So ominously begins Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 masterpiece, a tale of Broadway backstage backstabbing and double-crossing – indeed, we will learn ‘All About Eve’, but the title is a deliberate mislead as the real star here is Margo Channing, played to perfection by the great Bette Davis.
‘All About Eve’ tells the story of aging theatre actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and the young ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who ingratiates herself into her inner circle by posing as a down on her luck fan of the older actress. The inner circle – consisting of her director and lover Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) – are all charmed by Eve; it’s only Margo’s no nonsense assistant Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) who voices doubts about Eve’s true intentions, and sure enough we come to find out that Eve is trying to usurp Margo in almost every way possible: her career and her man are in the sights of the conniving shrew, aided by acerbic, snake-like theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).
So far, so ‘Smash’ – except it’s not shit: ‘All About Eve’ is possibly the most literate screenplay ever produced in Hollywood, the situations and characterizations are almost flawless yet the whole affair is elevated into the firmament by the elegant, witty script. As well as being one of the best films ever made, it also without fail appears on the list of greatest screenplays ever written.
On first viewing, it’s easy to think of ‘All About Eve’ as a great backstage drama, and since the movie was made we’ve seen countless portrayals of the aging diva character – but the story this movie tells is a lot more complex. Margo Channing is no paper-thin characterization; she’s a three-dimensional character, a star and a great actress who put the rest of her life on hold in order to pursue a career – something that was necessary due to the societal norms of the time. Now, due to the young Eve’s ascent, Margo finds herself faced with a choice: fight an increasingly losing battle to remain a star or bow out gracefully and live life on her own terms, finding fulfilment elsewhere. Over 60 years later, this dilemma is as relevant as ever. I won’t spoil the ending of ‘All About Eve’, but let’s just say there are a fair few twists and turns you don’t see coming.
The film quickly gained the mantle of ‘camp classic’. All the ingredients are there: a theatrical setting, aging divas, conniving ingénues, wigs and caustic wit ensure its place in the LGBT canon. But central to the film’s initial and continued success – especially in the LGBT world – is the iconic central performance by Bette Davis.
Of course, Davis would probably still be a gay icon without having starred in ‘All About Eve’: her unforgettable performances in ‘The Letter’, ‘The Little Foxes’, ‘Beyond The Forest’ and, of course, ‘What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?’ would have seen to that. But in her Margo Channing we are treated to a distilled, crystallized Davis, a part that seems to sum up everything we love about her while at the same time demonstrating her incredible depth and range. Here, then, is Davis vamping round the set, throwing back gin, smoking like a chimney and delivering a range of caustic put-downs while those eyes – those eyes! – seem to shoot fire at you. But the angrier elements of the performance are organic and not over-played, while the childlike vulnerability combined with moments of raw honesty make this her touchstone performance. Bette Davis was blessed with several other movies that could have been mentioned in the first line of her obituary; luckily ‘All About Eve’ combined all of them into one.
That’s not to say ‘All About Eve’ is a star vehicle; in fact, Davis gets less screen time than Anne Baxter’s eponymous Eve, which would lead to life imitating art as Baxter lobbied producers to include her in the lead actress category at the Oscars that year alongside Davis. But Baxter and the rest of the ensemble cast are equally as responsible for the film’s success – indeed, George Sanders portrayal of ‘venomous fishwife’ Addison DeWitt would give him the film’s only Academy Award for acting, out of a whopping five nominations. The fact that Sanders would later provide the voice of Sher Khan in The Jungle Book seems pre-ordained when you see his performance here.
‘All About Eve’ isn’t just a backstage melodrama: its title refers to the first woman, and at its heart is a great examination of gender politics of the time. Sure, they seem dated 60 years later, but the movie’s exploration of the different roles women must take and the difficulties they face is still relevant after all this time and something we as a society are still grappling with.
“Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.”
Whether you’re watching to enjoy the most quotable dialogue in movie history or to see how gender roles were being dealt with in the middle of the last century, ‘All About Eve’ remains a classic movie that deserves to be watched and re-watched again and again. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.