[Here’s another movie portality piece I wrote last week. I have two more to put up: one for Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and another for Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.]
The movie begins with Eve Harrington being handed the coveted Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the theater. Addison DeWitt, critic and star-maker, introduces Eve in voice-over narration:
“Life goes where she goes – she’s been profiled, covered, revealed, reported, what she eats and when and where, whom she knows and where she was and when and where she’s going. Eve. You know all about Eve. What can there be to know that you don’t know?”
The rest of the film tells what we don’t know about Eve – how she got to the top, which is mostly by climbing over the backs of everyone who has helped her, everyone who had been her friend on Broadway, not least of all Margo Channing. DeWitt tells us that “Margo is a great Star, a true Star; she never was or will be anything less or anything else.” As the story begins Margo is on top and Eve is nobody. But Eve wants to be somebody. More to the point: Eve wants to be Margo.
Eve gets her first chance to meet Margo after an evening performance. She stops on the stage and faces the empty seats. “You can breathe it, can’t you,” she says to Margo’s friend Karen, “like some magic perfume.” Immediately Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life, becomes her personal assistant, moves into her home. Flattered at first, pleased to be taken care of by an adoring fan, Margo comes gradually to mistrust Eve. Margo’s fiance Bill chastises her for being jealous of a stage-struck kid. Margo is incensed.“Stage-struck kid?! She’s a young lady of qualities. And I’ll have you know I’m fed up with both the young lady and her qualities! Studying me as if – as if I were a play or a blueprint! How I walk, talk, act, think, eat, sleep! It so happens there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges!”
Margo means Bill, of course, and she’s right – Eve has designs on Bill, who is a successful Broadway director being courted by Hollywood. Toward the end of the film Margo undergoes an identity crisis. She confides in Karen: “More than anything in this world, I love Bill. And I want Bill. I want him to want me. But me. Not Margo Channing. And if I can’t tell them apart – how can he?” “Why should he,” Karen asks Margo, “and why should you?” To which Margo replies: “Bill’s in love with Margo Channing. He’s fought with her, worked with her, loved her… But ten years from now Margo Channing will have ceased to exist. And what’s left will be… what?”
Margo decides she’s going to find out what’s left, stepping out of the spotlight in order to give the conniving Eve the chance she’s fought so hard for. You get the sense that Margo has no idea what it means to be herself without the image — she seems prepared to exchange the role of Star for the role of Wife:
“Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what 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… (Margo smiles at Karen) … Slow curtain. The end.”
Of course Eve takes advantage of her big chance, even to the point of seducing Karen’s husband the playwright in order to corner the market on his talents. As Margo starts trying to become herself, Eve becomes… Margo. It’s not Margo the woman that Eve has been studying like a blueprint but Margo the image, Margo Channing the Star. And now, as recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award, Eve has been transformed into the image.
The image is the portal in this movie. Margo tries to separate herself from that image, while Eve discards everything about herself in order to become the image. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God. But that wasn’t enough: Eve wanted to be even more godlike, and so she ate the forbidden fruit. Eve gained the image but lost the substance. At the end of the film Eve, already grown cynical and disillusioned, returns to her apartment while the after-award party goes on without her. Phoebe, another star-struck acolyte, has finagled her way into the apartment. Eve is distressed at first, but immediately gets used to the idea of someone idolizing her, taking care of her, imitating her. In the last scene of the movie we watch Phoebe, draped in Eve’s gown, holding Eve’s award, watching herself in the mirror. But it’s not herself she sees reflected back at herself in infinite replication: it’s the image.
UPDATE: To illustrate the continuity of image-as-portal across cinematic history, Dejan sent me this screen shot from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The dark-haired woman, suffering from amnesia, glimpses the image of someone else in the mirror: it’s an old movie poster of Rita Hayworth. The dark-haired woman decides that her name is Rita; she later becomes a film star (or was she already a star?).