All About Eve (1950): United States – directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Not rated by the MPAA – contains wittiness and extreme bitterness
It is quite remarkable how well All About Eve has withstood the pressures and passage of six decades. It is all the more incredible given that it was nominated for fourteen Oscars and won six. Neither before nor since has their been such a witty, biting attack on fame, stardom, and the theater. The fact that the Academy looked so highly on the film makes its themes even more ironic and delicious.
The film is constructed of four strong central characters, and a bevy of supporting acts. First is Margo (Bette Davis), an aging actress. She is the queen of the stage, admired by everyone around her. Her fears of soon becoming old and discarded are not assuaged by the sudden appearance of Eve (Anne Baxter), a young woman who idolizes and attempts to ape Margo’s every move and gesture. Eve is initially helped by Karen (Celeste Holm). Karen is a close friend of Margo, and her husband, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) is Margo’s leading playwright. Lloyd’s role is slightly less substantial, leaving room for theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) to claim the fourth key role.
Other characters include Bill (Gary Merrill), Margo’s director and consistent lover, and Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) an immigrant producer who is pulled multiple directions by multiple characters. Marilyn Monroe makes a brief but unforgettable appearance as Miss Casswell, Addison’s arm candy to an evening party (though it is clear she wants to use his connections and he doesn’t mind the attention). Monroe is strikingly beautiful, even in black and white, and her role is quiet enough to let any of her acting flaws to pass unnoticed.
These are indelible characters, but this is not only a character study. It is also an exercise in Machiavellian social politics, both personal and professional. In many ways All About Eve could be viewed as a genuine horror movie. A close group of friends and partners, comprised of Margo, Karen, Bill, Lloyd, and Fabian are infiltrated by an impostor. Eve appears sweet and innocent, in part due to her youthful appearance and readiness to help each of the friends.
In short notice she is busy destroying careers, marriages, and lives, all for her shot at glory. Her ascension to Margo’s throne is known from the beginning, as the film opens with a remarkable scene at an awards banquet. Eve is winning the ultimate statuette, and Addison narrates as each of her former friends is briefly profiled. Eve got what she wanted, but at a severe price. But as the film travels back in time it becomes clear that her appearance is anything but innocent, and it takes quite some time for her real character to be exposed. The same theme was marvelously explored, with more snow and fewer women, in The Thing.
There are a great many elements to love in All About Eve, and very few worthy of complaint. The worst one might say is that it is a bit long, but it uses the time wisely. Contemporary audiences not patient enough for a heady character drama might not appreciate the film, but this is their loss. Chief among the praises for the film is the script, which is sparkling and dazzling, undoubtedly one of the greatest scripts ever written. There are a plethora of memorable quotations, many of them uttered by the cynical and bitter Addison. Played by George Sanders, Addison is a delightful snake. His voice is fantastic, the greatest in the history of cinema (even better than Vincent Price’s). Each time he spoke my spine tingled; his deep bass, remarkable accent, and biting words are a veritable maelstrom of oracular genius.
The script, by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz gives Addison the most enlightening lines. His wit is sharper than any sword, such as when he comments that “You have a point. An idiot one, but a point.” His aloofness and cynicism lead him to remark that “That’s all television is, my dear, nothing but auditions.” Even at the beginning of commercial, nationwide television in 1950, Addison is skeptical about its future as entertainment, not to mention art.
The primary story is of Eve’s journey to the highest points of theater, and the sneaky subversiveness with which she pursues this goal surprises even Addison. Along the way it is clear that she is not a person, living an ordinary life; she is an actor, playing the part of an aspiring actor. An unforgettable ending suggests that she is just a part of the eternal cycle of young actresses pursuing their dreams at the cost of everyone around them. A more human plot thread involves Margo, who undergoes the strongest transformation throughout the film. In the opening scenes she, too, is playing a character in a play, particularly in front of the young Eve. Around her friends she is more comfortable, but she still manipulates and stages every situation. Her fear of aging, of not getting the juiciest parts in the hottest plays, haunts her. She eventually comes to accept her inevitable fate, one that Eve will eventually have to suffer. Margo is supported by Bill, a surprisingly human character who loves Margo in spite of her position as an actress. He manages to rebuff even Eve’s sly advances.
All About Eve is an amazing film, for many more reasons than the few listed above. It is a classic, one of the greatest films of all time, and yet it is remarkably dark and bitter, even to the end. Its themes of celebrity and the stage are best summarized by Margo, who notes that theater is “all the religions in the world, rolled into one, and we are the gods and goddesses.” There is enough depth in All About Eve to warrant many more trips into the complex, fascinating world of Margo, Eve, and Addison, and it is simply astonishing that its portrayal of the dangers of pursuing celebrity are as apt and appropriate today as they were in 1950.