approximately 40 minutes and 13 secondsCeleste 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.
roughly 29% of film's total running time
roughly 29% of film's total running time
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...