Celeste Holm in All About Eve (1950) - Supporting Actress Sundays

In all the times that StinkyLulu's adored All About Eve over the last two decades, this set of screenings for Supporting Actress Sundays provided some hints as to why Joseph L. Mackiewicz's complex confection is so enduringly captivating: it's a political film for the actressexual set. All About Eve treats "backstage shenanigans" -- who knows who, who's sleeping with who, how whoever got whatever part -- neither as giddy glamor nor as salacious gossip. Rather, Mankiewicz invests the backstage drama with an intricate complexity and shattering seriousness, as if Broadway wheelings and dealings were as important as affairs of state. (Which, of course, for some of us, they are...) And while Bette Davis's reigning monarch and Anne Baxter's sneaky insurgent battle for dominance, it's the shady double-dealing and influence peddling of secondary characters that ratchets the actual tension in this "political" thriller -- especially the stealthy maneuvers of the All About Eve's resident "political wife" played by...

approximately 40 minutes and 13 seconds
20 scenes
roughly 29% of film's total running time

Celeste Holm plays Karen Richards, the wife of successful Broadway playwright Lloyd Richards (a bland but cute Hugh Marlowe) and best friend of Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in a deliciously human diva turn). A daughter of privilege, Holm's Karen is a genteel lady of the arts in post-war Manhattan -- a lady who lunches, as 'twere. She's nearly certainly involved in any number of charities, surely soon to be on any number of boards, a regular doer of indubitably good deeds. And it's one such good deed -- retrieving a dampened young girl from the rainy stage door alley -- that instigates the machinations of all of All About Eve's political intrigues.

As Holm's Karen brings Baxter's Eve to meet Davis's Margo, it's clear that she does so with the patronizing cluelessness of so many such patrons. Holm captures Karen's naivete effectively, her velvet tang of a voice crackling with warmth. Who wouldn't want Holm's Karen as a mentor -- she's like every pledge's dream big sister, but for the sorority of Manhattan society. Of course, Holm's Karen just has no idea what she's let in the door.

But. As well as she nails Karen's being the perfect wife and perfect friend, Holm somehow misses just how strategic Karen is. As we see her in the film, Karen Richards never acts without a somewhat secret agenda; she may be a wonderful person but she's also a canny climber, a savvy player within New York's stage society. (She has effectively managed her husband's career from his lectureship at Radcliffe to being a preeminent writer for the New York stage, after all). And every major turn of All About Eve's plot -- making Eve's introduction, recommending Eve as understudy, delaying Margo's return to Manhattan -- results directly from Karen's stealthy influence peddling and power brokering.

Somehow, though, Holm's performance skips over this essential piece of Karen's character. In Holm's portrayal, Karen's yet another unwitting dupe to Eve's evil maneuvers. Especially in the extended Ladies Room scene, in which Baxter's Eve makes great show of apology only to twist the knife of shared secrets. In this scene, Holm arrives a disapproving matriarch, softens to become a nurturing big sister, before finally nearly dissolving into a little girl terrified at being caught. It's an appealing arc, and Holm executes it well. But it's glib. Karen's not merely tricked. To her chagrin, she's been outplayed by a fellow schemer -- one she so woefully, pathetically, and stupidly underestimated. But all that's buried in Holm's performance, way down beneath the doughy wounded tears.

And, this, lovely reader, is why Holm's "crazy giggles" scene rings so false. As it plays in the film, when Margo reveals that she has decided not to take the part of Cora, it's a huge weight off Karen's shoulders. Because Holm has played Karen as the noble victim of her own charity case, the only way Holm can make the scripted laughing jag work is to play it as a reaction to her own relief -- when, StinkyLulu suspects, Karen's laughter has something more to do with a cynical appreciation of "the best laid plans" and/or how Eve'll mistakenly believe her plan worked and/or something even a little darker.

Think, too, to the confrontation that Karen has with Lloyd, in which he accuses her of becoming cynical since leaving Radcliffe, to which Karen delivers the great retort: "The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!" This line seems -- to StinkyLulu at least -- to be Karen's most illuminating self-revelation, showing that she understands that she must play the game a little differently because she's female. Unfortunately, Holm plays this scene for its shrewish, ranting comedy and -- like the laughing jag -- it becomes a discrepant moment in Karen's generalized gentility.

It's too bad, really, that Holm skirts around the edges of the Karen character. The script really places Karen in a parallel position to Addison -- with Karen ostensibly influence-peddling for good, and Addison doing so for evil. But because Holm plays Karen as just some big marshmallow lump of matronly good-intentions, that dynamic tension gets lost. (And of course Lulu really wishes that Holm had allowed Karen some sexuality, even if she skipped over Karen's clearly sapphic potential. But StinkyLulu's finally beginning to realize that Celeste Holm was really the go-to gal for diminishing the sexual threat in complex female characters. Makes StinkyLulu sad... having always been so fond of Ms. Holm.)

It's nearly a commonplace to account for Nancy Olson's nomination as the "momentum nomination" of 1950 (wherein the general Oscarly enthusiasm for a film sweeps up even less than worthy performances in its broad nomination net). And, truth be told, the ingenue is often this category's lucky pick on such occasions. But, here, I'd have to call Celeste Holm out for 1950's lucky snag. Her charismatic but glib performance provides an accumulation of winning glimpses into Karen's good heart but skirts the edges of her power-brokering, influence-peddling complexity. And it's too bad. A great character, a great movie, a great actress ...but a barely adequate performance...


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Here, here. Holm did manage to convey sage sexiness effortlessly for Mankiewicz as the scheming offscreen narrator of A Letter to Three Wives- too bad she didn't carry over some of that character's shrewd sauciness when she portrayed nicey-nice Karen a year later. Watching Holm, I get the impression she simply memorized her lines, showed up for work, and shot her scenes, without giving much thought to the character past the scripted page, and every time I view Eve I want to yell, "Hey Celeste, this is your big moment- don't phone it in now!"

Holm has a great giggle, but part of the problem with the way she emphasizes it maybe too much might have to do with a bit of one-upmanship. On the All About Eve DVD, Holm explains how offscreen rival Davis (by all accounts, the two women truly detested each other) peevishly admitted to Holm after she nailed a take of the famous scene that "I can't do that" (laugh spontaneously on cue). Holm states the director, possibly to spite Davis, asked Holm to do the take again, and Holm cheerfully replied, "Sure!" (Davis latter commented, "There was one bitch in the cast- Celeste Holm").

Never thought too much about it, but you're right concerning Holm delivering probably her best line (". . . little boys!!") much too shrilly. I think retorting in a calm, knowing manner would've added another shade to Karen (at least it would indicate Karen knows the score).

Holm's probably not really to fault for my biggest problem with the character- namely, the way Karen just sits there and takes it from Eve in that ladies room. Holm is following the script, but I can't believe anyone would be that whimpy in the face of such a nasty blackmail attempt. I was kicking my seat during my first viewing of Eve during this Baxter/Holm exchange, and not just because Eve's such an underhanded creep- Karen's complete passivity is just as (if not more) maddening to me. At least kick the bitch on your way out, Karen!

Maja B. said...

I don't think the character came off as innocent as all that. Holm kept up an atmosphere of cool, self-entitled command throughout the film. For example, her comment about Sampson & Richards during the understudy conversation between herself and Eve: "They'll do as they're told", as well as the subtle iciness of one of her first lines to Eve, "well, among other things, don't you find it expensive?" There's an edge to her sweetness from the start.