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Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — ‘All About Eve’

Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — 'All About Eve'

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.

All About Eve has been referred to as the “bitchiest film ever made!” That it was written by a flaming heterosexual may then come as a surprise. Despite that disheartening fact, it is perhaps the wittiest screenplay Hollywood has ever turned out — rife with scintillating dialogue, sharp observations and enough shade to send all six seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race into the Dark Ages.

Recognized today as a camp classic — thanks in no small part to Bette Davis’ balls-to-the-wall performance — All About Eve also features three iconically queer characters:

Eve Harrington

A small town girl with big city dreams, Eve’s story speaks to a universal gay experience: escaping the confines of one’s hometown to find love, money, fame, acceptance, etc. It’s a tale as old and as gay as time. Eve, however, takes it a step further by conniving and backstabbing her way to the top. That step is the first in a path well-worn by every diva from Diana Ross to Beyoncé.

She has an unhealthy obsession with Margo that reveals itself once she weasels her way into La Channing’s inner circle. Their relationship is initially idyllic, with Margo referring to it in romantic terms as a ”honeymoon.”

But Margo’s assistant, Birdie (a wonderful Thelma Ritter) sees through Eve’s act and warns Margo that she may be on the Eve of her own destruction.

Eve, then, is like Mrs. Danvers: a servant whose slavish devotion to her mistress has vaguely sapphic undertones. Once Margo is three sheets (and an entire fleet) to the wind, she addresses this devotion, and at the same time raises the issue of Eve’s sexuality:

But the key difference between Eve and Mrs. Danvers is that Eve is incapable of love. She tries to seduce Margo’s man and then once that fails, she sets her sights on the husband of Margo’s best friend. Only Addison recognizes her predatory nature for what it is:

The only time Eve shows any genuine desire or affection — born not from the belief of what someone could do for her — is to the young fan who breaks into her room to “see how she lives.” It’s late, and Eve makes what is clearly a pass at her:

Of course, her fan has her own sights set on stardom, the same way Eve did, and we’re led to believe that this vicious cycle of oneupsmanship will continue.

Addison DeWitt

Hailing from the Waldo Lydecker School of Feeling Cun, Feeling Ty, Addison uses his wit as a weapon and he wields it with relish.

And like Waldo, he is an effete dandy whose relationships with women are proprietary rather than romantic.

He escorts aspiring actress Miss Caswell (a young Marilyn Monroe) to Margo’s infamous bumpy night only to paw her off to some producers.

With a beautiful woman on his arm, he is able to distract from his homosexuality — and a beard is born. That Addison should be anything but gay strikes me as disingenuous to the story. This is the theater after all, wherein more queens reside than a trick deck of cards.

He sees himself in Eve, recognizing their otherness, which manifests itself in their cold and calculating manipulation of those around them. Like Eve, he too is incapable of love.

Like Eve, he too is queer and has found a way to survive on the backs of others.

Margo Channing

Along with Norma Desmond, Tracy Lord and Mame Dennis, Margo Channing is my personal hero. That I idolize insane white women with drinking problems is neither here nor there — just queer. Of all those divas, however, Margo stands a martini glass above.

She’s a favorite of gay men because she’s a loud, ballsy, brassy bitch; the grand dames of all grand dames, diva-best-believa, HBIC in perpetutu.

Though not a method actor, Davis apparently played the part off-screen too — yelling at a Marilyn Monroe, who threw up during a scene because she was so nervous; shading the hell out of co-star Celeste Holm, who had a grudge against Davis till the day she died; and George Sanders said Davis’s “lack of fundamental graciousness toward her co-players disgusted” him.

Sanders was, according to Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood, bisexual; a fact Davis learned from Henry Fonda (don’t ask how he knew), which she used “to characterize Sanders as a bitch’.” She also claimed Sanders upstaged her at every opportunity — when she wasn’t upstaging everyone — and when he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Addison DeWitt, Davis added graciously, “He won that goddamn award at my expense!”

Sanders was the only cast member to walk away with a trophy at the 1950 Academy Awards, even though the film garnered a record 14 nominations, including nods for Davis, Ann Baxter (Eve), Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter. Baxter famously opted to get nominated in the Best Actress category, which some saw as the reason why Davis lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.


What’s more likely, however, is that Davis and Gloria Swanson — who had made a comeback for the ages in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond that same year — had probably divided the vote, leading to one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.

However, Baxter and Davis, contradictory to Sanders’s scathing disgust, remained lifelong friends. And in the Broadway musical adaptation of All About Eve, Applause, Baxter eventually stepped into the Margo Channing role, replacing Lauren Bacall.

The most infamous adaptation of All About Eve came in 1995 with that other camp classic about backstabbing your way to stardom, Showgirls. Though Gina Gershon is NO Bette Davis and Elizabeth Berkley’s acting peaked during her caffeine pill addiction on Saved by the Bell, the “film” (using that term very lightly) does what All About Eve couldn’t by playing up the sapphic undertones in the Margo-Eve relationship.

Sure it sacrifices the wit, the social commentary and any aspirations towards greatness, but, admit it: you’d kill to see Ann Baxter gingerly toss a handful of crystals under Bette Davis.

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