ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
A seemingly timid but secretly ruthless ingénue insinuates herself into the lives of an aging Broadway star and her circle of theater friends.
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a beloved theatre star convinced her career’s on the decline, mostly due to her age. One night, Margo’s best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) brings wide-eyed fan Eve (Anne Baxter) backstage to meet her idol. Taken in by Eve’s story of misfortune, Margo invites her into her inner circle, unaware that the young woman has more sinister plans at heart.
Why does All About Eve continue to endure? Is it the biting one-liners from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay? The tour de force performance by Davis that would become definitive in her career? These are undoubtedly crucial elements the film couldn’t survive without, but it’s the depiction of a woman’s place in show business that makes it timeless.
It may be 70 years since All About Eve first debuted, but the entertainment industry isn’t much kinder to its female stars. “Age ain’t nothing but a number” remains a phrase never uttered by Hollywood casting teams, unless it’s to justify a middle-aged executive making his move on a young starlet. The fall-out of the #MeToo movement opened many’s eyes to the constant abuse of power that pervades the film, theatre, and television industries.
Yet to this day, so many stories are centred around and draw their power from women. That is indeed where All About Eve finds its strength: this small yet influential circle of Broadway women and the men they inspire. In fact, all of the film’s male characters have built their careers around actresses like Margo and Eve. Playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill)—Karen and Margo’s respective partners—are both successful creatives sustained by female talent. The sharp-tongued theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) has made his living celebrating lead actresses in print while nurturing young rising stars to take their place. Without women, where would these men be?
Joseph L. Mankiewicz certainly recognised this when he wrote and directed the film. Mankiewicz had been perturbed by the fact that Hollywood deemed actresses over-40 to be over the hill, regardless of their talent. Inspired by Mary Orr’s short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, a tale where an actor’s assistant begins to undermine her, he began a script intended for an older actress as the lead.
A ruthless protégé desperate to take the place of a beloved star is a familiar tale yet it has rarely been told as well as All About Eve. The screenplay is one of the finest Hollywood’s ever produced, full of acerbic wit and eternal truths about the unforgiving world of show business. It’s no wonder Bette Davis instantly clocked it as one of the best scripts she ever received and that it revitalised her career the way it did.
Though we never see her performances, there’s no doubt Margo Channing is a bonafide star. Davis is mesmerising as the ‘Queen of Broadway’, never without a comeback and commanding any room that she walks into. Although her detractors never considered the actress to be so, Bette Davis is unmistakably glamorous and alluring as Margo. Simply put, she’s magnificent—whether holding dominion over a party or flouncing late into an audition bundled up in plush furs.
However, Margo Channing is not just dry martinis and withering putdowns. Aware of the ageism and sexism at play in her industry, she knows her time in the spotlight is limited. Margo’s bitchy digs at those around her stem from her fears that she will soon be forgotten. It isn’t without reason: even her long-time collaborator Lloyd fails to write parts for women past their twenties.
Additionally, Margo’s terrified her younger boyfriend will leave once her name is no longer up in lights. Bill’s only five years younger than Margo yet she knows that growing older will be an entirely different experience for him. When stuck in a broken-down car with Karen, Margo contemplates what life she has outside of the theatre. She acknowledges in her climb to the top, she may have forgotten what it means to be a woman and Bill reminds her of what has been missing.
That Margo would need a man to complete her life is a rather dated and sexist notion but there is truth in her words. Only pursuing a career can leave one without much else in life, and as bright as the stage lights are, they will inevitably fade. This mirrored Davis’ own neuroses about a career in decline prior to All About Eve, and she channels that life experience into genuine vulnerability.
It’s hard to compete against a screen legend like Davis, but Baxter holds her own. She weaponises her femininity to get what she wants and the conniving glint in her eye can, at first, be easily mistaken for starstruck innocence. Although her faux coy act is a little too sycophantic, she comes into her own when revealed as the film’s villain.
What makes Eve so great as an antagonist is her drive: she’s highly ambitious, and as she watches hungrily from the wings you almost want her to succeed because of how badly she wants it. She craves applause because she deems it genuine validation and affection, rather than the parasocial interaction it truly is. Baxter is masterful in her portrayal of Eve when she is at her cruellest because you truly believe the stage is all that she wants in life.
While Baxter and Davis shine as the leads, the supporting cast is remarkable. Thelma Ritter is reliably delightful as Margo’s assistant Birdie, being the first to see through Eve’s disguise. “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end”, she remarks on Eve’s dramatic backstory. An early appearance by Marilyn Monroe shows off the actress’s underrated comedic skills, sadly observing of a producer she’s sent to seduce, “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”. Celeste Holm is great as the sensible and trustworthy Karen, and her bond with Margo gives the film its strongest moments of female solidarity.
However, perhaps the best supporting turn comes from the excellent George Sanders as the deceptive Addison DeWitt. He especially thrives when revelling in the nastier side of the critic: he views everyone as pieces on a chessboard, knowing he will always come out on top. When Eve teams up with DeWitt, she makes the fatal mistake of believing she is indispensable to him, failing to recognise that she is just one of many actresses who will do whatever it takes and that she will eventually be replaced the way she replaced Margo.
This is the ultimate message of the film: as much as this world is glamorous and thrilling, it’s also incredibly fickle. Those wise enough will soon learn that life cannot be measured in awards and fleeting praise. Margo may be on her way out professionally but she is exiting with grace, surrounded by loved ones and with her dignity intact. Through her own design, Eve will have no one to celebrate with and will return to an empty hotel room embittered. In refusing to sink to Eve’s level, Margo is the one who triumphs.
All About Eve remains a masterpiece for its classic female characters and what they will do to survive in show business. Mankiewicz’s barbed dialogue, an exceptional ensemble and Davis’ quintessential performance provide some of the finest cinematic moments ever committed to celluloid. Although its exploration of gender can sometimes feel dated, All About Eve endures due to its complicated women—what they desire, how they play their part, and the legacy that they leave behind.
USA | 1950 | 138 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH • FRENCH
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this is a visually pleasing but marginal restoration from Criterion. The film grain is thankfully intact and hasn’t been completely rendered away like some restorations tend to do. The contrast between grayscale and blacks is nicely enhanced, keeping the texture from the film’s 35mm prints.
Some have noted that Criterion hasn’t carried over the 5.1 surround soundtrack present in previous restorations by Fox. It is a shame that they haven’t included it on this edition but the lossless LCPM track works well enough, playing without hiss or crackles throughout. Alfred Newman’s score sounds particularly grand and the dialogue is clear and rich.
It is not the most drastic restoration we have seen from Criterion and the similarity to previous Fox versions may render it pointless for serious collectors. However, All About Eve is an essential piece of cinema and being able to see it in the best light possible is certainly worth the investment. Unfortunately, the bonus features leave a lot to be desired.
director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (based on ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ by Mary Orr).
starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders & Celeste Holm.