“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
If you’re queer, you’ll remember exactly where you were when you first heard Bette Davis utter this inimitable line in the movie “All About Eve.” As a college student in upstate New York watching “Eve,” I felt as if I’d finally left childhood behind and gained admittance to the sophisticated grown-up world. I’d bet that nearly every witticism and gesture from this classic film starring Davis as aging Broadway actress Margo Channing is indelibly attached to the DNA of the LGBT community.
Sixty years ago, this unforgettable movie, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, premiered in New York City on Oct. 13, 1950. While some old movies seem stale — a bit moldy — decades after their release, “All About Eve,” though dated in some ways, isn’t a period piece. Today, it’s as deliciously bitchy, witty and poignant, as when it was released more than a half century ago. Especially to LGBT people.
Mankiewicz was straight, a womanizer and is said to have had homophobic views. Yet, he and George Cukor, who was gay, are the two directors of old Hollywood known for their sensitive work with actresses. But, even as he identified with and directed women in films such as “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve,” Mankiewicz bristled at being labeled, along with Cukor, as a “women’s director.”
“George only befriended female stars, I fucked them!” he told an interviewer.
Despite Mankiewicz’s ambiguous views on sexuality (or maybe because of the contradictions in his feelings), “All About Eve” is soaked in a gay sensibility. From the opening, in which campy theater critic Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders) offers snarky commentary at the Sarah Siddons awards dinner, to the final moments when Phoebe (played by Barbara Bates) preens before a mirror wearing Eve Harrington’s wrap — “All About Eve” is one of the queerest movies ever made.
The film’s story (of a seemingly sweet, but actually villainous, ruthlessly ambitious younger actress scheming to usurp the career of an established, famous older star) has become ingrained in popular culture from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “The Simpsons.” Who hasn’t had that nightmare in which someone younger than you is waiting in the wings, ready to steal your job or spouse?
“All About Eve” was made nearly 20 years before Stonewall when Hollywood couldn’t make movies with openly gay or lesbian characters. Yet, it’s hard not to think that some of the film’s characters aren’t queer — from Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) to Addison DeWitt to Margo’s maid Birdie (played by Thelma Ritter). Though I love Birdie (who catches on before anyone to Eve’s creepiness and treachery), Eve and Addison aren’t role models for me. From a modern vantage point, they’re characters from a time (during the 1950s) when lesbians were lonely predators and gay men were bitter confirmed bachelors.
This having been said, there’s something breathtakingly venomous and campy about Eve and Addison. Whether you’re a gay man or lesbian, I bet you’ve fantasized about going after a diva (Margo Channing) with the evil wiles of Eve or the Wildesque (as in Oscar) wit of Addison. Wouldn’t you like to spout epigrams such as this gem tossed off by Addison at the awards banquet, “To those of you who do not read, attend the theater … or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself.”
“My native habitat is the theater,” Addison added, “In it, I toil not, neither do I spin.”
What did LGBT people do — how did they live — before there was Bette Davis or her quintessential character Margo Channing? LGBT people love no one more than their divas. When Bette (as Margo) says “nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be,” you know you’ve met the uber diva.
Though more of us are openly queer than ever before, homophobia will always exist, and we’ll never outgrow our love of and need for wit, camp and divas. If you’ve never seen Mankiewicz’s brilliant film, take the time to learn “All About Eve.”
Editor’s note: For more on this classic film, gay author Sam Stagg’s meticulously researched book “All About All About Eve” is indispensable.