WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘All About Eve.’
Aided by arguably one of the greatest screenplays of all time, All About Eve is an absolute thrill to watch, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s incredible script hooking the viewer from scene one – and never letting go.
Based on the short story ‘The Wisdom of Eve’, by Mary Orr, All About Eve tells the story of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), an ageing but still well regarded theater star, and Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who earns herself the position as personal assistant to her idol. All goes well until Margo starts feeling threatened by her young and devoted employee, who she feels may be plotting to steal her career and personal relationships.
The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics upon its release and drew comparisons to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which was released only months before. It also touches on the theme of aging stars in the entertainment business. A legendary lead performance by Bette Davis, along with several stand-out quotes including – “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” – resulted in the film landing on #16 in AFI’s 1998 list of Best American Movies of all time.
A voiceover by theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) begins the film, and lays out to the viewer the characters at play: the aforementioned Margo; theater director and Margo’s love interest, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill); famous playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe); and his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm).
The remainder of the story is told through flashback and is intermittently narrated by Addison, Karen, and Margo. Such a device is used to great effect, often infused with wry and cynical overtones. As a side note, director/screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz may have created some of the most exquisite voice-over narration ever put to film here, but he has close competition on that matter, since his own brother, Herman J. Mankiewicz, co-wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.
Rags to Riches, Riches to Rags
Eve’s unstoppable climb to the top is divided into three distinct acts. The first follows how Eve worms her way into Margo’s inner circle, captivating everyone through her beguiling nature. The second, longest act tells all about the ways in which Eve uses her meek facade to manipulate those around her, sneakily scoring the position of Margo’s understudy and getting her first big break by making her boss miss a performance. With bridges burnt, Eve moves on to her most conniving tactics, blackmailing Karen to secure the lead role on a play and forging an alliance with critic Addison DeWitt, who proves himself to be as devious and disingenuous as her.
The final act depicts Eve’s fall from grace. As she reveals to DeWitt her plan to steal Lloyd Richards from Karen so that he would write plays tailored for her, the critic has his own agenda. He admits knowing Eve’s true identity, as well as the lies and machinations that involved her ascension, but will keep his silence as long as she “belongs to him”. Eve abides, ultimately achieves the long-sought fame, but is shown going home alone, after skipping the celebration party following the Awards show from the first scene.
All The World’s A Stage
A prominent theme of the movie is the difficulty of separating stage persona from one’s real identity. Each character in this story wears a mask of sorts. Some to a lesser extent than others, but they all engage in a performance, intentionally or not. Take the introduction to the character of Margo Channing.
As she sits in her dressing room wearing a mascara, with her hair tied, this is a short glimpse of Margo stripped of her star-image. One that doesn’t last long, but enough to pose the question as to if even she can tell the difference. The fact that she is also a chain smoker, constantly enfolded by cigarette haze, is another hint at such identity crisis, which is later confirmed in a scene where Margo gives a long speech to Karen about being unable to tell her personas apart.
In a similar manner, Eve has two very distinct personalities. We are first presented to humble and adorable Eve and slowly learn all about sociopath Eve, even though it’s hard to tell how much is just another disguise. A smart and powerful way to show her psychopathic side flourish is through the abundant use of mirror reflections. The extremely telling scene where Eve looks at her reflection holding one of Margo’s dresses, bowing to an imaginary audience, along with the scene following Eve’s first performance as an understudy, throwing her wig at a mirror in rage for failing at her attempts to seduce Bill Sampson.
From Script To Screen
All those elements were carefully thought out in the script and minutely executed by a firm directing hand. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the mind behind such a masterwork, already had to his name a nomination for Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards (for 1931’s Skippy), not to mention his double win at the previous year, taking the Oscars for best screenplay and best director for A Letter To Three Wives. He was to become a sensation, repeating the feat and taking the same two prizes for the second year in a roll with All About Eve.
The movie received, in total, 14 nominations for that year’s (1951) 23rd Academy Awards, something unprecedented at the time and only equaled by 1997’s Titanic and 2016’s La La Land. Not only that, but it went down in history for having four of its actresses nominated: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for leading roles, with Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for supporting. Baxter famously opted to run in the leading role category, splitting the votes between the two co-stars, which was viewed by many as the reason why Davis lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
The number of accolades garnered by the movie may or may not be a jab of sorts aimed at Broadway by Hollywood since both industries were feuding with each other during this period of time. In the public eye, Broadway was seen as a display for serious drama with serious actors, with Hollywood and its lead actors and actresses considered crass and inferior. Mankiewicz’s acid and sardonic screenplay can be read as a meta-commentary about Hollywood making fun of Broadway – in a movie where Broadway mocks Hollywood.
In any matter, All About Eve is classic drama, that works not only due to a finely crafted script but also for the film’s career-best array of performances from its cast. Bette Davis’ presence on screen is magnetizing, in what came to be considered her most iconic role, with George Sanders and Anne Baxter as equally exquisite in making the viewer love to hate their characters. Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, and Gary Merrill all get their moment to shine and even a young Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance at a party sequence, stealing the show for those few minutes. This film, along with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle released that same year, were Miss Monroe’s greeting card to the world.