There’s an awful lot going on in this movie, especially considering the time in which it was made. Just a quick bit of Internet research has uncovered a multitude of perspectives detailing what All About Eve has to say about homosexuality, Cold War politics, gender roles and the tense relationship between Broadway and Hollywood. The fact that I saw none of this through my first viewing, but see how all the symbolism actually tracks with these various, scatter-minded theories speaks to the strength of the writing. It’s a truly impressive film with a lot on its mind, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.
Bette Davis is fantastic here as Margo Channing, the current Grand Dame of Broadway. She occupies the office of her archetype with the expected theatricality, regally generous with her favor when her audience plays their roles and cements hers. She’s a bundle of contradictions, expectant and needy at the same time, surprisingly warm and casually cruel. Just when you think she lives on the shallow surface of her fan’s adulation, she says something that points to a deep understanding of the society she inhabits and her place in it. Margo is one of the most complex movie heroines I’ve seen in a really long time, and Davis embodies the assured magnetism of an actress at the top of her game.
Almost as hypnotic is Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington. We meet Eve as a pathetic groupie in an alley where Margo’s best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) takes her in. According to Eve’s story, she’s a war widow who left her meager life in the Midwest to follow Margo’s career. More than anything, she wanted to be near her idol, so it’s a dream come true when she’s slowly collected into the star’s inner circle. Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life more and more, eventually becoming her trusted confidant and personal assistant. Eve works with polite blandness and total efficiency, and most people can find no fault with her. They’re mystified when Margo reacts so violently to slights that look like “innocent” mistakes to the casual observer.
Of course, there’s something far deeper going on here. It’s only a matter of time before Eve’s scheme is laid bare — by the time the victims of her plans realize what’s going on, it’s far too late to do anything about it. And that’s when the movie gets to be at it’s most interesting.
As it becomes increasingly clear that her time in the spotlight is over, Margo reflects on her ascent to the top of the New York theatre scene and how she’s treated the people she met along the way. For the most part it feels like she’s so accustomed to having her way and wielding her considerable influence that she won’t go down without a bitter fight for her crown. What’s amazing is that when she realizes what the fight will cost her in the relationships of those closest to her, she gives it up. She realizes that holding on to power doesn’t mean much if you don’t have something more permanent and lasting to go with it. As awful as Margo can be (and has been) to the people around her, she has a very mature appreciation for them. It’s this support network that she retreats into when Eve officially supplants her as the toast of New York.
Eve, on the other hand, uses people and discards their relationship as soon as she has what she wants from them. While her ambition is fulfilled, the only person by her side is a theatre critic who is using her for his own purposes. We begin the film with her crowning as the latest jewel of the theatrical community, and after we find out the number of awful things she did to get there we see just how hollow her victory is. The award she receives means nothing to her, and the party thrown in her honor is so worthless to her she skips it to pack for her imminent trip to Hollywood.
The thing that strikes me most about this film are the wonderful relationships that manage to survive the sabotage orchestrated by Eve. Margo and Karen have their strains, and their husbands and lovers have similar struggles — especially when they’re targeted by Eve’s ambition. But it manages to hold; the affection shared by these people is deeper than the business they’re engaged in. Margo realizes this and chooses to nurture it, even though it takes her a bit longer than it might have if she were a bit more centered to begin with. But the fact that she’s off-kilter is one of the things that makes her so much fun.
A few critics have tied Margo’s acquiescence to the general push for women to give up their agency and return to the homemaker role in post-war America. There’s a lot in the film to support this, too. Sociologically the film takes on a darker undertone with her willingness to fade; she realizes that her personal community won’t tolerate her strength, so she weakens herself. It’s difficult to see Margo’s turn in the latter parts of the movie as a positive thing if you view it through that lens, especially if you see it as Joseph Mankiewicz pushing a hetero-normative agenda there. Through Eve’s example and Margo’s pre-fall life, he’s outright telling you that ambition is bad and folding to your dominant partner is good. Of course that’s not a “truth” that should be tolerated. But on a purely personal level, it feels more like Margo made a choice that brings her the most happiness. Holding on to her fleeting position at all costs would simply cost too much.
The subtext of societal normalcy notwithstanding, All About Eve is a totally engaging movie buoyed by incredible performances, sharp and layered writing, and wonderful characters. The fact that it inspires such passionate and thoughtful debate six decades later cements its worthiness as one of the best American movies ever made.