It may be a cliché but some film performances have become so iconic that you cannot imagine anyone else occupying the roles. Bette Davis’ performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve is such a performance. Although the writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz originally wanted Claudette Colbert for the part of Margo Channing, and Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck favoured Marlene Dietrich in the role of the great but ageing theatrical diva, Bette Davis’ performance in Mankiewicz’s dark and cynical melodrama of backstage backstabbing and rivalry remains an astonishing achievement. All About Eve was based on a short story entitled ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ by Mary Orr, and Mankiewicz adapted it to create an astonishingly touching and effective portrayal of what it means to be a woman as well as a star.
The Eve of All About Eve is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young woman who idolizes the famous star Margo Channing. Put bluntly, Eve wants to be Margo: she wants the applause that she surreptitiously listens to backstage, the feeling of adoration from the crowd; she wants to dress and drink like Margo (very dry Martinis of course); and she wants Margo’s director boyfriend as well. The fact that she will do anything to achieve this is at the heart of the film. It begins like Sunset Boulevard with a narration by a writer – the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who, like a hawk in a tuxedo, surveys the room at a theatrical awards dinner, notes the trophy reserved for Eve Harrington, and describes the people who willingly and unwillingly helped her climb to the top: her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and above all, her idol Margo (Bette Davis).
An extended flashback brings us back to the moment when Eve’s story of hard luck and adoration earns her a place in Margo’s inner circle and eventually on stage as Margo’s understudy. As Eve ingratiates herself successfully, then forms an unholy alliance with the ruthless DeWitt, she soon discovers that not everyone is taken in by her. The director/boyfriend Bill (played by Davis’ soon-to-be real-life husband) turns Eve’s advances away with a merciless rejection: ‘What I go after, I want to go after. I don’t want it to come after me. Don’t worry; just score it as an unsuccessful forward pass’.
The real sardonic tone of the film is set, however, by Sanders, as the critic who introduces the characters. DeWitt, in this instance, has his own agenda; while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, DeWitt schemes to keep her as his own possession. Sanders, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, gets some of the best and most savage lines in the film: ‘Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?’, he admonishes Eve.
With such brittle and venomous dialogue it is tempting to see a ‘noir-ish’ fatalism at work here and, indeed, the chief rival of All About Eve‘ at the Academy Awards in 1950 was Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Both films are about ageing divas and unrequited love, and yet, All About Eve maintains the possibility of romance, even if disguised behind a witty layer of disenchantment with the human race.
In keeping with this, although Eve ends up having sold her soul to the devil, her desire for fame doesn’t exactly go unfulfilled. To this end, the movie creates Margo as a particular and very real woman, and Eve Harrington as a strangely convulsive and scheming type of villain. As a schizophrenic, Eve swerves from being calmly manipulative to wildly lying; she is, in other words, a genuinely great actress, maybe even a better actress than Margo. The film gives no answers to this uncomfortable possibility and this is as it should be. As the extent of Eve’s manipulative nature is by no means transparent from the start, we have to learn to dislike her as the story progresses. When we first see Eve she emerges from the back alley of the theatre in raincoat and hat: a strange masturbatory image of a woman in hiding and of course, as we will soon discover, she is indeed waiting for her grand moment of exhibitionism. Contrasted with Eve’s dowdy demeanour, Margo Channing is all cigarettes and hair; her satin dresses a bit too tight, her heels high. And true to form, Eve’s fascination with Margo also has a surreptitious but no less noticeable erotic edge to it. She nearly climbs into bed with Margo, wants to touch her when it is clearly inappropriate and above all appears to be jealously guarding her icon’s private life.
All in all, there is something slightly freakish in Eve’s desire for fame. After all, all good women – Margo Channing included – want a family and conventional husband, but not Eve. In crude terms, her name designates her as the original temptress but her apple is one already eaten by the majority of the characters. Thus, even though the film is supposedly all about Eve, we get closer to Margo Channing than to any other character. This is to Mankiewicz’s credit; given the choice between fetishising the breathless young fan, or the ageing doyenne Mankiewicz wisely chooses the latter. As Eve worms her way into Margo’s inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy, then her rival, the spotlight falls on Margo – her increasing frustration and slow realisation that she has been had spreading across her features like a storm as the narrative progresses. The party sequence contains Davis’ best work in the movie, beginning with the famous line, ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night’. Drinking too much, disillusioned by Eve’s betrayal, depressed by her 40th birthday, she looks at Bill and bitterly says: ‘Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men’.
With Margo/Bette getting the best lines, one might think that Anne Baxter’s Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo, even if she is convincing as the scheming fan. When Eve understudies and gets great reviews, Mankiewicz never shows us her performance; this film is after all about the ramifications of stardom rather than its actual playing out. Margo expects applause with every emotional diatribe and by the end of it we feel like either giving this to her or slapping her across the face. Eve, on the other hand, can only wait for some other young starlet driven by ambition to come and steal her place, which is exactly what eventually happens.
As if Bette Davis wasn’t enough, the supporting cast is also fantastically emotive. The only person who sees through Eve, crusty old Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s wardrobe woman (a role she incidentally repeats in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window), is wonderful as the no-nonsense voice of reason. Likewise the scene-stealing Marilyn Monroe, who earlier that year was in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, appears at Margo’s party as DeWitt’s date, and when steered towards the ugly but powerful producer Max Fabian, sighs, ‘Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?’
Ironically, although the film received a remarkable fourteen Academy Award nominations, including five for acting, and won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Sanders), vote-splitting probably held back its two Best Actress nominees (Baxter and Davis) and its two Best Supporting Actress nominees (Holm and Thelma Ritter). Then again, a film that marks the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty was not exactly mainstream Hollywood in 1950. Gloria Swanson’s ageing silent star in Sunset Boulevard was also nominated for best actress, and didn’t win. According to some cinematic lore, Mankiewicz was competing with his brother Herman who wrote Citizen Kane, another narrative about grand dreams and great failures, and All About Eve was a response to this. In the end this doesn’t matter: All About Eve is all about Bette Davis getting the chance to prove that Margo Channing still had it in her.