All About Eve is an early attempt in Hollywood filmmaking of questioning gender politics, and the place of powerful women within the creative, performance landscape.
Writer and director Joseph Mankiewicz had been contemplating producing a picture about an aged, waning actress for a while, and upon learning about Mary Orr’s 1946 short story ‘The Wisdom of Eve’, he saw the wisdom (ironically) of fusing together the two ideas – telling the story Bette Davis’ celebrated stage actress Margo Channing and how her life is affected by Anne Baxter’s ambitious upstart Eve Harrington.
What follows is a frequently caustic drama, set in the Broadway world of actors, playwrights and critics, which almost certainly by design has the feel more of a stage play, Mankiewicz relying on dialogue and his actors to carry long, lengthy scenes to tell his story. What it does, quite significantly for a film made at the turn of the Fifties, is depict the facile, cyclical nature of fame in an age long before the advent of everyone wanting to become a star. All About Eve was perhaps so well received because it’s a little ahead of its time.
The very fact Eve was so named in Orr’s short story–which was based on a real-life tale recounted to her by German actress Elisabeth Bergner–is surely no coincidence. Eve represents a purity and desire to become everything Margo is and was, and more, and Baxter manages to bring out both a level of innocence at the outset, where she inveigles herself into Margo’s life and circle, and later a calculating, corrupting agency when she assumes Margo’s role as the grand dame of theatre.
Interestingly, Mankiewicz casts Hollywood as a lesser medium than the theatre, given how Eve’s eventual move toward heading for Hollywood and motion pictures is timed at the point she faces her own Eve in Phoebe, an aspiring young ingenue who completes the circular pattern – Eve is destined to be as replaced and subsumed as Margo was, with movies potentially as the runner up prize. Critical adoration by the Broadway set is seen as the ultimate accolade one can attain.
All About Eve says much about the place of women in post-WW2 America. The script only provides veiled references to the conflict for the most part, with the only direct acknowledgment being to recognise its horror, but Mankiewicz film is trying to figure out where women with power, success and their own agency–both in status and sexuality–fit in a landscape where the men have come home from war, themselves attempting to find their place in a world where the heroes and villains are more opaque. George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt serves as the most openly savage male character in a film where most of the men are merely the conduit for great women to shine – directors and playwrights. Addison, who narrates and introduces the main players on the stage at the beginning, spits dialogue like venom thanks to Sanders eloquent, growling delivery.
There is also a clear and visible undercurrent of homosexual repression in All About Eve, which you can see in characters such as Addison – the manner in which he tries to control the players involved, especially Eve, suggests a level of manipulation of the fairer sex which doesn’t come from a place of lust or indeed a place of attraction, but rather a deep-seated power play. It’s telling Addison, the most viperish character in such a calculated, cold world, narrates the story of Eve’s rise (and suggested fall) – he represents that threat to masculinity Mankiewicz plays with. Ironically the director wasn’t the most progressive figure, despite his film being all about gender politics – perhaps he was struggling with the central messages at the heart of the story himself.
What strikes you most about All About Eve, however, is how emasculating the movie is in an age where, certainly in American cinema, male icons were stronger than ever. Westerns starring John Wayne littered the landscape. Square jawed, matinee idols such as Rock Hudson (secretly homosexual in real life) or Cary Grant continued to gain the highest billing. Yet change was around the corner; 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain sees Gene Kelly tapping into a very feminine aesthetic with his incredible style of dance, taking a cue from the already-legendary Fred Astaire; the mid-50’s sees the first stirring of rock’n’roll, of counter-cultural American folk heroes such as James Dean or Marlon Brando, men who would in different ways break from the established Hollywood masculine mould.
All About Eve feels like an early prefiguring of a Hollywood in which female stars would begin to assert themselves as icons outside of the traditional cinematic roles of damsels in distress or even sultry femme fatales. Bette Davis’ Margo in some respects parallels the indefatigable actress herself, given Davis had been a big star as a younger woman but now faced an approaching middle-age with uncertainty. Margo is a grand theatrical dame, beloved and feted by many, who finds herself replaced by a complicated, calculated younger replacement. The women in Mankiewicz’s film are not simply one thing, of one dimension – they all possess desires and ambitions which weren’t always present in films of the age, or which came before it.
Equally, the men in All About Eve, save Addison, are weak of mind and corruptible. Eve comes between the marriages of both Margo and her husband, plus her loyal friend Karen (a woman not caught up in the power and glamour of Broadway in the same way). Though these men may have fought in a war, and may be the creatives pulling the strings behind the performances, they ultimately struggle to resist the allure of a rising star as opposed to steadfastness of a fading legend. In the end, Eve is characterised as a villain who deserves the cyclical fate of facile fame, but All About Eve’s script and structure reach a deeper level of commentary and context.
A film which may not be cinematic in how it conveys its story, but filled with powerful dialogue, striking performances and a haunting, devilish sense of tragedy, All About Eve defines gender politics and the power and voice of women in a manner that it would take many years to match. It stands the test of time – plus don’t miss an early, brief but memorable turn from a young Marilyn Monroe…