All About Eve (1950)

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm

I wonder what Noel Coward would have made of All About Eve, which has much of the same species of charm that his own work has but with a major improvement: All About Eve thinks that women are perhaps even more interesting than men, a premise that in his oeuvre only Brief Encounter admits. Some of the dialogue is old-fashioned, as when Margo (Davis) wonders if she hasn’t lost some of her womanhood by choosing a career, but there is immense wit in the story spoken by women thinking about women. The story is about aging and romance, granted, and on neither front is All About Eve as successful as oh, I dunno, Sunset Boulevard. It’s also a story about betrayal and fame and career, and the film does not blink too often at the fact that women can betray one another for power, and that one’s career might be of greater importance than one’s marriage.

The plot of the movie relies on the subtlety and brilliance of Eve Harrington (Baxter), who wants security on her terms. Her plan is a little amazing, to say the least: weasel her way into the life of a great stage actress, make herself essential to the actress and, by the transitive property, her friends, and then insinuate herself as a stage actress. And yet it works because her marks are easily won over by a good story. Eve spins a yarn of wartime widowhood and of obsession with Margo Channing; the Richards fall for the first half, while Margo falls for second. It’s our first proof that Margo does not understand people, although if we were so inclined we might note her early comments about the inhumanity of autograph seekers. Her man, Bill (Gary Merrill), does not understand people. Her pet playwright, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), does not understand people. Lloyd’s wife and Margo’s best friend, Karen (Holm), seems capable of understanding what makes someone tick but is personally gullible. It is eminently tempting to suggest that their ignorance stems from the fact that, as theater people, they have lost the ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is fabricated, but neither Eve nor the critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) have that problem. (Nor does Thelma Ritter’s Birdie, but she doesn’t really count because Thelma Ritter was actually the world’s first psychoanalyst.) What makes someone truly clueless about others in this movie is their distance from the in-crowd. Thus Karen’s ability to read others, which comes and goes; as neither actor nor director nor writer nor producer, she manages to keep herself more or less knowledgeable about other people while being surprisingly credulous about Eve for most of the movie. (This also helps us to root for Karen insofar as we can root for anyone in the movie; she can feel regret for insisting that Eve meet Margo in the first place, and we feel for her.)

Addison, whose voiceover is the first we hear, is something of a mixed bag. Of the major characters in the movie, only he thinks to do a little research on Eve’s background, which undoubtedly would have saved someone like Margo or Lloyd a great deal of trouble. Yet his nearness to the theater, his understanding of Eve’s stage presence and the radiance of her performances, keep him emotionally drawn to her in the way that a wiser man would have learned to slough off. Eve, who comes from Milwaukee on a mission, speaks for herself for the vast majority of the movie. All the same, once her career kicks off, she becomes careless. She tries to seduce Bill, who proves surprisingly faithful to Margo. Addison catches her monologuing. And when a young woman wanders into her room and introduces herself and cleans up Eve’s spill and answers the door for her, she doesn’t seem to realize what’s happening.

The fact that so many of All About Eve‘s characters are essentially empty-headed, lacking the ability to search themselves without breaking down entirely, means that there’s no hero in the story. A Streetcar Named Desire, which debuted three years before All About Eve and then hit cinemas in 1951, also centers on a self-conscious aging woman who seems bound to make everyone else around her pay for it. (As tempting as it is to wonder if that’s influenced the antebellum South period piece that Margo stars in, Aged in Wood, it feels more like a callback to Davis’ role in Jezebel more than a decade earlier. Wheels within wheels.) There is no Stanley Kowalski in this picture—Eve is a piece of work as opposed to the embodiment of evil—but Margo is similar to Blanche even without a Stanley to hang over her. All About Eve places us at a critical juncture in Margo’s life. Having reached forty a few months back, Margo is wrapping up the courtship phase of her relationship with Bill and preparing for the long term. (The best line of the movie is not the one about bumpy nights, but one about Margo’s resentment of how men look. “Bill’s thirty-two,” she grouses. “He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.”) She knows that she is much older than the young women Lloyd keeps writing plays about. When she talks about getting married and reclaiming the woman within her, she’s saying what no one at the table needs her to say: she’s going to retire from the stage. For better or worse, Margo the actress is tied up entirely with Margo the human being, and the film does not give us much room to see how leaving her career will alter her. We simply know that it must, and when she has her first-class freakout after discovering that Eve has read her part in rehearsal, it’s hard to muster up a feeling kinder than pity. Margo has played this card too many times offscreen, and perhaps once too many times onscreen as well, for us to become truly indignant for her. It was her own vanity that kept Eve; even if the unceremonious booting she feels she’s on the wrong end of is undeserved, Margo is no victim. Neither is Eve, who we are led to believe will find her own comeuppance in a similar way, and even soon.

Late in the movie, the action shifts away from New York City and into New Haven, where Lloyd and Eve, absent Karen and Margo, are premiering his new play Footsteps on the Ceiling. Up to this point, there has been a Richards or a Margo in just about every scene, and the presence of Eve and Addison together without our more traditional anchors make this scene feel like it’s part of a different movie. Some of it works. I’ve always liked George Sanders when he’s given a chance to be really nasty, and up to a point he gets to be just that; his own sexual obsession with Eve is a misplaced blob of paint on an otherwise well-schemed scene. The movie is also frank about Eve’s plans for herself, and then crosses over into an all-too-revealing expression of her master plan. When she tells us that Lloyd is in love with her—a fact we figured out when Lloyd left his wife in the middle of the night to comfort Eve, who is supposed to be sobbing her eyes out in her apartment but who clearly was not—we can connect the dots. The movie’s most ambitious character is about to knock over the dominoes. We don’t really need her to explain that he’ll write her parts that will catapult her to superstardom, and when she does so Baxter reaches the limit of what she can do with the character, becoming cartoonish rather than threatening. All the same, it’s a scene which is totally necessary to the movie. Aside from the revelations of who Eve really is (and my own personal revelation that they knew in 1950 that “Gertrude” was an ugly name), the plain setting of Eve’s hotel room and the similarly unvarnished presentations of Eve and Addison showcase the dark side of showbiz. What happens to Margo is essentially the circle of life, sad despite its predictability. What Eve and Addison have to say to one another, what ugly bargains they strike, feels like it could only happen to the sort of people you’d like to keep your distance from.

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