I started writing this post in February, and have been looking at it, tinkering with it, and adding to it ever since. Watching the Academy Awards this year, and clicking, during and afterward, through the electronic diaspora of comments on my phone, I pondered the common denominator in these posts and comments that Birdman (or blah, blah, blah) was the leading contender for best picture for the very fact that it was about show business. I have not seen Birdman and it’s not on my list. For better or worse, I’m just not a big fan of Michael Keaton. (My favorite of his performances is his Monty Python cast impersonation in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.) In any case, this story of Broadway won Best Picture, to no one’s surprise, except perhaps Richard Linklater’s. (Boyhood is another movie I’m unlikely to see, as I’m no fan of children, but Patricia Arquette’s speech was pretty fucking amazing. An unnamed friend has loaned me a screener, but I’m thus far untempted.)
I will admit that I was largely apathetic towards the awards while I watched them, and had only seen two of the major nominees: Into the Woods (really, really good if you haven’t seen it onstage; pretty, pretty good otherwise, but Meryl of the blue hair was stellar, as much as Bernadette Peters will always hold a tender centimeter in the blackness of my heart) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (just heartbreakingly wonderful, Mr Anderson appears to be neglecting Sturges for Lubitsch these days and watching it win the technical awards it won was kind of weird until I realized that Anderson creates his own worlds on earth as well as–or better than– George Lucas creates them in outer space.) Close to a month later, I’m still pretty apathetic to the awards: the most emotionally moving moments of the evening for me were the commercials for the last season of Mad Men and the blind girl watching The Wizard of Oz. (Lady Gaga, though, can certainly sing, and if she can act, I’d love to see her in Funny Girl on Broadway. Also, fucking JULIE ANDREWS!!!) I’ve since seen The Imitation Game, and thought that Benedict Cumberbatch did an amazing job of reprising his astonishingly brilliant performance of Sherlock Holmes. If only Dr Watson had been there before the chemical castration.
And can I just say that the awards are getting very commercial without sounding like Charlie Brown? Back in the day when Johnny Carson hosted them, they seemed really grand and important and true, but that might be because the ’70s was the last truly great decade of film. Or, because I was a child, and everything seemed grand and important and true. And are the classic award winners of the past great because they’re great, or because they won awards? Both, probably: How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane for best picture, but I think more people regard the latter more highly. That said, John Ford still holds some caché for the former. So Birdman‘s a headscratcher, but maybe not as egregious as Chariots of Fire over ET, the Extraterrestrial.
Which, in my typically circuitous route, brings me to the awards of 1950.
1950 was the year of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Other movies, too, but really, All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Both movies are about the business of show, one on the east coast, one on the west. Both are beloved and are ranked high in the annals of American film. All About Eve holds the record, with Titanic, as the most nominated film of all time, Sunset Blvd is arguably the greatest film ever made about Hollywood.
All About Eve may be the most erudite movie ever written: not a word of its screenplay would be out of place at Downton Abbey, even the Dowager Countess would approve. All About Eve romanticizes the bitchiness of Broadway, often mistaken as a drama, it is truly a comedy of manners. Joseph Mankiewicz audaciously uses 3 narrators to tell the story of a viciously ambitious actress. Though not filmed in New York, the movie offers much location shooting to add to its verisimilitude. The film, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holme, Thelma Ritter, George Sanders, Garry Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, and a scene-stealing Marilyn Monroe, is perfectly cast, and is one of the best ensembles of all time. Bette Davis gives a performance that is equally truthful, bombastic, and honest. Among other Oscars it won the awards for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best costumes, and best supporting actor (George Sanders.)
Sunset Blvd is often looked upon as black comedy, but it’s truly high tragedy with a hearty sense of humor. It is an indictment of the studio system so dark that at its premiere, Louis B Mayer apocryphally accosted writer/director Billy Wilder with the words ” How dare you do this to the industry that fed you?” to which Wilder succinctly replied “Fuck you.” It is the apex of noir cinema, yet it reaches toward Euripidean tragedy. In many ways it was groundbreaking: no other film before it was narrated by a corpse; it is also the genesis of “grande dame Guignol,” a sub-genre that lasted two decades, showcasing actresses of a certain age in roles both camp and heartwrenching. Mostly Bette Davis. It is not surprising that Sunset Blvd did not fare as well as All About Eve at the Oscars–it does indeed bite the hand that feeds it harder than the shark in Jaws bites Alex Kintner–but Wilder won (with longtime collaborator Charles Brackett and someone called DM Marshman Jr) best original screenplay. Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim lead the cast, supported by Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, and Dragnet’s Jack Webb. Like Mankiewicz, Wilder chose a non-traditional, though linear, narrative, including cameos by real life Hollywood figures such as Buster Keaton, HB Warner, and director Cecil B DeMille, (a conceit Robert Altman homaged in The Player, another ombre Hollywood tale) and filmed largely on location. Sunset Blvd has influenced most films made about the industry since.
Sunset Blvd ranks as 12th in AFIs greatest films of all time, and All About Eve ranks as 16th. My introduction to both was on the Carol Burnett Show, where Carol lampooned both characters with her impeccable aplomb. I saw All About Eve for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school, on a rainy day at the Nuart, in a double feature with The Man Who Came to Dinner. I’d previously seen The Man Who Came to Dinner onstage, and was more excited at the prospect of that, but soon forgot about Kaufman and Hart once introduced to Margot Channing. Once obtaining it on VHS, I watched it in a loop, devouring lines like “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” “Remind you to tell me about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke,” and “I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” I am happy to say that I’ve been able to work all those lines seamlessly into conversation over the last 30 years. I saw Sunset Blvd on the VHS right out of high school and wore it out. I’ve probably seen this movie more than any other, save The Wizard of Oz and Jaws. I often scream, Tourettelike, lines such as “We had faces then!” “Any laws against burying him in the garden?” “Tell him without me, he wouldn’t have any job, because without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studios” and, of course, “and now, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” At my first job, I had a co-worker whose name I thought was Max, and I always greeted him with a frantic “Max! MAAAAAXXXX!!!” His name wasn’t Max, by the way, but he never corrected me, and was gracious enough to put up with my screaming. I never did call him anything but Max. Both these movies were anchored by Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, whether an ensemble, such as Eve, or an intimate story, such as Sunset, neither film would be viable without Davis or Swanson.
And yet, neither Bette nor Norma, I mean Gloria, won the Oscar!
Judy Holiday took home the Best Actress Oscar that year. I bear her no resentment. No, that’s a lie. I bear her a lot of resentment because, as good as her performance was in Born Yesterday, the character of Billie Dawn is not comparable to Margot or Norma. In 2005’s Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the title role, has this marvelous moment of self awareness: “It’s as if [he] and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” In many ways, Margot and Norma are opposite sides of the same coin. Margot’s 40 and Norma’s 50. Anyone in Hollywood–who isn’t Katherine Hepburn or Meryl Streep–will tell you how hard it is to get work once the years pile on. Broadway is more accepting, but it’s still harder. It’s easy to see how each character is obsessed with their diminishing youth, and that while with Margot, it’s ostensibly “paranoic,” with Norma, it becomes the stuff of madness.
Billie Dawn, on the other hand, is a spunky, young, blonde pulling herself up from the bootstraps as she’s tutored by a hunky, hornrimmed William Holden.
Speaking of whom… Margot and Norma share another similarity in that they are both involved with younger men. Granted, Margot and Bill are in love with each other, while Norma has Joe stuck in her web like the spiderwoman, but they suffer the same lack of self confidence: for Margot, with her insecurities of aging, it is easy to believe that Bill might stray: “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” Norma’s megalomania precludes her from thinking that her lover could stray from her: “Of course you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let you.” Whereas Margot and Bill end up together, with Norma and Joe, it never can be.
Margot and Norma are both “aging stars”, but while Margot, on stage, still commands packed houses, Norma, on screen, is but a distant memory to all but the oldest extras and stagehands at Paramount; she has a quixotic vision of playing the teenage Salome as a “triumphant return.” The stage is more forgiving than the screen: Margot, at 40 is still successfully playing a character half her age. Once again, we see the masks of tragedy and comedy before us. Billie Dawn is a character of depth in a role that was written for Judy Holiday, and Billie experiences great change, rising above an abusive relationship to educate herself, and Judy Holiday is marvelous in the role. But the part could have been played just as well by Ginger Rogers or Shirley Maclaine or Marilyn Monroe, and even Melanie Griffith managed not to embarrass herself in the remake (she was basically replaying her Working Girl role, but still…) But Norma and Margot weren’t written for Swanson and Davis, respectively, and they weren’t the first or even the second choices. That said, and all due respect given to Lauren Bacall and Patti Lupone, it’s truly impossible to picture anybody but Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson in those parts. (Except Carol Burnett.) Their performances are INDELIBLE.
Yet neither Bette nor Gloria took home the Oscar. Anne Baxter would say that this is because Margot is a supporting role, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a protagonist is a character that experiences change in the course of their story, and between Margot and Eve, Margot experiences the greatest change: she becomes self aware and self accepting; she abandons the “barroom, Benzadrine standards of this megalomaniac society” to accept love and to age gracefully. One has no impression that Margot has forgone the limelight at the end of All About Eve, it simply matters less to her because there is more in her life. Bette Davis expresses Margot’s insecurities eloquently, both in her comedic kitchen scene with Gregory Ratoff and Hugh Marlowe and in her raw “Funny business, a woman’s career…” speech with the double-crossing Celeste Holm. Eve is the same character at the end of the film that she was at the beginning, except “successful;” the audience has indeed learned “all about Eve” and we have learned that she is a hollow being. Baxter’s performance is magnificent (and she’d have probably taken home gold, were she nominated for supporting) but she’s not the lead, not the star.
Many would argue that Norma Desmond does not change from beginning to end of Sunset Blvd, but her change and Gloria Swanson’s performance is just more subtle than that of Bette’s masterwork in All About Eve. That may be a brash statement given the amount of shouting she does throughout the movie, but it’s the truth. Unlike Margot, Norma is not a sympathetic character: she personifies megalomania, she has a relationship based on sadism and dysfunction with both her faithful butler/husband, and poor (I won’t say innocent, because this is Billy Wilder) Joe Gillis, who ends up like John the Baptist, not beheaded, but still dead, floating in a pool with “two shots in the back and one in his stomach.” We’re watching a slow descent into madness. Margot’s ability to change is what saves her, Norma’s inability to do so is her tragic flaw. Her war cry of “We didn’t need words, we had faces then!” is worthy anything sung on the barricades of Les Misérables. The expression of disgust on Swanson’s face as she brushes away the hated microphone at Paramount Studios is one that can only be envisioned by a silent film actress. The fact that her dilemma is both of her own making and that of the society she lives in makes Norma one of the great tragic heroes of the 20th century: the fact that she can’t accept herself and her age as Margot ultimately does is both her own flaw and the culpability of the business that offers her a living and authenticates her life. This is why Sunset Blvd is a tragedy and All About Eve is a comedy.
“It’s as if [he] and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”
And if you’ve read this far, you must like a good shaggy dog story. I have no idea why Judy Holiday won Best Actress over the more deserving Bette or Gloria except that she got more votes. It’s like Bush/Gore, but with actual votes. Many people say that Bette and Gloria cancelled each other out, and that’s how Judy won. It’s another headscratcher. Not as odd as Roberto Benigni winning for Life is Beautiful over Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters, or Marlee Matlin beating out Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married or Siguourney Weaver in Aliens. But a headscracher, nonetheless.
The truth is, does it really matter? Even today, people speak of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd who know nothing of Born Yesterday. But even these films are really known by people of a certain age, cinéastes, and homosexuals like myself. Jaws, Chinatown, and The Godfather are considered classics now. Some people aren’t that familiar with them. I even know people who have never seen The Wizard of Oz. The Fucking Wizard of Oz. Never seen it. Oh, well. I love Norma. I love Margot. I even kind of like Billie Dawn. They’ll live with me as long as I’m around. Still and all, Gloria should’ve taken home the gold.
As usual, I haven’t bothered researching this post–any errors come from the cobwebs of my mind.