Notes on "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, George Sanders.

I rewatched Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) this weekend.  Four observations:

1. It remains one of the smartest of all Hollywood films, and one of the most deserving winners of the Best Picture Oscar in history.  And sports Bette Davis’ finest performance.  All About Eve has always been touted as a backstage drama (which it is), but it’s even better as a movie about the intricate social dynamics within a group of friends.  Watching the film this time I found myself fascinated by the moral ambiguity of Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), whose allegiance keeps shifting back and forth between her longtime friend, the actress Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo’s sycophantic young admirer/acolyte/rival Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).  At times canny, at other times dangerously naïve, Karen keeps wanting to trust Eve and keeps getting burned by her (and watching others get burned too).  She’s neither good girl nor bad girl; she’s the girl caught in the middle, the one who very nearly destroys everything because she’s trying to be fair to everybody.  We all know someone like Karen.  Maybe we are like her ourselves.      

Celeste Holm as Karen.

2. All About Eve may be the best written film ever to come out of Hollywood.  It’s certainly one of the most verbally dextrous.  Mankiewicz’s characters don’t ever stop talking for a moment of the movie’s two-hour-plus running time, but the talk is so good you don’t even care.  “Read my column while you’re waiting—the minutes will pass like hours.”  “Everybody has a heart…except some people.”  “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”  These are epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde by way of Yogi Berra—two parts witty, one part batty (what does that last one mean?).  Mankiewicz’s zingers have a pretzel logic; you want to pause to untangle them but you can’t because more keep flying at you every second.           

3. Is Bette Davis beautiful?  An unfair question, perhaps—but it’s one that audiences and critics have been asking ever since Davis began making a name for herself in the 1930s, and one to which All About Eve responds fearlessly.  Davis was perhaps never so attractive or dynamic onscreen as she is here, playing Margo, and yet the film never for a second shies away from showing the haggardness in her face, the sag of her cheeks, the desperation and fear behind her eyes.  (Davis was forty-two when she made the film.)  The film is blunt and unsparing in its acknowledgement of the travails faced by women over forty working in industries that trade on their beauty.  And yet by the end of the film, as Margo stands poised to retire from the stage in order to marry her longtime beau, Davis appears radiantly happy.  She has surrendered the limelight to the next generation of actresses, and she appears, finally, at peace.  The desperation and the fear have melted away and she’s glowing.          

Davis with (soon-to-be real-life husband) Gary Merrill.
4.  The premise of All About Eve is straight out of a horror movie: a beautiful and deadly woman worms her way into the life of the heroine by pretending to be sweet and unassuming.  Red flags go up but everyone ignores them or laughs them away until it’s too late.  The ending of the film is as delicious and terrifying—and funny—as the ending of Rosemary’s Baby: Eve, having successfully usurped Margo, stands to be usurped by an “Eve” of her own, a fawning acolyte named Phoebe (or at least she “calls herself” Phoebe, whatever that means!).  This film resembles nothing so much as a female-centric variation on Macbeth in which cycles of women come to power by stabbing each other in the back ad fininitum.  (“The general atmosphere is very Macbethish,” Lloyd Richards comments at the beginning of the film’s cocktail party sequence; later, during the awards ceremony, an aged actor references Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.)  Shakespeare fans would do well to remember that, late in the play, Macbeth’s rule is threatened by a vision of Banquo’s son holding up a mirror in which are reflected an endless line of successors.  In the brilliant final shot of All About Eve, we see an endless number of Phoebes reflected in Eve’s dressing mirror.

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