desmond is a mental fuck-up. Also, Sunset Blvd. has a darker shimmer over it (being a classic film noir) than All About Eve. Even though either of the films endings can be seen as simply sad or happy, there is at least some hope left for the viewer when THE END hits the screen after watching All About Eve.
But I don't find it particularly interesting to discuss the differences between two entirely different movies, the similarities interest me far more. But of course, I am open for discussion.

Scene: Bette Davis in her best element in a fabulous scene you will never be able to forget.

Scene: Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond in their first encounter. Brilliant.

Academy Awards

It may seem strange that neither Bette Davis nor Gloria Swanson won the Oscar for Best Actress, but that it instead went to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday (1950). I'm sure Judy was a real darling, but her part in that film is not even near the immortality Margo Channing and Norma Desmond have reached.
The theory behind the whole thing is that when Anne Baxter saw to it that she would be nominated for Best Actress and not Best Actress in Supporting Role, she caused the votes to split so that they weren't enough for either of them to win the award. How awful.

Anyway, All About Eve ended up with the six Oscars:

  • Best Actor in Supporting Role, George Sanders
  • Best Director, Joseph L. Mankievicz
  • Best Picture
  • Best Writing, Screenplay, Joseph L. Mankievicz
  • Best Costume Design Black and White
  • Best Sound, Recording

Sunset Blvd won three Oscars:

  • Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Billy Wilder
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White


Anonymous said...

You are a very inteligent gurl!

Anonymous said...

Robby Cress said...

Nice comparison of too amazing films. I love films about showbusiness - especially any that are filmed in Los Angeles. I not too long ago did a post on Sunset Boulevard film locations. If you're interested you can check it out here:

I still cannot believe that neither Gloria Swanson nor Bette Davis won Academy Awards!

Lolita said...

Thanks you, my böy! Interesting link, by the way.

Robby Cress:
Welcome to my blog! Have been navigating on yours, fabulous. The post on Sunset Blvd. locations was really interesting.

No, it was a catastrophy I will blame entirely on Anne Baxter! Haha.

Anonymous said...

Marvelous, Lolita, simply marvelous! J'adore All About Eve, and I do plan on watching Sunset. Bette blew me away; she was just too much.

And that photo truly is glorious. Darling post, my dear!

Kate Gabrielle said...

Wonderful post! That Gloria Swanson quote (nobody floating in my pool) is hilarious!!! And I love that you included the Marilyn Monroe quote. I thought she did such a good job in this film- it should have been like Nina Foch's role in Executive Suite. So incredibly small, but recognized as really great acting. Her Clark Gable line is fantastic too.

Lolita said...

You're such a peach, saying such things! Thank you, I hope I continue to entertain!

Kate Gabrielle:
Thank you, daahling! Yes, Gloria Swanson is my greatest idol. I hope I get to be like her when I'm 50.
Nina Foch and Executive Suite is not something I recall, I have to look it up! But I love George Sander's line "I can see your career rising in the east like the sun" - which is exactly as it did for Miss Monroe!