Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
Well-known as “the bitchiest film ever made”, I love writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 drama All About Eve precisely for its catty content. I especially appreciate its acid-tongued characters, their disgruntled rants, and the way they snipe at each other in both bold and covert fashion. The story centers around queen bitch Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a deeply talented but aging Broadway diva struggling to hold on in an industry that fetishizes youthful femininity. She meets her match in devoted fan Eve (Anne Baxter), a meek, twenty-something widow who idolizes Margo almost as much as she loves The Theater. During the run of her hit play, “Aged in Wood,” Margo hires Eve as a personal assistant but soon notices her efficient, hardworking mentee is a bit too entrenched in her personal affairs – especially when it comes to keeping tabs on her young director/boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). At that point, angelic Eve has already charmed all of Margo’s closest friends, including “Aged in Wood” playwright Lloyd Richard (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). By the time we realize Eve ain’t as wholesome as she seems, Margo’s histrionic tantrums have alienated all the people who might normally back her up.
At first glance, All About Eve appears to be the classic match-up of Loud and Proud Bitch vs. Passive Aggressive Saboteur. To a certain extent, Margo creates her own hell by letting paranoid fear of losing Bill make her vulnerable to Eve’s machinations. Of course Eve is also at fault, as well as sociopathic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who loves watching this young lady toy with his frenemy Margo. But if we’re going to dole out fault for every bad thing that goes down in this messy melodrama, we must also consider that the most “virtuous” character in this wasps’ nest is also largely to blame. That character would be Margo’s best friend Karen, who in my mind is the perfect representation of a useless white feminist.1
(Warning: I’m going to reveal lots more spoilers here. If you haven’t seen the film and highly rate the experience of being surprised, I recommend you watch it before reading this.)
It’s funny that this character is named “Karen,” which in current slang refers to an awful white women who frequently asks to speak to customer service managers or calls the cops when she see a “suspicious” person standing too close to her. The Karen in this story is just that sort of moralistic busybody, the kind who feels compelled to teach someone a lesson about things she does not understand; this is the essence of Karen and Margo’s friendship throughout the first two acts. In one of the earliest scenes, when Margo is holding court in her dressing room following a performance, she playfully begs Lloyd to write her a better role than the southern belle protagonist from “Aged in Wood” – “Lloyd, honey, be a playwright with guts. Write me one about a nice normal woman who just shoots her husband.” Lloyd, who has written several plays for Margo, laughs off this jab. But Karen gets huffy — “I find these wisecracks increasingly unfunny!” — and whines about how Margo doesn’t appreciate all the fame and fortune her husband’s youthful characters have brought her. When her guilt trip fails to illicit a sense of shame, Karen then introduces Margo to the odd woman in a trench coat who’s been standing outside the stage door after every single performance. Indeed if not for Karen, Eve would never have entered Margo’s world.
You might be wondering, why does Karen care so much about Margo or Lloyd’s work? Doesn’t she have a life of her own? The answer is no, she doesn’t. When Eve first meets Karen, she recognizes and greets her by name. Karen laughs at the notion of being notable – “A playwright’s wife? I’m the lowest form of celebrity!” This is Karen’s whole schtick, that she’s the “nice,” even-keeled, normie outsider in a world full of temperamental egomaniacs. But being an outsider doesn’t stop her from meddling in her husband’s business. Just as Margo is beginning to suspect that Eve isn’t as sweet or devoted as she initially seems, an unwitting Karen encourages the young woman to audition as Margo’s understudy, assuming the star will be completely on-board with this plan. When Eve asks if Lloyd and Bill will also support it, Karen assures her, “They’ll do as they’re told.”
Isn’t it odd that Karen thinks she has the right to boss around professionals when her only connection to this business is via marriage? You might be thinking, “Well 1950 was a different time. American women were expected to stay at home. Is it so wrong for Karen to wield power in whatever way she can? After all, she means well.” In a certain way, it looks like Karen is doing a good feminist deed by using her influence to lift up a young woman who’s just getting into this profession. When I first saw this film twenty years ago, I loved the “do as they’re told” line because it struck me as a bad ass, pro-lady sentiment way ahead of its time.
But now that I’m an aged socialist, I see that Karen’s sense of entitlement has more to do with class privilege than gender solidarity. Let’s consider what happens after she assures Eve that the men will fall in line with their plan. They have that chat at Margo’s birthday party for Bill, during which our paranoid heroine gets wasted and behaves like a complete psycho bitch toward Eve and all their friends. At one point Margo snaps at Eve for being too obsequious. When Karen calls out her snotty behavior, an inebriated Margo replies, “Please don’t play governess, Karen. I haven’t your unyielding good taste.” And then in a sneering upper class accent, adds, “I wish I could have gone to Radcliffe too, but father wouldn’t hear of it. He needed help behind the notions counter.”2
As partygoer Addison watches this scene unfold, he remarks to Margo, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” He’s mocking her but it’s true – from a spectator’s viewpoint, this cattiness is precisely what makes All About Eve such delicious drama. At the same time, he’s also clued into the class resentment that underlies Margo and Karen’s friendship. As he notes in a voiceover monologue at the beginning of the film, “Nothing in [Karen’s] background or breeding should have brought her any closer to the stage than Row E, Center. However, during her senior year at Radcliffe, Lloyd Richards lectured on the drama. The following year, Karen became Mrs. Lloyd Richards.” Essentially, Karen is a rich girl who went to college with the same intention all rich girls had back then – to find herself a wealthy, respectable spouse. Karen may as well be an aristocrat; she never had to work, never had to prove herself worthy of this cutthroat business, but somehow still gets to be a decision-maker in this circle of Broadway elites.
Margo didn’t enjoy any of those shortcuts because she’s a worker. And increasingly, she’s become disillusioned with what’s required to survive in this business. Past age forty, she’s tired of playing characters Eve’s age. It makes her feel undignified and phony. It heightens her concern about losing her 32 year-old director beau to “some gorgeous wide-eyed young babe.” Right before her big blow-up at the party, she drunkenly lays out her insecurities to the man who has written all her major roles:
Lloyd: Margo, you haven’t got any age.
Margo: “Miss Channing is ageless.” Spoken like a press agent.
Lloyd: I know what I’m talking about. After all, they’re my plays.
Margo: Spoken like an author. Lloyd, I’m not twentyish. I am not thirtyish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh… That slipped out, I hadn’t quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I feel as if I’d suddenly taken all my clothes off.
Lloyd: Week after week, to thousands of people, you’re as young as you want…
Margo: … as young as they want, you mean.
Watching the movie recently, I came to the conclusion that Lloyd is also much to blame for all the bad that happens. Why the hell doesn’t he write an age-appropriate role for his muse? Like so many men who are awarded huge platforms to tell stories about women, he possesses little understanding of what our lives are like, especially those of us facing middle age. Again, we could concede that conventions of the era made that condition so (as if the condition ever changed!). And yet here we are, watching a film from 1950 about a woman in her forties. Clearly it wasn’t an impossible task then any more than it is now.
So we can blame Lloyd for being an oblivious nitwit (which later makes him the easiest mark for Eve’s shenanigans). But Karen is smarter and she actively schemes against her friend, pulling that classic white feminist “teach you a lesson” bullshit I mentioned earlier. After Margo throws a tantrum about Eve receiving the understudy role and subsequently breaks up with Bill, Karen takes advantage of a weekend getaway to sneakily trap her friend in the countryside so she misses her next performance. (This bitch literally drains the gas tank so they don’t make it to the train station in time!) Since Margo never misses a performance, and this snafu means understudy Eve is getting her big break, the viewer expects Margo to explode.
Instead, sitting in Lloyd and Karen’s chilly car, Margo apologizes to her pal for her recent hissy fits and admits with heartbreaking honesty that it all stemmed from her fear of losing Bill. “Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave. They’d get drunk if they knew how, when they can’t have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure – or unloved.” From her point of view, this has all come down to a choice between continuing her life on stage or being with the man she loves. “Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman.” Karen squirms during this monologue, knowing she’s set her friend up for this painful moment of reckoning. But of course she can’t admit that. Her discomfort is one of the film’s most satisfying moments.
But Karen faces even worse punishments down the line. When Eve turns on her, it’s difficult to feel she’s getting anything less than she deserved. That’s how devil’s deals go! At some point Lloyd stops doing as he’s told by Karen and becomes Eve’s stooge, instead. Apparently his spousal loyalty isn’t quite as deep as Karen assumes. But isn’t that the perfect metaphor for the limits of white feminism? It isn’t about destroying patriarchy as much as it’s about usurping patriarchal power to enact one’s personal agenda. As long as the system remains intact, most women keep losing. And for all of Karen’s good intentions, every action on her agenda winds up hurting her friend by reinforcing the patriarchal system that makes her professional life hell.
As for Margo, I’ll always find it a bummer that she needs to abandon her career just to have a happy relationship (a classic Hollywood trope I touched upon in my last Problematica piece). But I fully relate to that choice. It isn’t that we foolishly choose love instead of personally fulfilling work, it’s that sometimes our work makes the pursuit of love impossible. When I was 29 years-old, I decided to quit the best paying job I ever had, working for an institution I adored, because I knew the constant overwork would keep me from ever having a meaningful romantic relationship. Two weeks later I fell in love with the man I’d later marry. I don’t think our relationship could have blossomed if I’d continued working 60-hour weeks at a place where I was always on call.
Born-rich homemakers like Karen don’t have to make those choices. Imagine if women of her means really used their power to help the rest of us. What if Karen had ordered Lloyd to write a play about a nice, normal woman who just shoots her husband, instead of giving her best friend a hard time about being ungrateful?
1. I prefer the term “elite feminist” to describe a sort of feminism that benefits individual privileged women as opposed to women at large. But since “white feminist” is the more common term, I default to it here.
2. “Notions” refers to a counter in a department store where small sewing supplies were sold.