All About Eve
Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Best Picture Oscar winner commonly finds itself in the upper echelons of all-time great lists (it was 37 on the Time Out cinema centennial poll) Such lofty status is richly deserved. Mankiewicz’s directorial career didn’t always strike gold – he would eventually be assailed by the 1963 Cleopatra, before even more eventually recovering with Sleuth – but All About Eve stands resplendently unalloyed on all fronts and every bit as trenchant as ever it was.
There’s been some suggestion that, however conniving Anne Baxter is as Eve, she’s no match for the withering fury of Bette Davis as Margo Channing. Which is obviously a reflection of star wattage rather than performance, but I think that’s also rather the point. Eve needs to be unassuming enough to pass unnoticed and considered innocent, except by ever vigilante Birdie (Thelma Ritter, who rather like Irene Handl, deserves all the raves going for essentially playing the same role over and over again). And Baxter was no slouch; she’s one of the best things by far in The Ten Commandments. Her heightened, breathy earnestness was surely studied by Kathleen Turner when preparing for Body Heat (not only is there a passing resemblance, but you could mix and match the two characters and their studied verbiage with relative ease).
Baxter also bears a likeness – not that Turner really does – to Claudette Colbert, who was originally cast as Margo, so making the usurper aspect the more apposite; Colbert, who’d also played an Egyptian for DeMille (the 1934 Cleopatra), went down with an injury, and Margo was made pricklier when Davis parachuted in, so as to suit her manner. Davis in turn credited the role with rejuvenating her career (she also married co-star Gary Merrill).
Pauline Kael, who called All About Eve “one of the most enjoyable movies ever made”, still couldn’t resist lobbing a few hard balls its way, arguing it was hard to believe Baxter ever constituted a threat and suggesting Mankiewicz’s “nonsense about ‘theatre’ is saved by one performance that is the real thing: Bette Davis is at her most instinctive and assured”. Similarly, Time Out’s Trevor Johnston suggested Baxter was “much more convincing as an ‘ingénue on the make’ than as a credible professional rival”.
In a sense, Eve doesn’t actually have to be great – saliently, we never see her perform – since all that matters is the effect she has on those she must step on to reach the top. She’s an early great screen psychopath, where we more generally expect such types to be piling up bodies in the basement. Baxter’s Eve carries the single-mindedness of a Glenn Close but the restraint of How to Succeed at Business… or House of Cards (the Ian Richardson version, obviously).
Eve isn’t, though, a witty or convivial schemer; we can see her calculating mind whirring, such that we don’t really need Ritter to give us an early lowdown (“What a story. Everything but the bloodhound, snapping at her rear end”). It seems her conniving was initially even more overt, as Darryl F Zanuck suggested Mankiewicz tone it down to make her actions less obvious. As a contrast, George Sanders as critic Addison DeWitt, self-appointed chaperone to Eve’s rise in the New York theatre scene, is exactly as spontaneously droll, pithy and withering as we expect of the soulless; he sees in her something of himself, “a contempt for humanity”. He is thus scathing of her attempts to manipulate him (“I am nobody’s fool, least of all yours”).
Gay coding of these two antagonists has been applied in some readings, pitched against the “good” heterosexual virtues they try to obliterate. Mankiewicz’s prejudices are cited in this regard, in tandem with a number of key examples from the picture. I’d suggest any reading of a straight (as in focussed) psycho could also apply to these, although it would make more sense of the neatly circular ending with new arrival Phoebe (Barbara Bates) set to become that which Eve was if Eve should have some designs on her. Otherwise, she’d surely be wise to the newcomer’s game immediately (since it’s her game) and turf her out on her ear.
As Jeff Saporito suggests, such readings may be argued as doing the film a reductive disservice. You may as well suggest that any scheming English aristo – or anyone played by the magnificent Sanders, including Shere Khan – is coded as homosexual: “Both characters often appear prominently asexual, aligning any sexuality they do exude to power over gender. Both characters seek to control the lives of others. This is what Addison finds so appealing and intriguing about Eve. Specifically labelling Eve or Addison as homosexuals may be superficial, as both, particularly Eve, seems capable of slipping through whatever sexuality will reap the most gain, since she doesn’t operate based on sexual desire but the need for people to love and applaud for her”. DeWitt’s confession too, following his slapping Eve is curious (“That I should want you at all… You will belong to me”) since, in part, it simply suggests control, but “want” is also indicative of a sexual element.
Indeed, his full explanation for their similarity “our contempt for humanity and inability to love, and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other” is much closer to that of the narcissistic sociopath. Now, one can say evil=gay as an explanation, and it might apply in broad-stroke terms to ’50s cinema, but Johnstone notes All About Eve’s motif of “driven ambition and empty success as a showbiz given”. It’s an old story, in other words, success as the be all and end all.
In this regard, the other major theme alleged of the picture, of proper and appropriate domestic/gender relationships, is also slightly suspect. Certainly, Margo effectively retires by giving up a younger role Eve then takes, marrying Bill (Merrill), and one would reasonably conclude the over-the-hill-at-forty aspect deserves some critique. But on a broader level, one ought to consider the assumption that Margo would forsake the showbiz world – of driven ambition and empty success – can only be a negative, since she is a woman. Rather than getting shot of an arena that is inherently designed to corrupt one.
In Seeing is Believing, Peter Biskind interpreted Margo as “the good career woman, because she acknowledges the importance of men, and better, is getting married, and better still, is giving up her career”. Whereas Eve, “She is the bad career woman because she actually wants a career, and instead of loving men, she just uses them”. And if reduced to such markers, then yes, it’s a fair call. As it plays, there’s really no need for Margo to give up the stage, except as an admission of defeat and submission, even if Davis almost makes it seem like a choice done with eyes open and a head held high (one whiff of Eve’s true face is enough to have one swearing off boards treading for life). As DeWitt says – doubtless the kind of thing Kael was calling out – luvvies don’t exactly have the healthiest of dispositions: “We all have abnormalities in common. We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk. We are the original displaced personalities”.
Mankiewicz – the brother who wasn’t Mank – and his performers ensure the smoothness of All About Eve, despite the occasional bumpy moment; the first scene somehow plays despite switching narrators to Karen (Celeste Holm). There are several occasions where Eve, first with Bill and then with Karen, starts off meek and supplicant and then reveals her true demonic colours that play like gangbusters for impact but don’t really speak to someone purportedly so careful and calculated in their plotting (“It’s my part now!”)
There’s also Marilyn Monroe, whom Johnston called “succulent” and “wigglesome” but I found disconcertingly amateur. It’s been suggested this is where she formed her “pretty vacant” persona, but there’s a thin line between playing self-consciously dim and being self-consciously dim. Sorry, Mazza fans. I’ll say this, though, her performance IS distracting, from the work of both Sanders and Davis in the scene, so in that sense she’s undeniably effective.
Davis and Sanders both saw All About Eve as a peak in their movie careers; Sander won his solitary Oscar (also his sole nomination) With fourteen nominations, the picture’s record is unsurpassed (but equalled by Titanic and La La Land). It won six: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay (from The Wisdom of Eve, a 1946 short story by Mary Orr), Sound Recording and Costume Design, the latter going to Edith Head and Charles Lemaire.
The dual cases of Best Actress – Davis and Baxter, the latter having lobbied to be nominated in this category, rightly so, I’d say – and Best Supporting Actress – Holm and Ritter – represent, per Anthony Holden, “the classic example of vote-splitting”, with Judy Holliday winning for Born Yesterday and Josephine Hull for Harvey respectively. While Davis, Holm and Baxter were all prior winners, Ritter (six nominations) would be something of an always-the-bridesmaid of Burton and O’Toole proportions. Generally, though, this was one year where you’d have to admit the Academy got the big award completely right. A blessed rarity.