Sharply elegant and fiercely wordy, All About Eve has featured on Best Film lists since its release in 1950. Now marking 70 years, this sophisticated satire is not only a prized classic, its focus on women, power and Hollywood makes it required viewing. Starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, All About Eve tells the story of Margo Channing, a stage actress at the top of her game. Famous, talented and wealthy, Channing (Davis) seems to have it all. But turning 40, Channing is becoming aware that her star may already be dimming.
Channing’s circle of friends is small but loyal. The playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and his wife, Karen (Celeste Holm); producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), trusted maid and confidant Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) and Margo’s partner, director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). The circle is interrupted when Karen spots one of Margo’s fans, waiting by the stage door. Eve Harrington (Baxter) chats nervously to Karen – she lets it slip that she has seen every performance of Channing’s latest stage production, Aged in Wood. Charmed by Eve’s gaucheness, Karen insists on her meeting Margo.
Stepping into the dressing room, the banter falls away as Eve tells them her life story. Growing up poor, Eve finds solace in a local theatre group. A wartime romance takes a tragic turn, when Eve’s boyfriend is killed in action. Leaving her job behind, Eve goes in search of a life in theatre. Coonan (a star turn by Ritter) remarks that the story has everything but “the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end”. Making herself useful, Harrington gets hired as Channing’s personal assistant. Eve grows in confidence, but she soon begins to overstep the mark. Wearing Channing’s cast-offs, ordering the same drinks. Margo begins to understand that Eve isn’t there to do admin: she’s studying her like a blueprint.
Eve rolls out the next phase of her plan. She observes the Lloyds’ marriage, and how much influence Karen has over her husband. Eve circumvents the playwright entirely, and asks Karen if she can audition for Margo’s understudy. Still thinking Eve is harmless, Karen grants her request. But Harrington hasn’t factored in stage critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Acerbic, and wickedly clever, Addison is touting his latest discovery around town, Miss Casswell (an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe).
Giving Monroe – the actual ingénue of the cast – some of the best lines, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz utilises her gift for comedy. Miss Casswell’s propensity for blurting out the truth cuts through the wordplay like a knife. Monroe really shines in this role, and it is interesting how Mankiewicz saw what Monroe had to offer, long before the rest of Hollywood caught on. She landed bombshell roles in Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a few years later, but her comic tour de force, Some Like it Hot, didn’t appear until 1959.
At the understudy audition, Miss Casswell suffers from performance anxiety and retreats to the bathroom. Eve, practised and rehearsed, dazzles Sampson and Richards. The job of understudy is hers.
Addison begins to take an interest in the fledgling star, and interviews Eve for his newspaper. The interview is full of barbed comments about actresses playing roles they are too old for. The effect is seismic: Eve has no choice but to lean on Addison as friends and colleagues reject her. In the final scenes, Addison reveals that he has done some digging into Eve’s background. Everything Eve has told us – including the wartime romance – is a lie. We now realise the extent of Eve’s venal, self-serving nature. Boxed into a corner, Eve is outmanoeuvred by DeWitt. Eve gains a powerful ally, but in doing so, she loses her autonomy. The film comes to a close, and Eve, no longer the ingénue, has been awarded for her theatre work. She announces her departure for Los Angeles. As she heads home, it’s clear from the trunks already packed, this will not be a short visit. The endgame is, and always was, Hollywood.
Also written by Mankiewicz, All About Eve remains a remarkable film most notably because women are at the centre of its narrative. Davis, Baxter, Holm and Ritter (all nominated for Academy Awards) play complex, difficult women. The friendship between Margo and Karen fluctuates, just like a real relationship. Eve’s desire for power – nothing less – is what drives the film forward.
Davis freely admitted in later interviews that All About Eve saved her career. The screenplay – a mischievous, sparkling gem – is how Mankiewicz secured its star. Already saddled with a reputation for being difficult, Mankiewicz was warned about Davis. But on reading the script, Davis understood what was at stake. No temper tantrums – Davis, boasted Mankiewicz, was the consummate professional on his set.
Aged 42, Davis was already experiencing a decline in work. Not a classic beauty, Davis always took the road less travelled, but her last big hit had been with Now, Voyager. Stuck in a loop of made-for-television movies, Davis needed a role of substance. In Margo Channing, Davis not only found the role to catapult her back into the spotlight, this character is so in sync with Davis, that the line between the two becomes blurred at several points throughout the film. As Channing talks to producer Max, she moans about getting older. She is a forty-something woman, playing a role meant for a girl in her twenties. The consequences of ageing for Channing (and Davis) are clear: the work dries up, the phone stops ringing. The power shift – from being the glossy ingénue to bona fide star – moves as the years tick by. A woman at the height of her artistic powers, Channing has no choice but to play unsuitable characters – there is nothing else out there.
Where the film gets really interesting is in the exploration of the male power base in Channing’s world. Dating a director, and friends with male playwrights and producers, All About Eve initially suggests that men run Channing’s career, but Mankiewicz’s screenplay is more subtle than that. As Eve learns the ropes, she observes that the key to getting ahead is to ingratiate herself with the women in Channing’s circle (except Birdie, who is onto Eve from the start). A word here, a nod at the right moment and Eve climbs another rung of the ladder. Eve tries the age-old technique of seduction, but Mankiewicz’s male leads reject her. She’s “quite a girl”, according to Sampson, but he recoils from her blatant attempt to get between him and Margo. She underestimates the bond between the Richards too, spinning lies to Addison about Lloyd ditching Karen for her. It is Eve’s weak point – and a surprising one. A lesser film would have used Eve’s youth and beauty as her weapon of choice. But what happens instead is Eve learns that people are not so easily manipulated. She adapts.
Using the friendships she has built, Eve plots a game plan to take her from understudy to leading lady. Taking advantage of Karen’s kind nature, and Margo’s egotism, Harrington rises far quicker than if she had relied on the male players of the story. Striking a note that still feels modern today, Mankiewicz’s men are embedded in tradition. Living the good life and a little too comfortable, their reluctance to consider new ideas would actually hold Eve back if not for Karen and Margo. Eve would never be considered for a professional understudy role, without her connection to Karen. It is only when they are presented with a stage-ready Harrington, that the men congratulate themselves on their find.
Lloyd, in a fiery exchange with Margo, argues about her changing the words of his play. She retorts it is necessary to keep the audience from falling asleep. Margo recognises a need to keep work fresh and vital; Lloyd sees this as a challenge to his skill as a playwright. But more than this, there is an implication that the creative input of the actress should be limited to parroting the lines as written. Lloyd’s anger stems from the fear that Margo, inhabiting a character night after night, may come up with some insight he’s missed off the page.
It is Margo’s creative instinct that sets her apart. The film shows its age at this point, because a woman of Margo’s abilities would now be looking at directing, or developing scripts. She would already have her own production company. In 1950, Mankiewicz’s best suggestion for Margo is to retire. She chooses love over career. It is a choice that neither Bill nor Lloyd will have to make.
As the film ends, Mankiewicz considers what will be next. Eve, fresh from her award ceremony, goes back to her apartment, and finds a young girl asleep in a chair. Phoebe (Barbara Bates) has travelled up from Brooklyn to meet Harrington. Eve settles down and tells Phoebe to put her award in her room for packing. Putting the award on a travel case, Phoebe spots Eve’s jewelled cloak from the ceremony and touches it enviously. She slips it on over her shoulders, grabs the award and looks at herself in Eve’s three-way mirror. The camera shows multiple views of Phoebe, bowing to an imaginary audience. She smiles.
Mankiewicz’s conclusion is not an optimistic one. With the next generation comes more of the same. Eve is a type, endlessly replicating. As Eve leaves the graft of the theatre for the glitz of Hollywood, a newer, younger version of herself is already in production. It may be a sour note to finish on, but Mankiewicz’s vision would not be complete without it. A break in the chain, however, is offered. In Margo deciding to rewrite dialogue to keep a play from stagnating; in Eve’s realisation that lines of female power, though hidden, are worth seeking and cultivating.
While the trope of the ingénue continues to flourish, Mankiewicz’s take on Hollywood celebrates the women both playing the game and inverting the rules. Eve learns how to make it to the top; but also how to make her way through an environment that sees her as disposable. In the end, the power grab is not just for glory, it’s for longevity.
by Helen Tope
Helen has been writing film and arts reviews for ten years. She graduated in 1998 with a degree in English Literature, and her areas of interest include period drama and film noir.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your detailed, well written and incisive essay on one of the most influential cinematic milestones.