The Face of the Gorgon: Fame and The Monstrous Feminine
All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard have been joined at the hip since 1950. Both modest hits in their day, both nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (All About Eve was the winner), both powered by career-defining performances from their lead actresses. If “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” isn’t the most memorable line from the cinema of 1950, it’s because it competes with, “All right, Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close-up.” The two films are similar in other respects, too. Thematically, they’re both about actresses and fame. Both films are built from the sins of vanity and envy. Both films share an obsession with mirrors. In All About Eve, the titular Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter), schemes and connives herself into the life of veteran actress Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) with the intent of taking what she has: fame and adoration on the Broadway stage. To this end, she climbs the ladder of fame with single-minded ruthlessness. She’s youth creeping up on age, which is the narrative of so many films about actresses that I hesitate to even count them. Sunset Boulevard, approaches the subject from the end of the line. Its fading actress, forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond, clings to her glory like it’s life itself, deluded that the world is eager for her comeback, that fame isn’t fleeting, that it hasn’t passed her by. If Eve Harrington isn’t as memorable a grotesque as Norma Desmond, it’s because youth rarely inhabits the same kind of Gothic world as Norma Desmond. Make no mistake, though, the ending of All About Eve hints that she’s the exact same kind of monster, heading for the exact same doom.
All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard both appeared, too, as the priorities of the American cinema were changing with respect to women. The “women’s picture” wasn’t dead yet--it would continue through the fifties as increasingly caustic melodramas, but it was on the decline. During the classic era, women accounted for the majority of filmgoers, especially during the war years when they were practically the only audience for films. But the return of men from the war meant that women were to be usurped from the positions of responsibility and in society that they had occupied while the men fought. Hollywood movies were already and instrument of conservative social engineering, and after the war, they were put to use putting women back in the home, back in a subservient role to men. Movies unsexed them, robbed them of their power. Nowhere is this more evident than in hairstyles and the cut of dresses. In the forties, hairstyles were varied and luxurious, dresses flattering and sexy. In the fifties, the poodle cut made even the sexiest starlet look matronly. The shirt dress turned women’s clothing utilitarian. Consider how an actress like Ann Sheridan was styled in 1945 versus how she was styled in 1950. It’s a stark difference.
The most insidious instrument used in this endeavor was the Production Code, which forbade the depiction of sex and sexuality to such a puritanical degree that it became laughable, subject to ridicule even in films it ostensibly governed. The famous kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious, which adhered to the letter of the Hayes Code regarding the length of kisses, completely tramples on it by choosing not to separate the the actors for the bigs of dialogue between resuming more carefully timed kisses. There is a stark difference between how women were portrayed in the films of the pre-Code era and those afterward. Characters like Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) in The Scarlet Empress or Lily Powers Trenholm (Barbara Stanwyck) in Baby Face, women in full control of their sexual agency, are unthinkable during the long eclipse of the code. While the long-term subjugation of women was interrupted by the war, it resumed after the men came home and there was a Cold War to fight against the Godless commies. Part of that process was depicting certain activities that were normal or even admirable for men as abnormal and monstrous for women. The pursuit of fame was one of those activities.
For example: King Vidor’s 1928 film, Show People, is also about an actress pursuing fame. It stars Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper, a bumpkin who comes to Hollywood and finds herself becoming a successful comedienne. The fame in brings to her drives her to “elevate” her screen persona in prestige pictures, much to the chagrin of Billy, the the actor who is infatuated with her. He’s appalled at the twit highbrow fame makes of her. Her Valentino-inflected paramour, Andre (the self-styled Count Andre) in the snobby circles she now inhabits encourages her to be a complete boor to those who are her inferiors. Show People is ultimately a comedy, but its depiction of the fame monster is telling, because it doesn’t turn Peggy into a monster so much as it makes her look foolish. And she comes to her senses eventually. Significantly, Peggy never loses her agency in the plot, in part because in addition to starring in the film, Marion Davies was also its producer and she had a firm hold on her own screen persona. She wasn’t inclined to make a monster out of herself, and she ends the film reuniting with Billy and taking her talents in a more natural direction. Moreover, Show People distributes the foolishness of fame equally among male characters. Peggy is by no means the only twit to buy into her own legend. This is a film that likely would not have turned out so well for Peggy during the Code era. In the Code era, she would have been punished for her ambition.
An equivalent character from the Code era is Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, in Singin’ in the Rain. In that film Lina is a famous silent actress whose career is shortly going to be destroyed by sound because her voice is ridiculous. She takes advantage of a legal loophole in her contract to force the film’s plucky heroine, Kathy Selden, to continue dubbing her voice after their first film turns out to be a success. Lina bears some of the influence of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. Kathy Selden isn’t exactly Eve Harrington, but she’s an equivalent rival to Lina. Lina herself is the prototype for Norma Desmond during her prime, a complete monster in the making, but a foolish one in a comedy. It’s not hard to imagine Lina nursing the memories of her forgotten career in a Gothic mansion twenty years later.
Fame in All About Eve isn’t the same as talent. Writing about the film for his “Great Movies” series, Roger Ebert notes that Eve Harrington’s fame is a manufactured through other means: her proximity to Margo Channing, her seduction of Margo’s boyfriend, the director of the play, and of Lloyd, the play’s author. But, Ebert observes, we never see even one line of Eve’s on-stage performance. The film is canny in the way it elides this through the agency of jaded critic, Addison De Witt (played with delightful venom by George Sanders). De Witt is never fooled by Eve and when she tries to play him, he tells her in no uncertain terms that he cannot be played. De Witt is the primary narrator of the film, and his savvy for how the game is played is summarized by his date to Margo’s party, played by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first major roles. De Witt points her at the men in the room who can help her career and tells her to get to work. There’s an unintentional metacinematic element to this, given who Monroe eventually becomes in real life, and by her obvious incandescence when she walks on screen. She’s an alien presence, a genuine movie star, of the sort that transcends acting or talent, even if the real Norma Jean Mortenson was as conniving and careerist as Eve Harrington ever was. But Monroe was a singular event, an act of god that cannot be repeated. Star power flowed from her like she was a supernova. Next to her, Eve seems particularly pathetic, a character who is all ravening appetite without the means to ever be satiated.
The same is true of Eve when measured against Margo Channing herself. Margo’s not afraid of Eve, really, because she got hers with talent, so she can afford to lay off the Machiavellian scheming. She’s hurt and annoyed by her, but not afraid. The film tells the audience this at the outset in De Witt’s narration, but you can see it in the casting, too. I don’t want to suggest that Anne Baxter herself was without talent, which is clearly false. She had a long career in movies and starred in some of the greatest films ever made. But she’s standing next to one of the two or three greatest actresses of the classic period in this film. Baxter, like Eve, was of her moment. Davis, like Margo, belonged to eternity.
The main takeaway from All About Eve is that Hollywood loves a bloodsport, and if it can make that bloodsport out of the rivalry between age and youth, or between women, so much the better. There may not be a mud pit involved, but you can see that the idea is related. In this regard, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is like a punch drunk fighter who has been discarded after suffering a series of career-ending knockouts. In Sunset Boulevard, youth has won and age has lost. The world has moved on. In his piece on All About Eve, Ebert draws a parallel between Margo Channing and Norma Desmond, but I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Norma is Eve after twenty years in the wilderness. The Margo Channings of the world will reinvent themselves, much like Bette Davis did throughout her career and long after she was of an age that was equivalent to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Swanson was 51 when she made Sunset Boulevard. Davis was only nine years younger in 1950.
Sunset Boulevard is a bitches brew of Hollywood mythology. “Norma Desmond” is a mash-up of Mabel Normand (an actress mentioned by name in the film), and William Desmond Taylor, the principals in one of silent Hollywood’s most notorious scandals. Taylor was murdered in his bungalow in 1922. Normand was the last person to see him alive. She also recalls reclusive actresses like Mary Pickford (who was offered the part but declined) and Greta Garbo (who the film also names). Norma’s obvious mental illness puts her in the same category of actress as Clara Bow, Mae Murray, and Frances Farmer, but Wilder stylizes it for effect, filtering it through the image of Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations, a faded beauty moldering away in a vast Gothic mansion. This is a more expressionistic film than All About Eve, which most observers align with Film Noir. The convention of the narrator telling the story from beyond the grave is an oddity that comes from noir, as is the psychoanalytic narrative structure. For my money, it plays like a horror movie, too. You can see the outline of James Whale’s The Old Dark House, in so far as Joe Gillis is an innocent who seeks refuge in a castle full of monsters. Alternately, you can see the outline of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which an innocent seeks shelter at a castle full of monsters where one of the monsters wants to have sex with him. The part of Joe Gillis was offered to Montgomery Cliff, who turned it down because he was having an affair with a middle aged actress and felt the parallel to his own life was too close for comfort. Wilder knew Hollywood. William Holden probably had the film in mind when he said of Wilder that, “He has a mind full of razor blades.” He certainly knew where to cut to draw the most blood.
The main takeaway from Sunset Boulevard is that fame feeds on youth and consumes it, leaving only madness and appetite in its wake. It makes Gorgons of women who lust after fame and destroys those who come into their orbit.
Taken on their own terms, both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard were modest hits. Both have existed in the bright circle of critical acclaim for decades, but neither was a blockbuster or a cultural phenomenon, at least, not at first. Like many influential films, their ultimate gravitational pull built slowly over time. The genetics of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve co-mingle and gestate over the next decade, and elements from both films start to surface in other places--particularly on television. Both films were remade for television during the 1950s. Both films have been adapted for the stage. “The 16mm Shrine,” the third episode of The Twilight Zone (1959), is a story about a faded actress (Ida Lupino) who sits in her Gothic mansion reliving the glory days of her youth by watching her own movies over and over again. In “A Wig for Miss Devore,” an episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and aging actress regains her youth and influence through a wig from a witch. The list of films and television shows taking elements from both films a la carte is long. The prodigal daughter of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard is Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in which the Gothic of Sunset Boulevard begins to shade into the Grand Guignol. Like All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is about rival actresses, with Bette Davis, thirteen years down the road, rendering her own version of Eve Harrington and Norma Desmond in one character. Her rival, in real life and in the movie, is played by Joan Crawford, an actress who, unlike Davis, clung to the instruments of fame and youth like a tick burrowing into the culture at large.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? concerns the Hudson sisters. Jane Hudson, the “Baby Jane” of the title, was a child star, the model for a famous doll, and a spoiled brat whose early fame went to her head. Blanche Hudson bloomed later, finding success as an actress in Hollywood long after Baby Jane ceased to be cute. Blanche was jealous of Jane as a child, but pulled her along with her own success even as Jane failed to find any as an adult. As the film demonstrates, the jealousy went both ways. Both sisters crave fame, and both have their taste of fame cut short. Jane by aging out of it, Blanche in a car accident that leaves her bound to a wheelchair and in her sister’s care. You can see in both sisters a conflation of Eve Harrington and Norma Desmond. Both are jealous of an actress they see as in their way to fame. Both of them are schemers. But you can see a bit of Margo Channing, too. Blanche is shown to have succeeded on talent, while Jane...well, Jane is played by Bette Davis, Margo Channing herself. The film acts as a clash of titans, with both actresses eventually constructing gorgons from their screen images. Davis’s gorgon is remarkably self-effacing. Rarely has an actress given so little care for her vanity. Baby Jane is a memorable grotesque, even more so than Norma Desmond. In constructing the visual impact of the character, Aldrich and Davis even further the association of the monstrous feminine with fame. Baby Jane is hyperfemininity taken to an absurd degree. She wears the Baby Jane dress of her childhood. She wears make-up so heavily caked on her face that it lends her an undead appearance. She’s a nightmare version of the Baby Jane doll of the film’s prologue, a femininity infantilized and fixed in an abnormal youth like a bug in amber.
While both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve are psychodramas intended to make the audience uncomfortable with mundane things (All About Eve more than Sunset Boulevard), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is an outright horror movie, one that doesn’t shy away from violence and the gross out. Blanche’s dinner made of a dead rat is a giveaway here--it’s the kind of scene that might have come from Tales from the Crypt--and Blanche’s ordeal at the hands of her sister is an ur-torture porn construction, though that runs both ways. Blanche has allowed Jane to live with the guilt for her paralysis for decades as a reprisal for their childhood jealousy. More overtly in the horror movie idiom is the death of Elvira, who Jane beats to death with a hammer, though discreetly off-screen. Joe Gillis’s death by gunshot is more violent, sure, but it’s the violence of a crime film. This is different.
Both Crawford and Davis would have a career in horror movies after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, both in films with escalating violence. Davis’s next film with Aldrich, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, begins with a decapitation, as does Crawford’s Strait Jacket, which she made with William Castle after turning down a reunion with Aldrich and Davis (the part in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte went to Olivia De Havilland). Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is keenly aware of what it’s doing by turning two of the most glamorous stars from the golden age of Hollywood into monsters. It contrasts them both with footage from their films of the 1930s at the very beginning of the film. It swept other actresses into its gravitational pull, too. De Havilland would make a couple of horror movies in the 1960s and 70s, as would Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Agnes Moorehead, Lauren Bacall, and Tallulah Bankhead. Davis was the queen of them all, though, in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Dead Ringer, The Nanny, The Watcher in the Woods, Burnt Offerings, and The Anniversary. Crawford, for her part, did a couple of films for William Castle, did a memorable bit on Night Gallery directed by a very young Steven Spielberg, and after seeing what a parody her screen image had become in Trog, retired from films. The fame monster is ravenous, and she couldn’t feed it any longer.
The psycho-biddy films inspired by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? died out eventually, as all exploitation trends do. The trend lasted for roughly fifteen years, which is the lifespan for most horror movie trends. It petered out as the slasher movies of the late 1970s rose to dominate the horror movies of the Reagan era. And yet...Baby Jane has her fingers in those movies, too. Certainly, the horror of middle-aged women existing in the world is a key element of the first pre-Jason Friday the 13th, while the early slasher film, The Fan, straddles the two idioms, presenting Lauren Bacall as the fading actress who is the object of the title character’s murderous obsession. While the films that are directly inspired by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? may have vanished, its influence never did. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? acts as a conduit for the influence of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve and transmits it to films even unto the present day.
A film that shows the influence of all three films in full view of the audience is Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her, which is to the psycho-biddy film as Young Frankenstein is to the Universal horror movies. It’s a send-up, in which Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn are locked in a mutually parasitic quest for the fountain of youth as a conduit to fame and fortune. Streep’s character is first seen performing in a musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth--it’s a precise and merciless allusion--while Hawn’s character, like Eve Harrington, watches from the audience. Caught between them is Bruce Willis’s schlubby plastic surgeon, whose skills become a valuable commodity as Streep and Hawn mutilate each other throughout the film. The idea that fame is a monster that devours everything is keenly felt in the scene where Isabella Rossellini’s witch holds a party for her clientele, and attendees include the likes of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis. Streep and Hawn get to have their cake and eat it. Zemeckis lets them play ugly and glamorous throughout, and lets Zemeckis himself indulge in the gleeful mayhem that he learned from reading E. C. Comics as a kid. The film’s special effects are groundbreaking, but unlike most such effects, they are both ghastly and hilarious. The end of the film finds Hawn and Streep in a mutually sick and codependent relationship that’s right out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, while the decor and the venomous satire are straight out of Billy Wilder.
Although Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is derived more from The Red Shoes, Repulsion, and certain David Cronenberg films, the power dynamics of All About Eve are woven through the film’s plot. Natalie Portman’s Nina, the film’s lead ballerina in a production of Swan Lake, is threatened by the up and coming Lily (Mila Kunis), who the film suggests is a manifestation of Nina’s own id. The film has a famous sex scene between the two in which Lily goes down on Nina. Afterward, Nina murders Lily (maybe) and transforms into the Black Swan of the title. The idea that the enmity between two rival performers may be a sublimated erotic impulse is a new wrinkle to this scenario, but the murderous intent is not. It’s Baby Jane again, with age murdering youth, and it’s Norma Desmond again, with several fading women clinging to youth and fame. While Nina transforms into a literal monster at the end of the film, she’s only one more in a gallery of monstrous women. What’s new here is the idea that fucking them might be be an option.
The main character in Starry Eyes (directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) is at the very start of her climb up the fame ladder, and the film frames the path to fame within the boundaries imposed by patriarchy. Sarah, our heroine, is an actress who isn’t having much success landing parts. Because aspirations don’t pay the rent, she works at a Hooters knock-off between auditions, sucking up the humiliation because she needs the money. When it becomes clear that humiliation in front of her director and producer is her passage to fame, she sucks that up, too (literally, in one incident on the casting couch). Sarah’s obsession with fame is shown to be deeply unhealthy, and as with Baby Jane Hudson, it manifests itself in feminine coded images. Part of the cringy nature of Sarah’s handling of failure is because it defaces the elements that make Alex Essoe, who plays the part, beautiful for the camera. She yanks hair from her head in clumps. Her fingernails fall out. When she emerges from the other side of the casting process for the in-film horror movie she ultimately lands, she annihilates both her femininity and her life. Starry Eyes is keenly aware of the sources of its imagery, and duly provides Sarah with a rival who apologizes for stealing roles from her, while the homicidal nature of her rise to fame shades into the demonic. Hollywood is still full of Eve Harringtons.
None of this has any real relationship to women or actresses, so much as it’s a product of how men see women in the world. How many successful women have been accused of sleeping their way to the top rather than getting there on their own talent? Too many to count. The psycho-biddy is a male reaction to the fact that women age just like men do, and that the window of hotness is short. Fuckability, after all, is the prime metric of women in the public eye to the patriarchy, and once that’s gone, what’s even the point of women anyway? This, after Hollywood went out of its way to make its most glamorous stars into gorgons as they aged. The system is rigged. The goalposts move, constantly.
Hollywood mythology tells us that after an early preview screening of Sunset Boulevard, the silent actress, Mae Murray, told Gloria Swanson, “None of us floozies was THAT nuts.” One can only hope.
Although I’ve written about the way 1950s hairstyles unsexed women in my own writing about No Man of Her Own and The File on Thelma Jordan, two films that Barbara Stanwyck made in 1950, the observation was fresh in my mind after seeing a Twitter thread by critic Farran Nehme Smith (@selfstyledsiren). The example of Ann Sheridan is hers.
Both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are on Roger Ebert’s list of The Great Movies. His reviews are at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-all-about-eve-1950 and https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-sunset-boulevard-1950 .
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, Applause Books, 2007.
Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 2004.
Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle, Griffin Books, 2001.
Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream by Sam Staggs, St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov, Hyperion Books, 1998.
Christianne Benedict is a cartoonist and writer who lives with her partner in rural Missouri. She has been published by Indiewire and Filmmaker Magazine, but usually writes at her own blog at krelllabs.blogspot.com. Her comics have appeared in anthologies from IDW, Prism Comics, and Stacked Deck Press. She used to post her comics on Tumblr before they turned into a bunch of puritanical poopy-heads. She occasionally screens for film festivals. She has a dog and several cats. Her safe word is "platypus."