Hollywood is generally not known for being the most “truth-telling” of industries. It is an industry that makes bank by over-dramatizing mundane real-life situations, it dresses up romance to be unrealistically spectacular and thus unachievable, and it peddles in entertaining action and violence while shielding the audience from that violence’s real-life implications. But there is one aspect of life that Hollywood seems to time and time again be able to capture realistically, and that is in providing luminous insight into show business. And the reason why Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar winning All About Eve has stood the test of time is because it depicts with impeccable accuracy the cruelty of trying to make it and survive as a female actor.
It helps that in an act of art imitating life, the star of this movie is Bette Davis – a woman who was the toast of the industry as an ingenue in the 30s and 40s but had fallen prey to Hollywood’s obsessions with superficial beauty and youth with her roles drying up as she grew older (and suffered because of a sexist industry who has problems when women develop opinions). In a brave move for her personally and a masterstroke of creativity, she took up the role of aging actress Margo Channing in All About Eve as a way of mirroring her own journey in the show business industry and as a result crafted for herself her greatest role. All About Eve is rare in that it unflinchingly reveals just how cruel show business is for women where unlike their male counterparts, the accumulation of talent and experience does not afford women actors stateswoman status but instead is a sign that they should be replaced by newer and shinier models.
In All About Eve this newer and shinier model is Eve Harrington, the parasite-like person who comes into Margo’s life in order to vault above her. As played by Anne Baxter, she is simultaneously the best and worst thing about the movie as she attaches herself to Margot’s inner circle with such obvious villainous duplicity that it is astonishing no one notices other than the nefariously entertaining Addison DeWit (George Sanders) – but we will get to him later.
Perhaps the main reason Eve is able to become a part of Margo’s life is because she arrives at the moment of Margo’s greatest vulnerability. Her career, though still illustrious, is beginning to enter its zenith as it seems that she can only get plays written by Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), the husband of her close friend Karen (Celeste Holm) while her young boyfriend of a director Bill Sampson (Gary Ritter) is being courted by Hollywood while her own phone remains conspicuously silent. Thus Eve the fawning fan is the perfect antidote to Margo’s blues, a simpleton whose devotion reminds Margo that she is still, at least in the eyes of some, a star. The only person who sees through her facade is Margo’s wardrobe lady Birdie with one of the great movie’s great lines “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!”
The fact that Eve’s over-the-top desire to please and serve is a mere charade should come as no surprise. Even in her early encounters she is too fawning and too calculated in her praise of Margo and her friends, slowly winning their trust and getting poised to strike. That her moment arrives by playing on the kindness of Margo’s friends to manipulate them and manufacture her coming-out moment tells you all you need to know about her ruthless ambition. And though a superficial reading of the movie may show that Eve does in fact triumph and unseat Margo as the toast of the town, anyone can see that her victory is hollow. The movie leaves our heroine Margo as one content with her current estate, enjoying personal fulfillment, in love with her craft, and possessing the knowledge that while her physical appeal to a bunch of sexist men may fade, her wit and personality remain as sharp as ever. The only thing that Eve seemingly has that Margo doesn’t is her youth and ambition – things that by the end we can see will be easily outmatched by those coming up.
But if Margo gets some of the best lines in the movie and the venomous wit in which Bette Davis dispenses those lines reveals how hopelessly outmatched Anne Baxter is in this fictional duel, it is George Sanders’ theatre critic Addison DeWit who helps turn All About Eve into one of the most entertainingly catty movies ever made. The main narrator and the master puppeteer behind the scenes, it is he who seems to be the chief instigator of the rivalry between Margo and Eve. Like a cynical reality show producer, he periodically pokes the bear when it seems that something akin to peace might be brokered between the two and seemingly does it for his own amusement. He takes it upon himself to champion Eve’s career, but with ulterior motives. He is obviously the real villain of this piece and it would be easy to hate him if he wasn’t so entertainingly wicked while he carries out his passive-aggressive machinations.
Addison DeWit is the one who shines a light on the ridiculous pettiness that is career advancement in show business. Nowhere does he highlight this than in the movie’s most serendipitous moment when he arrives at a dinner party thrown by Margo with none other than Marilyn Monroe on his arm. Still in the infancy of her career and having nothing than a brief cameo in this movie it is with some astonishment to see her steal the scene from everyone else in the room. Even though Bette Davis at least is able to hold her own in this scene with the best line of the party (“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night”) Monroe commands the room with her already firmly established air of breathy ditziness (and a sure example that it takes a very intelligent person to play someone that dumb believably). She only seems to highlight why it is unbelievable that in this movie’s universe we are to believe Eve Harrington is its rising star.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is perfunctory, but that is because this is truly a writer’s movie. The true joy of this movie is in seeing its principal players snipe and scheme at one another with relish and abandon. And even though Eve seemingly gets the last word in by winning her awards, it is Margo who is ultimately triumphant. This is the rare Hollywood movie that allows an “aging” star to end in a place of empowerment, surrounded by friends, and content and confident in who she is now. In Davis’ own life, this turned out to be a fantasy as she would never perform in a role as great as Margo Channing and would be promptly ignored for most of the rest of her career (until she once again would expertly shine a light at Hollywood’s hypocrisies with 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), but All About Eve at least lets us imagine what her later career could’ve been if show business operated on anything resembling fairness.
The Hall of Fame is for movies that have appeared in multiple “Best Lists” and are considered exemplary enough to be “retired” from future lists.
Previous Lists Appeared In:
Best “Classic Films” (For People Who Think Black and White Films are Boring)
Ranking Every Oscar “Best Picture” Winner (#25-1)
Best Movies About the Stage Life