Last weekend my wife Kendall turned 42. A few days earlier, we were driving down the coast, returning from our dog-centered vacation at Doris Day’s hotel in Carmel. I was reading aloud from the book “All About 'All About Eve'” that we had picked up at a used bookstore. (Isn’t that what most couples do on a long car trip?) We enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what has to be one of the Top 10 films ever made. Of course, being the freaks that we are, we already knew many of the details, including the fact that Claudette Colbert was originally signed to play Margo Channing but had to bow out of the film, to her great regret, because of some back problems. It’s almost impossible to imagine Colbert in this role now, and yet it suddenly makes a lot more sense to have Anne Baxter cast as the conniving Eve Harrington since Baxter looks so much like a young Claudette. It would have been interesting to see Colbert sink her teeth into such a juicy role, but God knows the movies would have lost one of the best performances ever recorded on celluloid if Bette Davis had been denied the chance to make the iconic Margo Channing her own. We loved reading the tales of Bette’s histrionics on and off the set but one line from the book nearly caused Kendall to veer off a cliff and hurl us to our deaths in the pounding Pacific:
“During the filming, Bette Davis
was 42 years old.”
“During the filming, Bette Davis was 42 years old.”
Kendall is not someone who is obsessed with youth and she rarely bemoans the passage of time, but hearing that she was about to become Margo Channing’s age came close to sending her over the edge. We both saw “All About Eve” when we were kids, and back then we naturally thought Bette Davis was older than God. In fact, we weren't sure she wasn't God, she certainly seemed to have the same level of power.
Margo Channing: Bill's thirty-two.
He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years
from now. I hate men.
Margo Channing: Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.
To assuage her mounting anxiety, Kendall did what any woman in her position would do: she became Margo Channing. For the rest of the drive, Kendall’s mellifluous voice was replaced by the staccato screeching of Margo Channing, aka 42-year-old Bette Davis at her most shrill. “BILL!” she wailed when we stopped for gas in Pismo Beach, “Do you WANT a mar-TINI from the QUICK mart? Or per-HAPS a SWIG of WA-ter?” To be honest, my wife’s first attempts at Bette’s cadence sounded more like an aging Katharine Hepburn but as the day wore on, Kendall lost the Bryn Mawr inflection. By the time we reached Santa Ynez, Kendall sounded like a top-of-the-line female impersonator at a 1970s drag show. “What a DUMP!” Even our dog Henry, sound asleep in the back seat after a boisterous romp on the beach in Carmel, perked up his big ears and moaned softly, as if to say, “Who is this terrifying woman and what has she done with my mother?”
Margo Channing: I'll admit I may
have seen better days...but I'm still not to be had for the price of a
cocktail—like a salted peanut.
Margo Channing: I'll admit I may have seen better days...but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail—like a salted peanut.
Returning to Los Angeles, Kendall continued her channeling. She started calling Leah “B.D.” and even started calling our dog McTavish after Bette’s beloved Terrier. My daughter, who goes nuts if Kendall or I dare to attempt any kind of accent for two syllables, was nearly driven screaming into the street after enduring several hours as Margo Channing’s stepchild.
Margo Channing: Funny business, a
woman's career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move
faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman.
It's one career all females have in common—being a woman. Sooner or later we've
got to work at it no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in
the last analysis nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner
or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you're not a woman. You're
something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but
you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.
Margo Channing: Funny business, a woman's career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It's one career all females have in common—being a woman. Sooner or later we've got to work at it no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.
As luck would have it, last Monday night, just after Kendall’s entry into the Margo Channing Club, the American Cinematheque screened a restored print of “All About Eve” at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Of course we had to attend. Shown in a double feature with the delightful film, “The Tender Trap” starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds, one of the stars of both films appeared in between the screenings for a live question-and-answer session—none other than 91-year-old Celeste Holm. Holm is the only principal still with us from “All About Eve” and it was fantastic to hear her talk about the film and her amazing career. The first time Celeste appeared on the stage in Los Angeles was a whopping 70 years ago in the 1938 national tour of Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women.” Holm played the conniving Crystal Allen, the part Joan Crawford would play in the movie version. A few years later, Celeste originated the role of Ado Annie in the groundbreaking musical “Oklahoma.” When I was a kid, the very first musical I ever saw was a touring company of “Mame” that played Chicago’s Shubert Theatre in 1967. The title part was played with gusto and verve by…you guessed it—Celeste Holm.
Holm’s longevity is nothing short of mind-boggling. A few months ago, she made a film with Mickey Rooney called “Driving Me Crazy” which apparently was well named—after working with Rooney for two days, Holm said she was ready for the nuthouse. Holm won an Oscar for one of her first roles, opposite Gregory Peck in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” With the help of her husband, Frank Basile, Holm mesmerized us with tales of her seven decades in the business, from the time she purposely stalled an elevator so she could beg director Anatloe Litvak for a role in “The Snake Pit” to the “swear jar” goody-two-shoes actress Loretta Young set up on the set of “Come to the Stable.” Celeste and the other actors had to drop a quarter into the jar every time they so much as uttered a “damn.” When ballsy Ethel Merman heard about Young’s swear jar, she stormed onto the set, shoved a twenty-dollar bill into the jar, and said, “There you go, Loretta. Now go fuck yourself!”
Kendall and I, along with our talented friend Amy Turner, sat two rows behind Holm during the films. It was a thrill to watch her watching them. Amy had never been to a double feature before and we had to point out that 91-year-old Holm was alert throughout the screening while Amy was struggling to stay awake. During much of the screening, Holm was being caressed by her husband. Oh, did I mention that her fifth spouse was born in…get ready for it…1963?! Gulp. Whatever works between two people, right? With that age difference, I’d have to marry someone born in 1913! I better warn Kendall…oh, I mean Margo.
Of course we loved every frame of “All About Eve” even though we didn’t get out of that blasted theatre until close to 1 am. Look at this brilliant scene and see what I’ve been living with for the past week:
Did you catch the always perfect Thelma Ritter? Her character disappeared after this scene which is my only complaint about the film. Marilyn Monroe got her first big break in “All About Eve” and she did an amazing job with her small role as Miss Caswell, a Graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art. Get a load of this perfect dialogue:
Kendall and I repeat that George Sanders line at least once a week to each other: “You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.”
I’m now going on two weeks living with Margo Channing and I’m here to say that I want my wife back. In real life, co-stars Bette Davis and Gary Merrill fell in love and got married. Though they stayed together for 10 years, by all accounts it was a disastrous union. If Kendall continues to age alongside of Bette Davis, our future is doomed. I can only imagine what it will be like living with the main characters from such later Davis films as “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” “Where Love Has Gone,” and “Scream, Pretty Peggy.” But I guess I should count my blessings that Kendall has settled on Margo Channing for now. Bette was only 54 when she made “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Is this what I have to look forward to in 12 years?