***Some spoilers below***
As most of my readers know, I love classic films and even though this blog is focused on writing, creativity, and dreams, I can’t resist participating now and then in the odd film blogathon. And film is, after all, another creative art.
I’m a huge fan of Bette Davis. Her performances have always exceeded not only my expectations but those of the era in which they appear. Davis could sink her teeth into a role as few actresses then and now ever could, whether she was playing an evil bitch or an unattractive mouse or a glamour girl and her roles were always complex and conflicted even when the films themselves were more stereotypically Hollywood.
In the 1950’s, Davis played two roles that are considered some of her finest work of that period. What I find interesting about both is, in spite of Davis’ ability to play strong independent women, her characters in these films end up capitulating to the 1950’s idea that an ambitious and successful career woman couldn’t “have it all”. It was either a career or a husband and children, but not both, and films of the period made clear which was the “right decision” for women.
In the post-WWII era, the fear of nuclear war was very real in most people’s minds. The home became the place of refuge and comfort, much as it did during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Men were back from the war and expected to take their place as the bread winners of the house once more. Rosie the Riveter was replace by images of women as housewives and mothers which appealed to the American public. Women were expected to take up these roles whether they would be happy in them or not. That many were not was such a prevalent but hidden state that feminist activist and writer Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, labeled it “the problem that has no name”. Although Friedan’s book was published in 1963, it’s no coincidence that her research in the late 1950’s led her to identify this problem.
Women did work outside the home, to be sure. But they were more welcomed into the workforce in positions considered “appropriate” for women, such as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. These were jobs and not careers. Why? Because the ideology of the time dictated the roles of wife and mother were a woman’s true calling and trying to juggle these with a profession outside the home was asking for trouble.
The choice between being a career woman or a wife and mother was portrayed in many films of the era and the “right” choice was always the latter. In addition, no matter how successful a woman was in her career, it was understood she would never be truly fulfilled and happy until she gave up that career for a family.
Although All About Eve has other themes besides Margo Channing’s (Bette Davis) dilemma about whether to go on being Margo Channing, great lady of the stage, or a wife to Bill Simpson (Gary Merril), her character revolves around this decision. Davis has now reached middle age and seems to have it all – a highly successful theater career, popularity within the theater crowd, and adoration from her director, Bill. And yet, Margo is not entirely fulfilled and her behavior towards others, especially other women, is sometimes nasty and downright vicious. Age is an obsession with Margo. Bill is younger than she is, but more than that, she has come to the point where she must decide whether she will continue playing younger roles on the stage until her glory fades away or chuck it all to marry Bill for a home and family.
A scene between Margo and her friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) illustrates her dilemma and 1950’s ideology regarding women with careers. Margo and Karen are stuck in a car that has run out of gas while Karen’s husband (Hugh Marlowe) has gone up the road to get help. Margo goes into a monologue about how much she loves Bill. She muses about what she gave up personally to become a theatrical success. These include such 1950’s virtues as femininity, softness, and helplessness, all the things that attract men into marriage. She declares her fabulous success on the stage has no meaning if she can’t have the man she loves and build a home for him.
A similar situation emerges in The Star. Here, Davis plays Margaret Elliot, a past screen goddess who now has to resort to auctioning off her possessions because she hasn’t had a film role in years. Although Margaret did have a family – she is divorced from her husband and has a teenage daughter (Natalie Wood) – the film makes clear she sacrificed the success of her marriage for her career.
Margaret is determined to rekindle her film career. Throughout the film, though, another alternative is open to her –marry a young actor-turned-seaman Jim Johannsen (Sterling Hayden) who wants to help her get back on her feet.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Margaret is at a party where a young director is pitching a role to her. The role he describes is that of a woman who chooses a career and must be made to see the light that her real place is in the home. This is her happiness and her destiny. As he is describing the role to her, Margaret puts herself in the role in her own mind. At the end of the film, she brings her daughter to Johannsen’s home and runs into his arms, having seen her true calling at last.
It’s the truth artistic mediums, such as literature, dance, and film sometimes mirror the beliefs of the time in which they were made. These two films are no exception. Both films reflected the idea that a woman could either be ambitious or feminine but not both at the same time.