It’s a classic tale of deadly ambition, which sounds hyperbolic. But its cynical poison is deadlier towards Hollywood as a piece of satire, arguably arguing against Auteurism (even though, historically speaking, it wasn’t really a thing yet), and the role of women in the industry. Maybe it’s a tad overlong, but it’s slick, clever, and scathingly funny.
It’s Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic All About Eve.
In some respects, All About Eve might be about internalized misogyny. It isn’t that much of a stretch, really. Margo Channing makes a point in saying, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like or not: being a woman.” And part of being a woman is upholding certain ideas of what “a woman” is. It’s performative by nature, and yet such myths of competition, not quite survival of the fittest, are continually and handed down from generation to generation. Case in point: Margo’s ever evolving paranoia with regard to Eve Harrington (Anna Baxter). Eve is young, talented, and what’s more, cutthroat and driven.
But it’s the youthful aspect that is most critical here. Margo exists in a world (the theatre) where youth is valued heavily, but she has seemingly got by on the fact that she is, for lack of a better comparison, Bette Davis. Talent reigns her career. But the theatre world — and the entertainment world in general — can’t help but see a pretty young face in the eager Eve. Margo lashes out with her sharp tongue. In the words of Miss Scarlet in Clue, “It’s my defense mechanism.”
So, implicit competition arises. Margo’s way of living is threatened by Eve’s youth. Her relationship with Bill Sampson, a director, is also put into jeopardy. Margo’s best friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), also gets on the defensive in the film, seeing her ambition as possibly dangerous. And yet to be independent and ambitious is dangerous in a world dominated by men. Is Eve forced into her conniving methodology because of the reality of the world? Are both Eve and Margo essentially fighting for the same kind of survival?
Despite having been made by an auteur, the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film is almost against Auteurism. There is the actress, the person who brings the lines to life, breathing vitality into a production; there is the director, the person who brings everything together and makes sense out of it; and there is the writer, the one who gives us the story and the lines and the thing to be made sense of. It’s a collaborative process. Thus, it ends up being fairly interesting that the film should be partially told from the perspective of a critic, a job whose duties entail that they understand the machinations and facets of a work of art, be it theater or film. Addison DeWitt’s poisonous pen, though, is a caricature. He’s a powerful demon, capable of bringing down any star he sees fit, or sees to their success. It’s not unlike JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in Sweet Smell of Success, or his real life inspiration, Walter Winchell.
Bette Davis roars on the screen, the camera practically glued to her very presence. Lest she be accused of chewing scenery, there’s something ‘naturally artificial’ about her performance. Margo is someone who has been on the stage since she was four years old, a fact made apparent by scathing critic-cum-gossip Addison DeWitt. All she knows is performance, so the characters describe her temper in terms of theater jargon. Karen comments that the first two acts of the fight between Margo and Bill happened for an audience and that the third act will occur “off stage”. Performance, even when she’s being sincere, is the only language she understands. It’s fascinating, then, to see her try to be sincere. That fragility and vulnerability she puts on is a performance to some degree because, as she implies, being a woman is a full time career. There are expectations, and Margo is such a strong headed woman that to give into the stereotypes and clichés that are attached to just being her would be, in a way, giving up.
There’s a reason there’s a song called “Bette Davis Eyes”. Few are as sly and as menacing as hers, able to stare daggers at both the audience and her nemesis Eve and have both recoil with fear. It’s the sharpest and most effective kind of armor for Margo. Just a look. Just one scathing look.
The film was recently screened as part of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz retrospective during the 52nd annual New York Film Festival, which I had the pleasure of attending.