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All About Eve Is The Greatest-Ever Homophobic Gay Movie
Every time I watch All About Eve I come away more impressed than ever. Yesterday I went to a repertory showing at Film Forum, and if memory serves, that was my first time seeing it on the big screen. It is, deservedly, a gay classic, but at the same time it’s easily one of the most hidebound and sexually conservative movies from a remarkably hidebound and sexually conservative decade, which is a difficult trick to pull off.
The movie’s relationship to gayness is more than a little confusing; I think this is largely because All About Eve’s understanding of what gayness is is more than a little confused. Eve herself is sometimes referred to as a “coded lesbian,” which depends on just how far you’re willing to go when it comes to looking for codes. She pretty desperately hits on both Bill and Lloyd, after all, and those fleeting shots of her arm-in-arm with a deceitful flatmate and her lightly-charged banter with Phoebe, the high school girl who breaks into her apartment at the very end of the movie, are hardly definitive.
Even Addison DeWitt, whose queerness is a great deal more legible (he even gets called a “venomous fishwife,” which is an honest-to-God insinuation) tells Eve that “After tonight you will belong to me” during his great “You’re an improbable person — We have that in common” speech towards the end of the movie, where he sums up the movie’s working definition of homosexuality:
“We have [in common] a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.”
Tellingly, nowhere to be found in that speech is anything, coded or otherwise, about a preference for your own sex. And you could find pretty direct allusions in other movies from that decade, albeit not all the time — Suddenly Last Summer, Ben-Hur, the remake of Mädchen in Uniform, Tea and Sympathy, et al.
So what gives? I think the movie makes the most sense if you consider its understanding of homosexuality in three parts:
A susceptibility to, and a penchant for, blackmail (Eve blackmails Karen, Addison blackmails Eve)
A vested interest in breaking up heterosexual couples
Homosexuality as homewrecking, homosexuality as blackmail, homosexuality as third wheel. Scheming to break up a straight couple? That’s lesbianism. Lying about an imaginary dead husband? That’s lesbianism. Tricking the lead into missing a performance so you can go on as an understudy, then being blackmailed into sleeping with the gay misogynist gay who helped to make you a star in the first place? Baby, you’d better believe that’s lesbianism!1 By this logic, nobody belongs together more “naturally” than a gay woman and a gay man. They ought to get married.
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This is also why it’s somehow gay of Addison DeWitt to procure for Marilyn Monroe’s character; pimping is gay, orchestrated heterosexual seduction is gay, anything planned is gay. When Eve fails to seduce Bill, he tells her to “score it as an incomplete forward pass,” which is the kind of thing a guy would say to another guy; only in this case Eve is dressed like a Southern Belle and wearing false eyelashes that look like they weigh a pound each.
It’s a strange substitution, but I think it works; I don’t really believe that Eve wants to sleep with Margo (maybe Phoebe, but probably not her flatmate), but I certainly believe there’s something queer about her feelings for her. All About Eve just can’t really conceptualize lesbianism without men, or homosexuality without heterosexuality, and so its onscreen queerness isn’t just coded, it’s double-jointed, so that there’s something lesbian about wanting to seduce a married man, or something gay about a man who wants to sexually dominate a woman without marrying her.
Put it another way: Any deviation from the correct target is gay. You’re either 100% or you’re queer; almost doesn’t count, there’s no rounding up on a 98% score. Eve talks about applause at the end of a play as “waves of love coming over the footlights,” while Margo abruptly decides to give up acting after she decides to marry Bill, issuing a wholly-new and previously-unsupported theory that her earlier love of the theater was in fact merely “play[ing] parts I’m too old for just because I have nothing to do with my nights.” Margo has correctly, and heterosexually, identified the appropriate source of, and target for, love as her husband-to-be Bill; Eve feels love from an undifferentiated, largely-invisible audience, with no special and individual lover distinct among them.
Having a husband is straight; loving your audience is gay. This is why it’s a “success” for Margo to retire after getting married. What’s funniest about that line, of course, is that the role of Margo Channing can only be played by a forty-year-old actress; the movie All About Eve could not exist if it adhered to its own reasoning. Bette Davis could play forty in 1939’s The Old Maid, when she was all of 21 — but a 21-year-old Bette Davis could never have been cast as the forty-year-old Margo Channing. Margo Channing is a role for the middle-aged actress that All About Eve cannot acknowledge exists; Lloyd only writes parts for twenty-year-olds and insists (until he doesn’t) that Margo is timeless enough to play them all. He can no more imagine writing a part for a forty-year-old actress than a fish can conceive of water — because he’s already surrounded by it.
What interested me the most this time around was how openly bad an actress Eve is. From almost her first lines, she lays it on far too thick, and practically everyone around her sees through it; even if they like her and want to help her, they’re perfectly aware that she’s overselling it. Birdie’s (Thelma Ritter) immediate response is to roll her eyes and say, “Oh, brother,” and while the others hearing Eve’s sob-story pitch are more inclined to be patient and sympathetic towards her, they’re perfectly aware that it’s a pitch.
Eve worms her way into Margo’s circle precisely because her acting is so obvious, so transparent, so over-the-top — it’s not that she’s pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes and only occasionally do we in the audience realize how bad she secretly is. She’s a ham. She’s overacting, and everybody who sees her knows it, and that’s why she’s a success; she’s the anti-Method, because she doesn’t understand anything, she only wants. Actors have to understand things. Stars don’t.
And when you can’t understand other people? That’s lesbianism, baby.
In the universe of All About Eve. Less so in real life.