I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.
Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.
In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.
But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.
What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.