Just to shake things up a little- for my first post-holiday work, I’m going to examine my first sculpture. It’s one that’s undoubtedly a masterful work of art, but one that is quite easily overlooked. It’s the Sarah Siddons Award, introduced in the great Bette Davis drama, All About Eve.
All About Eve was released in 1950 and served as a career saver for the middle-aged Bette Davis, who made a comeback as the character Margo Channing after all her “siren” roles died off. It costars, notably, Anne Baxter as the titular Eve and the wonderful Celeste Holm as the best friend of Margo (during the actual production, though Bette was icy at best). Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed this drama which deals with an aging theater diva’s conflict with a rising wannabe star (Eve). It’s a marvelous story, with killer characters and many masterfully created scenes.
This classical look was actually a very popular portraiture style of the time in England as many aristocratic figures, fascinated by antiquity, fancied themselves as idealized and graceful as the ancient Greeks and Romans. I’ve seen a few Reynolds portraits in this same style.
The piece itself can, thematically, be approached from several angles, all of which deal with the repressed. The award, on the surface, recalls theatrical brilliance. However, in view of the plot, it means much more. This “greatest honor” means nothing to colleagues of Eve, knowing the underhanded treachery in which she achieved it. To them, the award represents their repressed resentment and dislike of her.
To Eve, the award serves a climax of her glory. It was the object of her plotting and planning. Her reception is her tour de force performance, the moment of her greatest triumph. It establishes her in the set of great actresses. To the girl that appears at the end, cradling the award in the mirrored panels, it represents her repressed desires to be a star as well.
In fact, the Sarah Siddons Award is largely seen, in the eyes of the plot, as an award for those who do not deserve it. In the beginning of the plot, Margo, self-centered and vain, while seeking the award, certainly, at least personally, does not deserve it. Eve, who does win it, also does not deserve it. And Eve’s own fan, who also desires it, will not deserve after her plotting, which will assuredly occur, happens. In short, it is the object of desire for those who do not deserve it. Not only is it a desire to be recognized as a great actress in the vein of Siddons, it also represents their desire to be recognized, even perhaps, loved by their peers.
Of note, there is an actual Sarah Siddons Society, which was founded after the movie. It honors great performers in the Chicago theater circuit. They also award statuettes of Siddons, but they too have a scarcity of information about the award itself.