Starring Bette Davis, All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) is a film about acting itself. Bette Davis is an example for the star being used as a marketing tool. Films she starred in would bill “Davis” above the title of the film to attract viewers as she was one of the most acclaimed actors of her time.
Bette Davis was known in her time as one of the most important stars on the big screen because of her craft, her physical appearance did not play as big a role in her popularity as it did for stars like Marilyn Monroe or Marele Dietrich. Davis’ marketability was based on her acting rather than her own personality.
Davis had a collection of mannerisms that were associated with her, her acting style technique was described by Martin Shinger and Christine Gledhill in Bette Davis: actor/star to be “a highly visible form of acting: full bodied and emphatic” (Shinger, Geldhill). The way of which she shaped her voice was intentional, as was the way she held her herself and moved her arms. Her eye movements, including the strong stares she was known for was practiced as was how quickly she could change her mood within a scene. Critic Maria LaPlace once said about Davis that “her performances are ‘bravura’ – they call attention to their own skill and display pleasure in it” (LaPlace). Coming from a background in dance, she translated dramatic expressive qualities she had learned to her acting craft.
Bette Davis was different from other stars, her acting craft was a big defining part of her star image. She was an actor, and a star and lived these two identities differently than many other stars on the big screen in her time.
The film’s title, All About Eve, is a promise that everything about her will be revealed. The desire of knowing by the audience is something the star system exploits. The film All About Eve is about stardom as artifice, dramatizing the gap between crafted personas and authentic selves “Hollywood stars collapsed performance and self and, promising access to the person, authenticated individual personality beyond a social role” (Shingler, Gledhill 71).
In The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) Davis plays Leslie Crombie, an actress like she does in All About Eve. Leslie is shown to be “a natural-born actress and consummate liar” (Shingler, Gledhill 72). This role asks the audience if these two things are one and the same, if to be an actress is to be a master of deception. This is a theme present in All About Eve as well. Eve lies her way to be close to the prominent actress Margo, and in the end, is rewarded in the success of her career for her ability to be deceptive. Davis’ role in The Letter was written by Shingler and Gledhill to “offer a solution to the tension between character acting and star image” (Shingler, Gledhill 72). This suggests that the star image is a fabrication including mistruths.
All About Eve conflates acting with queerness. The theatre critic and narrator at the start of the film, Addison Dewitt, is coded in the film to be gay. Dewitt confronts Eve, telling her that she will marry him because they are the same, he tells her “We all have abnormalities in common. We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk. We are the original displaced personalities.” Eve admits to him that she is not attracted to the playwright, and only wanted to marry him to further her career. In many ways Eve is coded as a lesbian. Eve also has a really homoerotic parasitic relationship with Margo, she is completely obsessed with her. Having a normative life is shown to be at odds with being an actor, when Margo marries she quits acting. The film shows that acting and normative society do relate.
The character Leslie is shown in The Letter to be a mystery similarly to how Davis “as actor/star,… becomes a mystery” herself. Because her star power is based on her acting, audiences thought that this meant that Davis was concealing something. This made going to her new films enticing to learn more about her, her roles were often similar but with each one developed to the understanding of her image. All About Eve shows and explores that the role of ‘actress’ conceals something antisocial or perverse. There is a suspicion shown in her roles that are often liars. The star image is a fabrication that is known to the audience, while not sharing the whole truth of the life of the star.
Bette Davis: actor/star Martin Shringler and Christine Gledhill
Heavenly Bodies Richard Dyer