Many things change with the passage of time, but the nature of human emotion is not one of them. Despite a sixty-four year gap between them, Birdman (2014) and All About Eve (1950) are two films that represent how vanity and motivation have the tendency to deviate from conveying true talent, and instead, place emphasis upon fame. While the films may be different in content, they both contain emotional cores that are timeless. There is no coincidence that such a correlation can be found between Birdman and All About Eve since both films have an association with Hollywood being the backdrop in the midst of the theater world they inhabit. When understanding the vanity both films seek to expose, it is important to note the films aren’t an indictment of the acting platform, but is more of an expose of the people who manipulate the platform for their own gain. This manipulation of the platform to gain notoriety is linked to individuals whose goals are fueled by their insecurities. Due to such individuals being invested in establishments that would normally encourage raw and true talent, specific motifs begin to persevere over others that unfortunately can withstand the test of time. Vanity and notoriety are given more emphasis than true talent, thus eliciting cynicism from the outside world looking in. In basic terms, the negative outweighs the positive and fame is given more clout than craft. Birdman and All About Eve are two films that capture these sentiments, thus proving their timelessness within the film and theater community.
Vanity is the foundation for both of these films, to which perception either motivates or blinds its characters. These characters’ self-image and their fear of being perceived negatively prevent them from perfecting the very goal they are working towards. All About Eve’s plot of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) stealing and manipulating her way to stardom has a direct correlation with vanity. Her determination is fueled by the desire to depart as far from her past as possible, even if it is at the expense of others. Eve places more of a concern on consolidating her power than actually performing well on the stage, which seems to indicate her concern is more upon image than actual talent. There is no doubt Eve Harrington is a talented performer, but her goals will not be satisfied upon a Broadway stage. There is no notoriety with a stage actor, a reality that is still prevalent today. Stage actors are invisible and have zero clout when standing next to a Hollywood celebrity, even if it is a washed-up one. This point is illuminated within Birdman when Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an acclaimed Broadway actor, is treated as a nobody and asked to take a photograph of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) with a family. “He used to be Birdman,” is the answer the mother of this family tells her son who inquires as to whom they are taking a photograph with, thus further indicating how invisible and under-appreciate Broadway actors truly are. Riggan Thomson, who hasn’t made a hit film in nearly twenty years, is more recognized and celebrated than a beloved Broadway star. All About Eve’s Eve Harrington is well-aware of this limitation and doesn’t want to be relegated as another person within a crowd. By this rationale, her desire to mirror, and ultimately become, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is nothing short of being an entry point within the theater world, with Hollywood being the end goal that will quench her desire to get fame.
The desire to achieve such fame is part of Eve’s subtly-hinted fear of being worthless. She also wishes to establish a legacy for herself, which she begins to do by mirroring Margo Channing, who is introduced to the film as someone who is championed by all those around her. This seems to indicate she is used to people fueling her vanity, thus making her believe she is irreplaceable within the theater industry. The fear of being worthless is not an attribute she possesses, because her confidence in herself is tremendous. However, this very comfort blinds Margo from reality, especially in the context of how Eve first interacts with her. Margo’s vanity is consuming enough that she immediately presumes Eve to be too vulnerable to ever be vindictive and manipulative towards her. Margo gives Eve access into her life and world because she initially pities her, while also seeing herself as a savior figure. This sentiment of saving Eve may have been noble, but it had more of a correlation with Margo’s assumption that her fans adored her and would do anything she required of them, thus continuing her own vanity. This ability to blind herself from reality especially occurs when Margo’s assistant, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), openly questions Eve’s integrity, to which Margo downplays the possibility that one of her own fans could be deceitful. In this scenario, vanity blinds Margo from reality.
Birdman provides the flip-side of vanity, to which the fear of being worthless is a prevalent theme, again providing evidence that both films touch upon a timeless human emotion. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a tremendous example of vanity, to which he hides his insecurities by overcompensating his acting. The film’s construction of Mike Shiner portrays him as a shell of an individual, whose only quality is having the reputation of the being an acclaimed Broadway actor. The expressiveness he conveys on the stage is replaced with repression and the fear he will be recognized for who he truly is, a nobody. His impotence further serves as a metaphor for his character, to which sexual desire is attained in the context of being someone else. When he is not a character on the stage, but just Mike Shiner, his impotence parallels with his disbelief in himself and his fear of being forgotten. His intensity on the stage and having the reputation of being a method actor is the only attribute he has that gives him complacency with his existence. Yet even as the best actor, Shiner is aware of his limitations of being a stage actor. Upon being asked by the critic Tabitha Dickinson if he is going to Hollywood, he responds to her, “No, Hollywood is coming here,” thereby implying Shiner truly is appreciative of the craft of acting instead of gaining notoriety. His vanity stems from his insecurities about life, to which he will forever be a lonely individual whenever he is not in possession of a role he can control, dominate, and obsess over.
This is quite the contrast when comparing Mike Shiner to Riggan Thomson, whose vanity also stems from the fear of being forgotten, but his goal is to be noticed and openly acknowledged by the public. While Mike Shiner has accepted he is invisible, but Riggan is an individual who embodies the characteristics of All About Eve’s Margo Channing and Eve Harrington. Riggan, despite having the best of intentions, is ignorant to the reality that he hasn’t been forgotten. Contrary to what he believes, he is still respected within the Hollywood industry and is still popular. His vanity of being forgotten stems more from the insecurity that nobody knows who Riggan Thomson is. People are only aware of Birdman. That is what they see when they see Riggan; Birdman. In the manner of Eve Harrington being recognized, Riggan has integrated himself within the theater world to prove Riggan Thomson; the man, the “actor,” is capable of doing something meaningful. Like Eve, his goal is to gain notoriety with the public, but he is ignorant to that being his end goal. Riggan wants to believe it is about being an actor, but his daughter (Emma Stone) stern conversation with him, in which she says, “Let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again,” functions as an indication that while he may be ignorant about his own motivations, the outside world is well aware of his intentions.
This then opens the conversation of “the critic” motif both films posses. Whether it is All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) or Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), both characters function as the voice of reality and the venom that others fear from them stems from their brutally honest understanding of the profession. DeWitt and Dickinson are the physical embodiment of the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and such a proverb couldn’t be more appropriate in association with them. Their power and their might come from their vision of what they perceive to be good or bad, which invokes a level of fear with anyone that comes in contact with them. The reason for this falls in that neither DeWitt nor Dickinson are victims of the vanity that has intoxicated the other characters around them. They are devoid of delusions of grandeur and see themselves exactly as who they are. They are openly antagonistic because they understand the lack of necessity of pretending otherwise.
Both films are strategic in how they utilize their critic characters. While they function as blatant antagonists, they also are both purveyors of good news that provide a sense of success without reward. Addison DeWitt in All About Eve frames his persona as being yet another person that is infatuated with Eve, gaining an entry point into her life and career by doing so. DeWitt is strategic by giving Eve the reviews she requires to achieve stardom, thereby gaining her trust. Not being blinded by vanity and instead grounded in realism, DeWitt is able to integrate himself enough into her world to seize control of her career by simply threatening to exposing her true backstory, which would destroy her public image. All About Eve is a brilliant example of vanity allowing Eve to become a star, but also being her own undoing. Just as Margo Channing never suspected a fan could inflict harm upon her, Eve’s vanity blinded her from the possibility that a male suitor could hold her hostage with nothing more than a mere pen. This enables DeWitt to build Eve’s stardom and fulfill her end goal. While this is technically Eve achieving her dream, it is at her expense. Her goal was fame, but without power, fame is worthless.
The role of Tabitha Dickinson is particularly unique to the theme of vanity within Birdman, especially with the open conviction she has of destroying Riggan Thomson’s play. Like Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, Dickinson is blunt, devoid of vanity, and openly antagonistic. Her character actually accelerates the vanity Riggan Thomson suffers from, with him believing his efforts are truly in vain and that he will succumb to his fear that he will disappear. It is Dickinson’s cold words that finally entices Riggan to attempt suicide on stage, which is vanity at its most extreme. Yet the irony of this sequence of events is the stellar review Dickinson gives Riggan’s play afterwards, describing it as “super realism.” Dickinson terming the play in such a way is the ultimate irony of Birdman when considering she is the sole character based upon realism and is devoid of vanity. Yet, just like DeWitt offering success without reward in All About Eve, Dickinson’s review doesn’t evoke the reward Riggan had internally desired throughout Birdman. Like Eve, his end goal was being acknowledged as someone outside of Birdman, but it was done at the expense of him almost committing suicide on stage.
All About Eve and Birdman both use vanity as their narrative foundation, thus proving the timelessness of the human emotion. Whether it is in 1950 or 2014, vanity is a quality that only hinders, even when it can be used as a tool to perfect a craft. It is necessary to note once more that both films are not exposes upon the theater world and Hollywood, but more of a commentary of those who infiltrate the system to accommodate themselves. The very art of acting, whether it is behind a camera or live on the stage, is something not to be taken lightly. It is a craft that needs to be respected in its totality, and without that respect, a individual is susceptible to falling under their own weight. Therefore, individual success is subjective in the scenarios of both these films, yet at least Birdman offers more of the traditional “happy ending” with Riggan being able to fly on his own opposed to the cynical implication in All About Eve that vanity and manipulation part of a revolving wheel in the acting world that has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
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