T'eyla Minh (teylaminh) wrote,
T'eyla Minh

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All About Eve - Or Possibly Margo

I am at least a week overdue in writing this post, thanks to self-evident work!stress sapping my energy, as a result of which I spent the first two days of the Easter weekend with a migraine, as well as Monday (thankfully it eased off enough on Sunday to enable me to cook our roast duck dinner, and on Monday I did at least have a bit more energy even if my head was hurting). It has latterly transpired, as I probably should have guessed, that Shark Week was imminent. The symptoms are so much more obvious in retrospect. :P

I imagine that also goes a long way to explaining why I was so angry about The Email last week, though I have since re-read it a couple of times and I think I'm still well within my rights to be pissed off about it - and indeed I have discussed it with other colleagues in the meantime and everyone is pretty much of the same view that it's unfair. I spent some time yesterday morning formulating a response which I will hopefully whittle down to smaller comments for my supervision, whenever that will be, and if my TL wants it in writing at least it'll be in a more digestible / less ranty format.

ANYWAY, to the point of this post!

On 11th April Paul and I went to see a National Theatre livestream of All About Eve, starring Lily James as the eponymous Eve and none other than Gillian Anderson as the iconic Margo Channing. I knew about the play itself (in London) because I follow Gillian Anderson on Twitter, and tickets for the actual play were horrendously overpriced so I was lamenting never being able to see it, and then about two days later I learned there was going to be a livestream. Subsequently, both [personal profile] cloudsinvenice and I saw it at the same time, albeit in very separate cinemas and a sea apart. :)

I had a lot of Thoughts about it which I simply didn't get chance to properly get down on paper (or screen), and then on Tuesday this week I learned that they were showing "encore" viewings of the livestream recording, with my most local one taking place the day after! So I self-indulgently treated myself to a second showing of it (on my own because Paul decided two viewings in three weeks to be overkill), because what even is the point of earning money and having a bit left over if you can't spend it on the occasional bit of fangirling? :P

I'm really glad I did go again because it's helped to jog my memory about some of what I wanted to say, and reminded me how amazing it actually was.

I will cut what I want to say because, obviously, it's going to be long. I will attempt to put this into some kind of chronological / sensible order but my short-term memory is perpetually shoddy these days. :P (Also, thanks to the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, I am in danger of falling into a Jaime/Brienne shaped black hole and would rather get this out of my brain first.)

Okay, before we begin, full disclosure: I've never seen the 1950 film. It's been on my watchlist for cover 15 years, but for some reason I've just never gotten around to it. I have always been aware of its existence as a cinema classic, and I probably would have ended up watching it anyway, specifically during my phase of devouring classic movies when I was at university. What firmly situated it on my watchlist, however, was a conversation with an online friend from the Sunset fandom (such as it is) back in about 2002. We ended up in contact because she reviewed my fic and I was in the habit of emailing pretty much anyone who did that in a vain attempt to find like-minded people - but we're still vaguely in contact, so I won't complain! Anyway, she told me I should watch All About Eve, because the dynamic between Margo and Bill reminded her of what Norma and Joe would possibly be like if they'd had a future together, in the sense of his long-suffering acceptance of her diva behaviour. On that basis, quite how I have never yet gotten around to watching it is beyond me, except that I'm the world's worst procrastinator, and I already see Sunset parallels in BLOODY EVERYTHING so possibly I didn't want to put myself through the inevitable spiral into complete obsession that would undoubtedly have resulted. Which, yeah - sounds legit.

So, having booked to see the livestream of the play, I intended to try and watch the film before then but still never quite found the time, or indeed a means of watching it that would not cost me money. :P In the end I decided to go in blind, with only the most basic understanding of the plot, and the Norma/Joe comparison already planted in my head by my friend. And y'know what - she wasn't wrong, but I'll get to that later. :P

I'll start with some stuff about the staging. Given that it's a story about what happens behind the scenes of theatre, the director (Ivo van Hove) chose to use cameras and microphones to actually show the audience what is going on backstage. The main stage is alternately Margo's dressing room or her living room (and the main floor of a restaurant, later on), with two separate offstage rooms representing the kitchen/bathroom/wherever, where various private conversations occur or where extras hang around as party guests or whatever else. All of this can be seen projected above the stage. The actual backstage areas of the theatre itself are also used and strewn liberally with old publicity shots of Gillian Anderson (I remember some of them from her X-Files days!), and there's also a camera built into the mirror of the dressing table so there's literally no escape for anyone from the intrusion. This also created some really brilliant 'reaction shots' during the first scene where Eve and Margo are introduced.

Overall I think this worked really well, and it's a technique I would love to see used in Sunset - the old UK tour did a little bit in the final scene but there's definitely space for more of it, particularly that New Year's Eve sequence where the action is split between Artie's and Norma's. And I should probably take this opportunity here to apologise for the fact that this write-up will be punctuated with Sunset references because I can never unsee the parallels. :P Getting back to the point, though, I liked how the camera essentially butted into what were very private moments and conversations. I guess it's a metaphor for how the private lives of famous people are always deemed as public property.

The play opens with Addison deWitt, a theatre critic, clutching a shiny award and introducing the play. Addison is played by Stanley Townsend, who I recognised not from his turn as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise, but from his brief appearance in the "Gallows Gate" two-parter episodes of Jonathan Creek as DI Barrison. Because OBVIOUSLY. (I can still point out extras from seasons 1-4 of X-Files years later; it's a talent?) Anyway, Addison then takes us on a backstage tour of the theatre, where by turns the camera focuses on Eve, looking anguished against a wall before realising she's on camera and painting on a false smile, and then on Margo as she prepares to go on stage, liberally applying make-up with a wink to the audience. The bit that made me giggle was the deliberate painting-on of the beauty spot above her top lip, because it felt like a massive "fuck you" to Chris Carter, who covered it up with make-up for 11 seasons of her playing Scully because it didn't fit his vision of the character.

And, okay, let's just pause for a moment here because I need to say something. I have been a fan of Gillian Anderson since her X-Files days and quite honestly, she was always the best thing about the show. Dana Scully is still my hero and my greatest role model. I have waxed lyrical about Mulder and Scully and what shipping them has meant for what feels like most of my adult life, at this point. Sometimes magic happens. The episodes where Scully was absent were somehow lesser for it; episodes without Mulder did not feel quite so empty, and that, for me, is an indication of how Gillian was the glue that held the series together. Even when Doggett and Reyes were introduced, Scully was the heart of the show. Chris Carter put his female lead character through every possible kind of abuse in the pursuit of grittiness or realism or building her resilience or whatever, and yes, the concealing of a facial mole is probably a tiny little issue in the grand scheme of things, but I think it speaks to a greater and more deep-rooted level of ownership. Chris Carter has never quite been able to let go of his creations, even when they started to evolve beyond his intentions. So y'know what - you OWN that mole, girl, you've bloody earned it.

I guess this is also a good time to mention that over the past few years I've had a Mighty Need for Gillian Anderson to play Norma Desmond (particularly as she's now the right age for it) and part of the reason I wanted to see this play is that I figured Margo Channing was as close as I was gonna get. :P

So, back to the play. The narration is then taken over by Karen Richards, the wife of playwright Lloyd Richards, who periodically interjects throughout the play to catch us up on what's happening. Karen is responsible for introducing Margo to Eve Harrington, ostensibly her greatest fan, after constantly stumbling over her at the stage door every night. (I mean, fangirl goals!) Eve spins a tail about first seeing Margo in a play in San Franscisco, working as a secretary in a brewery and joining their am dram group, and being a war widow. Margo takes pity on her and takes her in.

We are then introduced to Bill Samson, Margo's beau. They actually had really great chemistry and if I hadn't already been made aware of the Norma/Joe comparison then it would have jumped out at me anyway. (I'm owning that I have a weakness for this trope now; I think it's been long enough.) There's a clip here on Tumblr of some of their first scene together which I really love. It also gives a really great insight into the underlying danger of Eve's presence - you can feel all the oxygen getting sucked out of the room as Margo realises Eve is watching.

But anyway - my Sunset fandom friend was correct with her comparison, and I can definitely see where she's coming from. I love all their affectionate snark; I think my favourite bit was Bill's comment on how there are many characteristics which make Margo a great actress, and that he loves her for some of them and in spite of the others. That part really resonated, as did Margo's later confession to Karen that she had no idea who "Margo", the person, actually was in comparison to "Margo Channing", the actress. (Seriously, that's one of my favourite Sunset tropes - the tangible difference between Norma-the-person and Norma-Desmond-the-great-star.) Margo's paranoia about Eve, Bill's frustration with that and his valiant efforts to make her see reason, and their inevitable break-up, was painfully and brilliantly done.

And I mean, just look at this publicity shot and tell me that doesn't look like Norma and Joe:

For some reason that's not showing up when I preview the post even though the URL is correct. Fingers crossed it shows up on the actual post.

So, yes, I totally ship them now, and OF COURSE there's no fanfic. (NGL, I am already considering a crossover. Because I don't have enough Sunset Au's already.)

I'm glad I went to see the play a second time, knowing how it would all go down, because it made it more interesting to see the signs of Eve's betrayal and how she played everyone off against each other. She starts out playing the humble, star-struck fan who couldn't possibly think to impose, yet within 10 minutes she's lurking in the shadows and assessing Margo and Bill, looking for the cracks through which she can later slip. And Margo, of course, is the first to realise it, as Eve successfully insinuates herself into the proceedings and makes herself an invaluable assistant; she catches Eve trying on her costume, literally attempting to take her place; she questions Eve's motives in placing a midnight call (California time) to Bill on his birthday. Margo's paranoia is clearly not unfounded, but Eve plays everyone so tactfully and plays the part of a humble ingénue so well, that it's Margo who comes across as unreasonable.

Having said that, she really does not help herself at the birthday / welcome home party, let's be honest; from physically pushing Bill away at one point and then isolating herself with the pianist to wallow in self-pity, it's hardly surprising everyone gets frustrated with her. I love that Karen has the measure of her so well ("We've seen you like this before."), realising that something has already happened or is about to happen, purely based on her behaviour. The whole party sequence is so well done: Gillian's delivery of that famous line is just glorious, the timing is perfect, and the scene constantly and effortlessly fluctuates between drama and humour. It always was the case that Gillian's comic timing was perfect to the millisecond during the comedy X-Files episodes, and there are a few moments in the play where it shines through. In places the humour was not even that subtle, though if you were paying too much attention to the party scene you would be forgiven for not noticing what's going on the bathroom, i.e. Margo falling drunkenly into the tub and then throwing up. That part definitely hammered home the whole concept of private lives being on display: you're not even safe in your own bathroom to have an embarrassing mishap.

(I also now have a headcanon that the delayed party guest from Hollywood is obviously Norma. Look at that ridiculous fur coat, for starters.)

I should probably mention the soundtrack at this juncture, which was composed by PJ Harvey. It was darkly brilliant, constantly underlying everything with a sense of impending dread, but in particular I loved the two songs that intercut the play: "The Sandman", sung by Margo, and "The Moth", sung by Eve. It should be noted that Gillian Anderson cannot sing - this we know to be fact. Such being said, her delivery of the song was stunning: great control (particularly considering her physical stance) and an absolutely gorgeous tone. The tuning issues were forgiveable because Margo was notably hammered at that point of the proceedings. Lily James's rendition of "The Moth" was just as impressive, if slightly more tuneful, though I couldn't tell if she was playing the piano herself or miming - she played it twice but the first time it was cut off and melded into the soundtrack, and the camera angles made it hard to tell. The fact that she was pedalling inclines me to believe it was genuine.

I enjoyed the fact that the two songs came at crisis points for both characters, in their own way, and since I was expecting there to be any songs at all they were both genuinely pleasant surprises.

I mentioned before about the camera in the mirror. I loved the way they used this to show both Margo's greatest fear (aging) and Eve's greatest desire (to become Margo) - as well as the foreshadowing of the cycle continuing at the end with Phoebe, who only became an adult version of herself. It really hammered home the message that fame is short-lived and stars are infinitely replaceable. I also loved that Eve realised that immediately on meeting Phoebe and recognised her own path in her new, younger counterpart - she was not as accommodating as Margo but I have a feeling Phoebe may be even more persuasive.

Eve gets what she wants, of course - she replaces Margo in the play - but it comes at a price. Eve is conniving and clever, but Addison deWitt is much cleverer, and does whatever homework is needed to unravel Eve's story. She gets caught out in a lie and has nowhere else to go. The confrontation scene between Addison and Eve was one of Lily James's better moments in the play. She was mostly being upstaged by Gillian Anderson and Monica Dolan (who played Karen - she won a Best Supporting Actress award for the role), but that sort of feels appropriate for the character in its own way. The story is literally, eponymously, All About Eve, except it's really not - Eve just thinks it is, and manipulates the situation so that everyone else thinks it is, too.

After the fall-out of Eve's audition and Karen's subsequent actions to ensure that Margo cannot perform, things start to go in two separate directions: Eve's desperate attempts to keep the role she so badly wants, and Margo finally mellowing after she and Bill are engaged. (Bill, you could have avoided all of this mess by just proposing a lot earlier.) Now, of course, she's happy to go on tour because she can properly lay claim to Bill without the fear of Eve trying to steal him - though it's nice that even when Eve did try, Bill was adamantly in love in Margo despite the fact they'd had a massive fight and he had essentially walked out on her. (I can think of a certain Hollywood writer who could take some notes at this point. :P)

This entry is taking much longer than I expected (not helped by various internet-shaped distractions along the way) so I'll just quickly mention a few other bits I really liked. Margo's comment of "I hate men" when lamenting that Bill would always look 42, and her not being quite ready to admit that she was "fiftyish". The silly voice when she was arguing with Lloyd about dialogue. Birdie, in general. The champagne waiter at the party and his resigned body language as he reached for the final bottle from the fridge. Karen's hysterics after Margo announces she doesn't want to be in the new play. Margo's wig mishap and her drunken flop onto the bed. Bill and Margo and all of their glorious angst. All of Margo's gorgeous outfits, and the obvious parallel of Eve's red dress being a slinkier and more revealing version of Margo's earlier in the play - or, if you look at it another way, a less sophisticated and more ill-fitting replica, the final metaphor for Eve's downfall.

In some ways I can't even say what, specifically, made the show so amazing, over and above the talented cast and original staging, but I came out of it feeling so much more impressed than I expected to be. I didn't anticipate that I would want, or be able, to go back for a second viewing, and I'm really hoping there'll be a DVD release or at least a televised showing on Sky Arts at some point so I can keep it forever. I do wish I could have seen it in London but apparently even the last-minute same-day standby tickets were £25 and I simply can't justify it (much like with the last Sunset production, you're paying for the name). I'm actually glad I went into it with no preconceptions from seeing the film, and it's now made me more determined to finally get around to watching it.

Quite obviously, I still want Gillian Anderson to play Norma, and if there's ever a play adaptation or a TV miniseries rather than another production of the musical, you can guarantee I'll be running that campaign. :P This is now non-negotiable.

I'm sure I've probably missed a lot out of this write-up even now, and if I think of anything else in the interim which warrants sharing, I will do another post. I think this about sums it up for now, though. When I eventually get around to seeing the film, I will doubtless want to draw up some comparisons. (Yes, I have tagged this with my Sunset fandom tag but only so I can find it again later down the line. I make no apologies. :P)

Anyway, now that this is finally out of my brain, I can finish the unprecedented Jaime/Brienne fic which fell out of my brain yesterday and get it up on AO3 before the third episode on Sunday, which I am dreading beyond measure. I really don't want either of them to die until their full relationship arc is complete, but I don't trust any of the writers not to break my heart. :(
Tags: fandom: sunset boulevard, reviews: theatre, shippiness

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