Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, the most successful stage actor in America and an egomaniac who surrounds herself with admirers. And no-one admires her more than Eve (Anne Baxter), a young fan who becomes her personal assistant, apparently devoted to her idol. But as Margo ages out of the parts she used to play, hungry Eve is waiting in the wings.
This is a film about many things: the fleeting nature of fame, the process of ageing and relationships between women. But it’s also an entertaining film, thanks to a razor-sharp script that hasn’t dulled over time. It exudes quality from every scene, shown by its fourteen Academy Award nominations it received (winning six) and is the only film to ever have four Academy Award nomintations for its actresses, thanks to the note-perfect performances from its main stars.
The stand-out feature is its main characters, their interactions and the way they are acted by its predominantly female cast. Davis is tragically funny as the selfish and quick-witted Margo. Her struggles with her age lead her to drinking and some of the best move insults ever put to screen. Her jealousy of the younger Eve makes her initially detestable but she undergoes a transformation to a more sympathetic character thanks in large part to Davis’s skill. Baxter also perfectly captures the development of her character and a young Marilyn Monroe features as a rising starlet – a role that must have been a stretch for her. This is a film that’s way ahead of its time. Its focus on the female condition and the demands placed on women, particularly in the appearance-driven world of showbiz, are themes that resonate now more than ever.
The film is famed for its subtle lesbian overtones, and while there is certainly nothing explicitly lesbian about it (it was made 19 years before the Stonewall Riots that kicked off the gay rights movement) the fact that it is a film where most of the main characters are women was rare enough for the time it was made, and their varying obsessions with each other mean much more can be read into it. There are one or two moments where the hints are a little more obvious than others, which open the possibility of our characters’ worse behaviour being motivated by love and jealousy rather than ruthless self-interest.
With its thematic similarity, offbeat humour and theatre setting, I couldn’t help but think of this as the Birdman of its day, and you can’t say better than that.