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4.3.04 All about jerks

Our movie-watching has us on a Bette Davis streak. "The Little Foxes." "Jezebel." And last night, "All About Eve." It won multiple Academy Awards in 1950 but we'd never seen it.

It's a film about women and ambition. The DVD cover describes Margo Channing (Bette Davis) as an "aging diva" but, come on, she just turns 40. She is a top-notch theater actress with a melodramatic personality. Her younger boyfriend is a director. Her best friends are a playwright, who writes exclusively for her, and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). They are all cantankerous in their way, squabbling freely with one another, but it all arises from their passion for their work.

Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve is ambitious. She not only wants to be like Margo, she wants to replace her. Her method is insidious. She is humble, helpful, and flattering -- perfectly charming. It takes a very long time for the four friends to see what she's up to. She finally gets ensnared in her own plots. While she gets the fame and fortune she so ambitiously sets out for, she loses all her friends. The four people she used as her ladder to success prove the great adage "living well is the best revenge." They don't need to conspire against her, to reduce themselves to her level. They go on with their lives and she makes herself unhappy.

Having matured in the very unglamorous not-for-profit world, I've never been exposed to the cutthroat ambition that must permeate the big-buck industries. But in recent years, as more money pulsed through the veins of the body non-profit, I've seen the cutthroats surface. Like Eve, they have talent and they are charmers.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against ambition. I have nothing against being competitive. If ambition is coupled with a passionate drive to do good work, for your own satisfaction and for the greater good of the team (or community or nation), then great things can happen. But the cutthroats are ambitious for their own big egos. They are chameleons, playing multiple roles to make themselves look appealing to the people they need. Then, when they get what they want from you, they step on your exhausted body as they rush out the door.

You wonder if they really ever get their comeuppance. Life doesn't tie things up as neatly as Hollywood does. There was a column in the 3.29.04 Wall Street Journal: "Why Jerks Get Ahead." Jeffrey Zaslow describes how jerks are different from the rest us mere boobs:

They tend to be narcissistic, arrogant, manipulative and goal-oriented. They trust no one and refuse to collaborate. They lack a capacity for empathy but are skilled at politics. Though they purposely disregard how they're coming off to colleagues or subordinates, they're often very good at sweet-talking bosses, who remain oblivious to their dastardly ways. The result: Good people get fed up and leave companies, while jerks get promoted.

Sigh. I guess Eve Harrington was successful too. We can see that her personal life is lonely and unhappy, but all we see her display is a touch of bitterness -- no insight, no humility, no contrition. Maybe the lesson is that we can take comfort in the likelihood that successful jerks will be personally empty -- but will they ever even know it???

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