“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing
It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.
A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.
The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.
Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.
She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).
As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.
She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.
But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.
The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.