All About Eve - Joseph Mankiewicz - Bette Davis - Margo Channing - party scene - staircase - stairway - paintings

All About Eve
1950, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

At the end of All About Eve, after receiving the Sarah Siddons award for her acting, Eve Harrington calls the occasion “the happiest day of my life”. She might be speaking honestly here for once, but immediately after her speech she’s visibly unhappy when Karen and Margo congratulate her, and she declines to attend her own party. There’s no sign that she’s ever known happiness. We know that she’s driven to succeed in show business, and the film is a critique of the ambition driving her – a motivation that’s all too common in the real world.

The movie hinges on a single moment, the happy instant that presumably makes Eve’s day, a split second before the award reaches her fingers. The moment is well chosen – once the statuette touches her, her enjoyment of it will already be on the wane. The screen freezes on the summit of her happiness while Addison DeWitt keeps talking, and most of the film is a flashback leading back up to the freeze-frame. The statuette is a hinge, not only because the film moves backward and forward from it, but because it stands for the abstract ideal, the great vacuum, that moves Eve. Margo tells her, “You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” This award however is only one of a few metaphors that warn the audience of the priorities ascendant in their changing world.

All About Eve - Joseph Mankiewicz - George Sanders - Anne Baxter - Addison DeWitt - Eve Harrington

A curious thing about All About Eve is the amount of name-dropping in it. The dialogue is peppered with famous persons, both past and contemporary: Darryl Zanuck, Konstantin Stanislavski, Henrik Ibsen, Sarah Bernhardt, Betty Grable, George Jean Nathan, Lord Byron, Tyrone Power, Gregory Peck, Cecil B. DeMille, Clyde Fitch, Abraham Lincoln, Clark Gable, Albert Einstein, Arthur Miller, Robert Sherwood, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton, Alexander Woolcott, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Ulysses S. Grant, Grigori Rasputin, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward, and many others get little cameos in the screenplay. William Shakespeare is not mentioned directly, but three of his plays are named. The plethora of famous names would be overwhelming if they weren’t woven in so naturally. Collectively and subliminally they point to the idea of fame, which is exactly what Eve is after. When Addison talks to Eve about a road paved with gold and diamonds, she corrects him: it’s stars she wants.

Considering how many names the movie drops, including plenty of living Hollywood figures, it might seem surprising that it wastes one big opportunity to add a name to the list. An anonymous Hollywood star attends Bill Sampson’s birthday and homecoming party. She never appears on screen, but she’s represented by a sable coat that draws considerable attention, most memorably from Marilyn Monroe’s character Miss Casswell. This coat, like the award, is another empty vessel standing for fame and ambition. Applause, too, like the award and the fur coat, is a misplaced target of ambition. Eve likens applause to “waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up.” Earlier when she takes Margo’s costume to be pressed, Margo catches her soaking up imaginary applause from the empty theater. When she receives her award she basks in the applause, not from common playgoers but from the highest professionals of the theater. It’s as if applause counted for more than the performance itself in her mind, just as she had told Margo and her friends in the dressing room that theater was more real to her than life. In both cases it’s a perversion, a total flipping of priorities.

All About Eve - Joseph Mankiewicz - Anne Baxter - Bette Davis - Marilyn Monroe - George Sanders - Eve Harrington - Margo Channing - Miss Casswell - Addison DeWitt

In contrast to Eve, Margo and her closest friends – Bill, Karen, Lloyd, and Birdie – display no ambition for glory. Birdie is retired from acting, and the others are content to go as far as their talents (or marriage, in Karen’s case) take them. We’re told that Margo’s career began at age four when she played a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “and entered, quite unexpectedly, stark naked.” In other words, she had always had a natural flair for dramatics, yet we’re also told repeatedly that she cares more for Bill than for thousands of adoring fans. She’s not at all driven like Eve.

We’re given the names of three fictional plays written by Lloyd Richards: Remembrance (in attendance of which Eve claims to have become enraptured with Margo), Aged in Wood (the production underway through most of the film), and Footsteps on the Ceiling (the new play for whose lead role Eve blackmails Karen). In a sense these three titles sketch a history of show business, from a noble past that is only remembered, to a present in which the old guard – natural talents like Margo – is holding on through advancing age, to a perverse future dominated by ambitious schemers like Eve, in which the world of performance is turned upside-down. The trajectory this describes may sound overly generalized, but looking back today at Hollywood’s fading “Golden Age” we might sense a truth in it. Even in 1950 Hollywood was enough of a magnet for ambitious attention-seekers that the name “Hollywood” is a bad word in All About Eve. In the dressing room Eve tells Bill he mustn’t stay out there, but by the end she herself is ready to go. In the finale, when the self-styled “Phoebe” poses privately with Eve’s cloak and award, it’s not only that Eve has begun a cycle of evil like her biblical namesake, but that the narcissists who follow her will multiply like the faces in the folding mirror.

All About Eve - Joseph Mankiewicz - Barbara Bates - Phoebe - mirror - ending - Sarah Siddons Award

If All About Eve makes an argument about the developing history of show business, it also pays tribute to the prior generation’s history. Twenty-three years earlier when sound came to Hollywood, the backstage musical became a wildly successful subgenre, with entries like The Broadway Melody, Applause, 42nd Street, and The Gold Diggers of 1933. The popularity of these faded, especially as Hollywood supplanted Broadway at the summit of America’s (and the world’s) show business, but in a strange way All About Eve represents a revival. The setting shows the New York theater world behind the scenes, and in place of five or six musical numbers the movie has five or six unusually long scenes that fill a role similar to the old song and dance acts. Just as the songs in a musical build an emotional arc that develops the characters, All About Eve‘s long scenes color its characters through a full spectrum of settings: a formal setting (the Sarah Siddons award ceremony), an informal setting (the dressing room), a social setting (the party), a professional setting (the audition), an intimate setting (the Cub Room and its bathroom), and an illicit setting (the New Haven hotel where Addison enters Eve’s room to claim ownership of her).

This variety of settings unpeels the characters, gradually revealing their natures. Addison DeWitt had seemed so aristocratic but turns out to be a cheap manipulator. Margo Channing had appeared confident and powerful, but her insecurity rises more and more to the surface. Eve had initially looked innocent and mild mannered, but we find out in stages that she’s actually a liar, a thief, a blackmailer, and a traitor. Addison recognizes her “killer” instincts, and when she blackmails Karen we understand what a psychopath she is. Her cold-bloodedness was already hinted at in her lack of emotion the three times she stepped into a room to interrupt unflattering conversations about her, presumably overhearing the words each time. She seems unbothered by what others think, but that’s not a sign of selfless maturity… in fact she cares very much what she can get from people.

All About Eve - Joseph Mankiewicz - Anne Baxter - Celeste Holm - Eve Harrington - Karen Richards - Cub Room restroom - blackmail

When the long flashback begins, Karen muses that it’s “funny, the things you remember and the things you don’t.” In a story about the careers of great actresses, anyone would expect their performances to be among the memorable moments, but All About Eve skips them altogether. Instead the film is made up of meetings and conversations, the in-between moments that people often tend to remember best. The movie is an argument against Eve’s notion that theater – or any art – is more real than life. The arts can only be abstractions of life; they’re meant to enrich life, not to replace it. Margo recognizes this in her famous line about “the things you drop on your way up the ladder”. She may have dropped many things on her way up, but at least she kept her friends around her. Eve, on the other hand, who wanted so desperately to be loved by millions, is on a fast track to loneliness.

CONNECTIONS:

Exit Smiling – Story of an understudy yearning to find her place in the theater

Mildred Pierce – Villain who cares more for glamor or stardom than for material success

Sunset Boulevard – Contrast between two paths into show business, one born for it and the other desperate for it

Wild Strawberries – Characterization across a wide spectrum of social settings

Vivre sa vie – Warning against the elevation of art above life

The Structure of Crystal – Critique of ambition, arguing that it tends to make excuses for cheating

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Cyclical ending; theater/film more real than life; character insinuates self into group

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Protagonist’s career usurped by a younger woman taken under her wing

Blade Runner – Contrast between abstraction and real life, with the ghost of Hollywood in the background

Mulholland Drive – Story of an aspiring actress whose thirst for success comes to a bad end