Weren’t you enchanted by Philip Hoare’s biography of ‘prince-of-aesthetes’ Stephen Tennant? As a text book for young gentlemen who understand how to mis-match textiles and have a penchant for Coldstream Guards, Serious Pleasures is equal to the definitive Hugo Vickers biography of Cecil Beaton. Those Brideshead era Bright Young Things speak to generations of literary, artistic and fashionable gay men up to and including those of Oxbridge age today.
Stephen was a beautiful boy who captured the heart of Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon. He was a brilliant, influential decorator of his family seat Wilsford and a competent draftsman. However, Stephen Tennant left very little behind him but for the exquisite Cecil Beaton portraits and a number of Jean Cocteau-esque sketches of a Querelle-style fantasy world depicting tattooed sailors and their admirers on the docks in Marseilles. I had my hands on a Tennant at Abbot & Holder on Museum Street in Bloomsbury but don’t really go in for all that.
Anyway, Stephen didn’t age gracefully. In later life, he is how I would imagine the ghastly German Kurt from Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to look like: porcine, sweating and inappropriately dressed. The photograph of he and David Hockney at Wilsford (a Beaton I believe) tells you all you need to know. Stephen barely left his bed and languished much as I am at present in Bloomsbury Towers with an arid throat and barking, bronchial cough.
I don’t think there was very much physical love in Stephen Tennant’s later life. He most resembled a jolly old dowager waving her ostrich fan and chuckling at sundry naughtiness as she watched the young misbehave. I didn’t even get to the Wilsford auction that is now in the annals of homosexual interior design lore. Perchance Stephen Tennant was cursed with extraordinary beauty in youth and once it faded his mind became ever so slightly unhinged.
We’re all pretty much in agreement that Waugh’s inspiration for Sebastian Flyte was a Lygon rather than a Tennant though there must be a little Stephen in Sebastian. It must be either marvellous or mortifying to be the inspiration for a literary character. The brilliant Lord Berners lampooned the Beaton set in a parody novel entitled The Girls of Radcliff Hall in which Beaton, who tried to have the book pulped, was called Cecily.
As you know Radlyffe Hall was the lesbian novelist who penned The Well of Loneliness. A sharp put-down of the time was to call a dyke ‘the bucket in the well of loneliness’. But enough lesbian banter. One of the consequences of my feeling like Mimi in the last act of La Boheme is the opportunity to return to old black-and-white film friends. All About Eve is the double feature today followed by Gilda.
Gilda is, of course, Rita Hayworth at her most lovely, predatory and pouting. Who can forget her performance of the drunken, woozy strip to Put the Blame on Mame? Rita wears a strapless, skin-tight black silk satin column dress slit to the thigh, black elbow-length gloves and her red hair falls in soft curls over her creamy shoulders. They didn’t call them goddesses for nothing, y’know.
All About Eve is possibly the sharpest, most tart script about life in Broadway theatre. Bette Davis (for it is she) plays Margot Channing who is the empress of Broadway. She is also edging over into matriarch roles but – this being a Bette Davis film – Margot is fighting it. Bette met another of her husbands, Gary Merrill, on the set of Eve adding sparks to the on-screen chemistry. The supporting cast of Eve is stellar: Celeste Holme (who loathed Davis), Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Baxter and George Sanders as the reptilian theatre critic Addison de Witt.
You don’t need me to remind you that Eve begins as a personal assistant to Margot then systematically mounts a campaign to steal her life and career. It is pure cuckoo-in-the-nest. The python in the reeds is Addison de Witt. To say he is cold is an understatement. De Witt is a chess player who at first finds Eve amusing, then alluring and, towards the end of the picture, repulsive. The film belongs entirely to Bette Davis. In fact it was her comeback in 1950 after being branded ‘box office poison’.
The fact Bette lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday was a slap in the face; particularly when Baxter was also up for the award for her performance as Eve. The superb Gloria Swanson was also in the running for Sunset Boulevard. But as Judy Garland knew, the Oscars are a popularity contest and the Academy doesn’t forgive actors who are brave and burn bridges. Bette was one of the first actresses to take on her studio Warner Brothers. She lost but paved the way for stronger contracts and script approval for actors.
The script of All About Eve is arguably one of the best in Hollywood history. The off-the-shoulder Edith Head gown Bette wears in the party scene is one of the most famous costumes to ever grace the screen. The artwork in Margot’s apartment is terribly impressive: Lautrec posters that were fashionable in the 1950s and a lovely little Picasso above the fireplace. Hollywood was way ahead of the art dealers in their support for the Impressionist and Post Impressionists. The film is perfection.