A strange thing happens to women once we hit a certain age: we have the power to become invisible. We reach a point where people just stop seeing us. It’s no coincidence that when we look at Best Actress Oscar winners, 32 received their award before the age of 30, and only 12 won after 50. (The opposite is true for Best Actor winners: only one man has won before the age of 30, and 21 have after 50.) Conventional wisdom is that Hollywood just doesn’t write as many good roles for women once they age out of the youthful ingenue; they’re often shunted into the roles of wives, mothers, and grandmothers, but are rarely the star of the show. That’s why it’s so remarkable that 70 years ago, two films released in the same year cast older women front and center, and grappled with their relationship to aging. Margo Channing in All About Eve and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard both associate the aging process with a loss of identity: Margo fears being replaced, while Norma fears being forgotten, and neither are supported by a society ill-equipped to sympathize with their concerns.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is a former silent film star whose career was brought to a screeching halt by the onset of talkies. Her companion and reluctant lover Joe (William Holden) compares her house to Miss Havisham’s in Great Expectations, and it’s an apt metaphor; she is consistently connected to death and decay throughout the film. She first mistakes Joe for the man she’s hired to build a coffin for her recently deceased pet chimpanzee, a funeral she holds with great solemnity. The script she commissions him to help write is an adaptation of the biblical story of Salome who, upon being rejected by John the Baptist, demands his head on a platter so that she can kiss his cold, dead lips. There are no locks on any of the doors in the house, after Norma’s multiple suicide attempts.
Her house itself seems to be a graveyard, a mausoleum dedicated to her long-lost youth. An opulent mansion in a state of almost gothic ruin, it’s a relic of 1920s Hollywood glamour. Silent film stars John Gilbert and Mabel Normand probably swam in her pool in bygone days, while Rudolph Valentino danced the tango in her ballroom. Insofar as the house is a monument to silent cinema, it represents the extent to which Norma has suffocated herself with the past. Every table is covered with portraits of her younger celluloid self, a desperate attempt to cling to her identity as a film star.
“How could she breathe in a house so full of Norma Desmonds?” Joe wonders at one point, justifiably concerned that her obsession with her own youth and lost career is responsible for her bouts of depression. Even the people she invites over to play bridge (who Joe privately refers to as “the waxworks”) are artifacts of a bygone age: silent comedian Buster Keaton, Swedish actress Anna Q. Nilsson, and Cecil B. DeMille stalwart H.B. Warner.
“There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you’re trying to be 25,” Joe tells Norma at one point, his irritation clear. Still, it’s hard for Norma to let go of the 25-year-old version of herself, so completely is that image of youth tied up in her sense of identity and presence within the film industry. When she and Joe are watching one of her old silent films, she comments derisively, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” But what happens when that face begins inevitably to change? When you put such a high value on that one single aspect of yourself, how can you begin to cope with the grief of losing it? In this way, Norma views getting older as the thing that took away her career, even though it’s arguably much more likely she was just one of many silent film casualties of the early sound era. She associates aging with being lost and forgotten amongst all the other has-beens in a town that all-too-frequently cannibalizes its past, and it’s the confirmation of this that pushes her over the edge and completely out of touch with reality.
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve, by contrast, still has a thriving theatrical career. When we first meet her at the beginning of the film, she’s confident enough in her looks to meet a fan while applying cold cream to her face after a show, something that many younger actresses would likely balk at. But she’s just turned forty. All of the best female roles available to her are written for a twenty-something: she can push it for a little while longer, but her career as a leading lady almost certainly has an expiration date, and it’s much closer than she would like.
A threat comes in the form of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) an outwardly humble but ambitious and manipulative young actress. She’s the prototypical understudy waiting in the wings to hobble the leading lady when no one’s looking, and her youth, vibrancy, and talent endanger everything Margo has worked to build. Eve begins innocuously enough — standing in front of a mirror holding Margo’s discarded costume against her body, indulging in a fantasy of being an actress — but her ruthlessness becomes difficult to ignore as she attempts to edge Margo out.
What’s fascinating about Margo is not that she has real concerns about her viability as an in-demand actress as she grows older, or that she feels threatened by the presence of a beautiful young woman gunning for not just her roles but her entire life. It’s how the people around her respond to these fears, which is to mostly disregard them. Her friends and colleagues are completely taken in by Eve’s charm, and think that Margo is just being dramatic (which, to be fair, she often is.) Her much-younger boyfriend Bill tells her that her barbed criticism of Eve shows “paranoiac insecurity you should be ashamed of,” and that she needs to get over her age obsession. He even jokes about her starring in the production of Our American Cousin that Lincoln saw at Ford’s Theater, all while telling her not to be threatened by Eve. Her best friend in the world conspires to make Margo miss a performance, so that Eve will have the opportunity to go on as her understudy.
It’s clear that they consider Margo such a dominant personality and force of nature, that her fears and insecurities don’t need to be taken seriously. Who could intimidate the great Margo Channing? But there is an undercurrent of ageism and misogyny at play here as well. When Eve makes her grand debut, scathing theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) writes a piece highlighting her youth, beauty, and vitality, which is obviously intended to be a not-so-veiled criticism of Margo. This really hits Margo where she lives — it’s one thing to have your private insecurities about aging, and quite another to have them confirmed in a newspaper. And although Eve is publicly admonished for her comments in the article, the theater community is nonetheless eager for a shiny new bauble, and she becomes the toast of the town. All About Eve is a knowing commentary on the entertainment industry’s obsession with youth, and how novelty will always win out over loyalty. The world can’t work hard enough to clear the way for a pretty young woman, nor be so eager to push older women out of the way to do so.
Margo lets go of her desire to be the center of attention at all times, finding fulfillment in things outside her life on the stage. But Eve is not exactly the victor. As DeWitt blackmails her and subsequently makes overtures towards an even younger actress, it’s clear that there will always be powerful men eager to pit women against one another. The closing shot of All About Eve showcases this inevitability. In an echo of Eve’s play-acting with Margo’s costume earlier in the film, Eve’s ultimate successor Phoebe is dressed in her awards ceremony cloak pretending to accept an award in front of a wall of mirrors. Her bowing figure is refracted into dozens of images of Phoebe, an endless series of ambitious young women who will be forced to claw at each other for validation.
Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis were both nominated for their performances in 1950. Both were, somewhat ironically, beaten out by a bright-eyed, 29-year-old Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. But their work in Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve highlights the complex relationship between women and aging in Hollywood, where youth becomes such an essential part of one’s identity as an actress that it’s difficult to know what comes next after that fades away. And fittingly, although Norma and Margo were endlessly concerned about their legacy, they remain two of the most memorable female characters of twentieth century cinema.