Part of my brain (small but insistent) is hardwired to source quotes from the music of Buffalo-born singer-songwriter Ani di Franco to suit almost any occasion. For example: every time I make soldiers for boiled eggs, I hear in my head: ‘The butter melts out of habit; the toast isn’t even warm.’ Writing something about the turn of the millennium, her opening statement on To The Teeth (‘the sun is setting on the century… and we are armed to the teeth’) appears from the ether. Putting on a hat conjures the magnificently shouty Hat Shaped Hat, all eleven minutes of it, from her Up Up Up Up Up Up album. And so it goes: we all have those go-to artists somewhere in our mental bookshelves, the writers whose words can manifest at the slightest catalyst.
And just as there are songs that emerge from nowhere, so there are movies.
For me, it happens to be a movie called All About Eve. There are films I’ve seen more often (such as Lord of the Rings, I-III, ad nauseam), and there are films that I love just as much, but there’s something about All About Eve. It won no fewer than six Academy Awards. One of those was for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ screenplay, which is, as far as I’m concerned, unimprovable. It is brimming with linguistic trickery, wordplay and sparkle, meditations on what it means to be a woman – as relevant now as then – and how pretence and performance can, for better or worse, be profoundly life-changing.BILL Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band – all Theater. Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience – there’s Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don’t understand them all, you don’t like them all, why should you? The Theater’s for everybody – you included, but not exclusively – so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it’s Theater of somebody, somewhere.
EVE I just asked a simple question.
And when I was finishing the set of songs that would become I Am Not The Night, it was to All About Eve that I turned, in search of inspiration. The premise is as follows: Margo Channing, a hugely successful Broadway star whose partner and director, Bill, is eight years her junior, is in every sense a diva – a loveable law-unto-herself who is forgiven her many foibles by her tolerant friends, and worshipped by her fans. Beneath her brazen exterior she hides the anxiety of a woman who has sacrificed everything for her career.MARGO 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.
One night, a young girl named Eve (played by Anne Baxter) is brought backstage to meet Margo. Eve has seen every performance of Aged In Wood, the production in which Margo is currently starring. Although Margo is initially unwilling to talk to Eve (‘autograph fiends! They’re not people’) she is moved by Eve’s pitiful story; Eve is an impoverished war widow and has journeyed from San Francisco in order to watch Margo perform (‘when the show went East, I went East’). Since Eve knows no-one in New York and has very little to live on, Margo takes her under her wing. Eve becomes her ‘sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist and cop’ – taking on the role of PA in Margo’s chaotic life. All seems well: as Margo puts it, ‘The honeymoon was on.’
The first subtle, almost-imperceptible suggestion that all is not well comes in the middle of the night. Margo is woken by the phone operator; apparently she placed a call to San Francisco, where Bill is currently directing a movie. Margo is surprised – she has not, to her knowledge, placed a call. Bill comes on the line and her puzzlement deepens until she realises why this mysterious call from her to Bill has been placed: it’s Bill’s birthday, which she has forgotten. The conversation goes on:
BILL I get a party, don’t I?
MARGO Of course, birthday and welcome home… who’ll I ask?
BILL (laughs) It’s no secret, I know all about the party – Eve wrote me…
MARGO She did…?
BILL She hasn’t missed a week since I left – but you know all that, you probably tell her what to write… anyway, I sent her a list of people to ask – check with her.
MARGO Yeah… I will. BILL How is Eve? Okay?
MARGO Okay. BILL I love you…
MARGO (mutters) I’ll check with Eve…
So here it is: the first inkling that Eve does things that Margo knows nothing about. And if Eve is writing to Bill every week, and organising his birthday and coming-home party, then perhaps she is doing other things, too… After she hangs up the phone Margo lights a cigarette and lies back on her pillows and you can see her – captured, silent, meditative and moody – in this first moment of slow-dawning suspicion. She does not know All About Eve; she just thought she did.
It is this moment that I wanted to write about in my song Elegy. The fear we have – as women, but also as people – of being supplanted by someone younger, or prettier, or more talented is a prevalent theme in All About Eve. I loved the imagery of New York, the actress lying sleepless and distracted, preyed-upon by incipient doubt; it was an opportunity to tell a story – my version of one moment from a movie that I love.
*All quotations taken from Joseph L. Manciewicz’ screenplay unless otherwise credited.