All About Eve
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter
Some movies are famous because they come from a certain director. Some are famous because they tell a fascinating story, and others are famous because of gorgeous cinematography. While All About Eve’s director is certainly famous enough, and it’s story interesting enough, I don’t think this is where it gets its power from. No, All About Eve’s power comes directly from two sources: smart writing and wicked acting, and here, the two go hand in hand. This entire movie is about characters, about winding them up and watching them interact with each other. And it’s just phenomenal on that score.
Margo (Davis) is a famous theater actress with a tight knit group of friends, including Karen (Holm), and her assistant Birdie (Ritter). One night, Karen sees a young woman, Eve (Baxter), who has never missed a performance of Margo’s latest show and takes her backstage to meet her idol. What inevitably unfolds is Eve’s wrangling her way into Margo’s life, slowly and insidiously trying to not merely follow in Margo’s footsteps, but actually take over her life. She takes Margo’s place on the stage and tries to steal her boyfriend away. But even Eve meets her match as soon as she comes up against oily theater critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders).
The opening scene sets up the entire plot, even letting us know, more or less, what will happen, and certainly establishes the vicious attitude of the film. We are treated to George Sanders’ biting voiceover as he sarcastically points out, as only Sanders can, the foibles of nearly every character in the room. Our first major character introduction, besides Addison DeWitt, is Karen, and Holm is ever so good in keeping a placid façade that nonetheless cannot hide her disgust. We then have a close up on Margo, and here, even more so than Holm, Davis is barely containing a sense of hatred. Right from the moment the flag drops, All About Eve is vicious and underhanded, and it’s bloody fantastic. Although I wouldn’t call All About Eve a film noir, it may be likened to a female noir, at least in terms of character interaction. There are no guns and no death and certainly no shadowy lighting, but it has a bit of noir attitude. It’s transplanted from the world of crime to the world of the theater; we get to watch people tear each other apart not with bullets but words and attitudes. Again, I would never classify All About Eve as a film noir, but I do believe my attraction to this film is related to my attraction for classic noir.
|Plus Marilyn Monroe. What more could you need?|
What’s key here is that we know from the get go, from before the first backstage scene with Margo’s crew, that Eve is acting. We can tell from how Eve bows sycophantically when she is accepting the Sarah Siddons award in the opening scene that nothing about her is genuine. The fact that Karen and Margo do not applaud is merely confirmation, not a revelation. When, ten minutes later, she is regaling us with her tale of hard luck and woe, we don’t buy it for a second. This turns the focus in this scene not to Eve, but to Margo. We watch with disbelief as Margo swallows every damn word Eve feeds her. Personally, I love it when Birdie immediately calls Eve out, how Birdie can see through her shenanigans immediately. That’s key, because it gets us thinking about the distinctions between Margo and Birdie, why Margo buys it but Birdie doesn’t. Eve’s ploy would never work were it not for Margo and her ego, and this first meeting sets that up perfectly. Birdie is utterly without ego, a sharpshooter who simply calls it like she sees it. Margo, on the other hand, while kind and loyal, is also full of herself, and her ego is too well-stroked by Eve to allow her to see clearly, and that is her downfall.
Davis is, naturally, fantastic in this, one of her most iconic roles. If it were any other actress playing Margo, I would use the term “brave” to characterize this performance, but because it is Davis I will say it is “par for the course.” “Brave” becomes a redundant term when discussing La Davis; she was an actress full of fearlessness. In particular, I am astounded at the continual references to age in All About Eve. Margo seems to comment nearly continually about the age of people around her, knowing full well how young Eve is compared to her. Margo makes jokes about her age, which is never explicitly revealed, but these jokes always betray a sensitivity towards aging. Margo realizes that she is too old to play the romantic heroine anymore, and as an actress, what is she now to do? Her role is changing and she does not want to simply accept her movement to less gracious roles, but sadly, she is forced to do exactly that. For Davis’ part, she was 42 when she played Margo, and she looks every day of it, perhaps even older. There are bags under her eyes and creases in her forehead, and her jaw sags ever so slightly. How sad that I find this unusual, to see a middle-aged woman playing a middle-aged woman and looking exactly like a middle-aged woman, and what a comment on Hollywood. What roles are there for an actress above a certain age? With that in mind, it’s stunning that both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard were released in the same year, as both films tackle the issue of the marginality of the aging woman, but not men. As Margo says, “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” I get the feeling that if we locked both Margo Channing and Norma Desmond in a room together, they would either claw each other’s eyes out or get massively drunk together while swapping anti-aging tips.
Several years ago, I saw All About Eve at the Dryden. I had seen it before on DVD, but I rarely pass up the chance to see a film on the big screen, as I am all too aware that the right (or wrong) setting can alter the effect of a film. What I did not know, as I settled into my regular seat, was that All About Eve is an iconic film in the gay community. My ignorance was quickly wiped away, as it became very apparent very fast that there a large number of, how shall I say this, vocal fans of the film in the audience. What resulted from this was an absolutely uproarious evening, with booing and hissing at Eve and cheers aplenty for Margo’s bitchiness. The experience gave me an entirely new respect for the sheer entertainment factor of this film, and it was one I’m glad I got to experience.
I’ve returned every year or so to All About Eve, and every time I do, it keeps getting better. As I age, although I don’t consider myself old, I find myself enjoying it more. There’s a great deal going on in All About Eve (and I didn’t even get to mention how much I adore George Sanders!), and multiple watches simply give me more to think about. The great films bear up to repeated viewings. All About Eve is undoubtedly a great film.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10