There hasn’t been another Best Picture champ quite like “All About Eve,” before or since its release. Like a good wine, it has only improved with age, feeling modern, stylish and fresh, despite being produced over 60 years ago. In large part, the film’s ability to shackle the calendar’s march is implanted in its terrific script. Quips, wit and banter rain down on every scene like confetti, charging the entire film with a conversational energy, not only rarely found in films today, but in films period. To watch “All About Eve” is to be a spectator at the cinematic equivalent of Wimbledon, watching the characters lobby snarky barbs and comebacks at one another with such amusing expression that there is hardly time to pause and savor them all. But the film manages to steer clear of just becoming the most sophisticated catfight of all time by delivering flesh-and-blood creations wading through their flaws and vulnerabilities, allowing “All About Eve” to wind up and serve an absolute ace.
Adapted for the screen and helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “All About Eve” boasts an enviable amount of marquee talent, including Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter and George Sanders. In 1950, the Academy was evidently all about Eve, as it showered the film with a record-setting 14 nominations, a feat that would not be matched until 1997’s “Titanic.” It’s incredible that a film like “All About Eve” could generate so many nominations, given that it was not competing in categories related to special effects or original song; areas where “Titanic” was obviously able to rack up several nominations. As the curtain came down on Oscar night, “All About Eve” collected six statues, including Best Picture. Ironically, despite its four female stars all receiving nominations, the lone acting triumph went to Sanders for Best Supporting Actor, which I suppose is fitting, given that his character out maneuvered them all in the film.
There’s a cautionary line in the 1992 film “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” that goes, “Never let an attractive woman take a power position in your home.” This line would have served as sound advice for the main players in “All About Eve,” saving them a lot of drama. Set in the cutthroat world of the theater, “All About Eve” is a backstage, divalicious spectacle blending together a cast of themes, including blind ambition, arrogance, envy, insecurity and betrayal. The eye of the storm is, of course, Eve Harrington, a mid-Western ingénue who takes to loitering about the theater in hopes of catching a break into that great, glamorous world of the theater. Her golden opportunity presents itself in the form of Karen Richards, a playwright’s wife, who takes pity on Eve, arranging an introduction between her and Karen’s best friend, the legendary stage siren Margo Channing.
After regaling Karen and Margo with a made up sob story, replete with a deceased husband, Margo’s protective instincts surface, as she immediately takes Eve under her wing. Initially, Eve proves invaluable to Margo, simultaneously serving as her secretary, friend and psychologist. But above all else, Eve eventually reveals herself to be the viper in Margo’s bosom, as she plots and schemes her way forward to a career under the lights. In a way, the whole damned thing is really just the classic “a star is born” scenario; born alien-style, that is, with Eve bursting through to stalk and cannibalize everyone around her one-by-one until she has reached her place in the theater firmament. And she succeeds in besting all of her rivals and colleagues, save for Addison DeWitt, the sardonic critic of the theater, who seizes upon Eve’s phony act, blackmailing her into his possession and leaving the viewer to contemplate whether the price of fame was indeed worth the cost.
The core theme radiating throughout “All About Eve” is one that focuses on the issues and struggles women face in the world of show business, particularly where the obsessions of age, beauty and their career intersect. Given that the ground beneath these standards has only continued to shrink over the decades, thus growing more extreme, “All About Eve” has continued to feel relevant because it remains part of a contemporary debate that has only continued to get louder. As this debate does not seem likely to abate anytime soon, despite Dove’s best efforts, I suspect that this film will preserve its significance for years to come.
In a way, “All About Eve” serves as one large illustration of the different outposts that women encounter in the landscape of show business, and how the various stages of such a journey can lead to unhealthy misconceptions about truth and value in regards to one’s self. The spectrum of female characters in the film highlights these deceptions actresses are likely to encounter along the life cycle of their profession, bringing into question the importance of securing one’s true identity in order to stay grounded, not just in the field of make believe, but in life.
Of course there’s Eve, who represents youth, vitality and all of the gossamer qualities inherent therein. While she possesses true talent, the pressures of making it as an actress beguile Eve into thinking it necessary to sell off any shred of moral integrity in order to be successful; that talent and hard work alone are simply not enough. As such, she resorts to lies, blackmail and sexual prowess in order to take center stage. By the film’s end, we learn this isn’t the first time Eve has resorted to underhanded tricks in order to manipulate a situation in her favor, clearly showing that Eve has planted her identity on barren soil. In time, the bridges she burns and the debts she incurs do help her secure the career she has always dreamt of; but it’s a career that leaves her isolated and hollow, ultimately enslaving Eve to its will as she is now forced into the servitude of cultivating an identity that will allow her to retain her crown. However, Eve is person without principles, and in the absence of such things a person has no grasp on their identity, as they are tossed about by the winds of every approaching doctrine.
On the other end of the spectrum is Margo Channing, who represents the aging star, which the film defines as being 40 years old. She is struggling to accept the reality that she can no longer pull off playing characters much younger than she. In this transitional phase of her career, Margo grows suspicious, paranoid and doubtful of her own talents, showcasing the hallucinogenic effects that the pressures of diminishing age and beauty can exact on an actress. For so long, Margo’s identity has been defined by the validation and beauty she has derived from the success of playing younger parts. This has been her career; her whole life, in fact. To suddenly let go raises several frightening prospects that unmoor her from reality, briefly threatening the things she really does cares about. Ironically, it isn’t until Eve snatches away Margo’s spotlight that Margo is able to reconcile her issues and sees clearly, realizing that the wisdom and strength begat by age and experience produce a more sustainable form of beauty and happiness.
In reaching this moment of clarity, Margo delivers an interesting speech, where she confides, “Funny business, a woman's career - the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman.”
This is a fascinating quote, especially coming from Margo, who has done everything but be humble and vulnerable up until this point in the film. What's more, I think it makes the point that a woman can neither shed her female characteristics or adopt a feminine version of herself based on what she perceives others to want, and expect to be content and fulfilled. Fortunately for Margo, she has grasped an understanding of the need to strike a better work-life balance, and pay more attention to the career she has neglected for too long: that of being a woman. While Margo has learned this lesson before it’s too late, the same doesn’t seem to be true for Eve, who has been short-sighted in shuttering her career as a woman in order to stake every aspect of her identity in becoming a ruthless career chaser. As the saying goes, what comes around, goes around, and in Eve’s case, maybe she will be fortunate to encounter a younger version of herself that will push her to confront all the truth about Eve.
Favorite line: The screenplay for “All About Eve” is a buffet of terrific lines and exchanges. So I decided to include several delicious samples that really need no introduction.
“Eve. Eve the Golden Girl, the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. Time has been good to Eve. Life goes where she goes. She's the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she's going. Eve. You all know all about Eve. What can there be to know that you don't know?”
“Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!”
“Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”
Llyod Richards (Playwright): I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind. Just when exactly does an actress decide they're HER words she's speaking and HER thoughts she's expressing?
Margo Channing (Actress) replies: Usually at the point where she has to rewrite and rethink them, to keep the audience from leaving the theatre!