Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve (1950) is the story of Eve Harrington, a young actor who will stop at nothing to succeed. At the end of the movie, her being honored with the Distinguished Achievement in Theater award, predictably, feels empty both to her and us. The moral of this story is rather obvious.
What is supposed to be the point of the movie is that the blank slate of Eve serves as a mirror to reflect the desires and fears of those around her. Eve knows how to tailor her performance to fulfill the expectations of whoever is watching her. But she doesn’t have to work that hard, because no matter which of the movers and shakers in the theater world is her audience—director, actor, writer, writer’s wife who is also the actor’s best friend—everyone finds it hard to resist flattery.
If we go beyond this truism about the psychology of the characters, we might ask what this movie says about actors. First, by not showing us any scenes of onstage performance, it is suggested that reputation outweighs talent. Which is where the critic, Addison DeWitt, comes in. Played with an evil smirk by George Sanders, DeWitt’s supernatural ability to create and destroy reputations overnight broadcasts at deafening volume the message that critics are the real enemy (Birdman goes all in on expressing this opinion). Eve treats him with country caution, while she more or less imposes her will on the other characters around her.
Second, we are shown that actors are just as bad, if not worse, than everyone else in show business. Margo Channing, the actor whom Eve is destined to replace, first gives off an imperious air and then never lets us forget for the rest of the movie she has done and seen it all. Her cynical outlook boils over into anxiety that her director, who is also her boyfriend, will dump her for a newer model. While Margo is largely unlikable, we are meant to identify with her anxiety, and Bette Davis is able to show us how Margo’s self-destructive tendencies feed off her growing awareness that she is becoming too old to play the younger parts that the audience demands (somehow, male actors don’t seem to have this concern). Margo’s decision to marry her director and accept the role of wife is intended to be a happy way out of the problem. Is it, however? Well, everyone around her seems to think it is.
Third, the movie classifies actors as belonging to one of three types. There is the theater actor, whom the movie pretends to respect while slyly mocking her. Then there is the actor who goes to Hollywood, depicted as a brave new world far away from the suffocating theater crowd. And there is the lowest of the low, the television actor, dismissed in a single killing line tossed out by DeWitt. The irony is that the insurgency that would overthrow the old order, represented by classic Hollywood, would come into being in both theater and television: in particular, the method acting practiced by Marlon Brando and James Dean would make actors even more wild and less predictable than Margo.
The title of the play within the film, Aged In Wood, I always took as a jibe at Margo, but it does remind me that the movie has aged fairly well, becoming to us now cinematic comfort food. We can enjoy the one liners that constantly zing by in an alcohol-saturated environment. The backstage intrigue is somewhat engaging. And the ending, where Eve meets her replacement has the air of campy horror: think Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released six years later.
Her replacement appears after Eve has announced during the night of the awards ceremony her plans to depart to Hollywood and star in a movie. That this news is tacked on to her acceptance speech is another way the movie shows us the relative lack of importance of the theater, at least, as far as the motion picture industry is concerned.
What will happen to Eve? It’s sort of hard for me to care, really, because her character is so blank. On the one hand, her replacement suggests Eve’s moment in the spotlight will be brief, and she’d better enjoy it while it lasts—her memorably looking so miserable in this scene, to the credit of Anne Baxter who plays Eve, hints she may even be unable to savor this minor victory. On the other, Hollywood awaits.
But even if Eve finds further fame as a movie actor, she may still be unable to escape DeWitt’s dark clutches. It turns out that Eve did some rather scandalous things to get to the top, such as attempting to seduce the director and writer, and DeWitt knows all about them. He seems to relish the prospect of blackmailing her. Because little opportunity is spared to paint Eve as an abject betrayer of everyone who helped her rise to stardom (Margo’s playing an especially crucial role), she may be even worse than DeWitt, and thus his control over Eve at the end suggests a kind of karmic retribution for her past misdeeds. Eve’s fate is also foreshadowed by certain scenes lit as if they were from a film noir.
Granted, the movie comes off as escapist fare: there is little mention at all of an outside world. Yet the movie’s deep well of cynicism appears intended to comfort those jealous of the applause and recognition actors receive for their work. The deck is stacked, for not seeing the work done on stage, we feel that no one in the movie is quite deserving of their success. This is, for classic Hollywood movies, a way that cynicism reveals what hides in plain sight: the snobbishness of these characters, their often pronounced aristocratic airs, unmasks them as takers, not makers, in a presumably democratic society.
The message that success is fleeting, even for star actors like Margo and Eve, is turned into a quasi-religious parable designed to make those watching the movie feel more satisfied with their own, far less glamorous role in life. You can try to do the best you can, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. Except for those, of course, who can buy a more desirable role—how did they get the money? You shouldn’t really ask that question.
It is, in the long run, all about keeping up appearances, and All About Eve thus serves as the opening act for fifties America. Yet despite the overt threats to nonconformists, who were labeled as Communists, fellow travelers, or worse, traditional social roles, such as husband and wife, were beginning to crumble. By 1955, sales of tranquilizers set all-time records, suggesting that many Americans had found another way to escape than by just watching movies.