It’s interesting how your own perspective on an introductory scene for one character changes completely as you are being told a whole other story about how they got to that very point in their lives. But that’s the very least of what makes Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve work so perfectly as it does, for it all starts with the title, giving you an idea of where the film’s narrative draws a sense of motivation. Then one can already go on about how this film is visually set up, because what comes forth is something so stunning – you already feel the cynicism of such a picture running down your skin. Even with the film’s decades old setting, so much about All About Eve still rings as being relevant in today’s world, because the film has aged like fine wine – whether it be in its cynicism towards the concept of self-image upon building yourself up as a celebrity.
We are introduced to the titular Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) at an awards banquet. She has just won what appears to be a grand prize and she presents herself fittingly enough, but at this same ceremony we are also introduced to another established Broadway actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). You are introduced to Eve Harrington through a flattering image, but the first frame in which Margo Channing appears already sets up a different mood coming into play. Soon enough, we are shown another side of the story, before we saw Eve in that position where we are introduced to her, as an aspiring actress who ended up becoming an understudy of none other than Margo Channing. As a whole other story about how Eve’s claim to fame comes into play, the way we feel about her introduction suddenly changes thanks to what we have learned about how she climbed her way to the top.
The most striking thing about the film’s own commentary about the celebrity lifestyle comes from the delicate staging – because this film moves along akin to a performance, to which its own actors all manage to make the very best of the material that they have. Beyond having a perfect screenplay and a cast giving magnificent performances all across the board, what you feel from watching All About Eve is another sort of tension that comes out from being present within the same world as its characters. This is a film that, as its title suggests, becomes so obsessed with Eve Harrington and even to that point where you feel her presence ends up becoming so suffocating, for there is a greater tragedy coming forth in the story of Margo Channing. And there’s no better actress to play Margo Channing than Bette Davis, for not only is this the greatest performance of her own career but it also shows her at a self-reflexive state and thus it makes her character feel so much more lifelike, because at the stage of life where Davis herself was, it feels like a character formed from her experience. It’s hard enough to believe that this role was not written with her in mind, especially given as everything about watching Margo Channing rings of Bette Davis.
In a character like Eve Harrington, you already have a fixated idea of what you want to make of her. She looks innocent and beautiful, because she seems to be someone who comes from out of nowhere. Yet in her idolization of Margo Channing, she feels like a personality that you can relate to; for we all have had that point to which we want to build ourselves to become like an idol. Going back to how this film is built upon its obsession of the image of Eve Harrington, it brings you to feel that on the inside – but unlike Channing, whose ego becomes the root of the tragedy in All About Eve, there is always that feeling of artificiality running through Eve, for she is not an established performer but rather the understudy of one. Yet you feel in Anne Baxter’s performance as Eve that she does not desire to be seen as artificial anymore, she is a real celebrity who is obsessed with herself, and without care for others.
All About Eve is a satire almost like Billy Wilder’s own Sunset Blvd., which came out in the same year; but they create a perfect mirror of one another for they coincidentally happen to share that running theme of being set within the entertainment industry, thus allowing the commentary to run more relevant because it never feels limited by its surroundings. In how both films tackle the concept of fame, you feel a sense of bitterness coming forth because you see artificiality where there should be beauty and jealousy where there should be welcoming. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film explores the root of where that jealousy can start, because Eve Harrington is a woman corrupted by her own sense of influence over the environment to which she has entered so suddenly. But given how she has that image of only being an aspiring actress you cannot ever lead yourself to believe initially that she would aim for more, but you already feel convinced by her own presence as a dedicated fan of Margo Channing – only to find that Margo will be bitten back by another ego as it builds up in the form of Eve Harrington.
To believe that you will be witnessing the work of a great writer, it all starts with the way in which every exchange of dialogue between its characters is written and delivered. Even the smallest roles still have memorable lines, beyond the often quoted “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.” In that alone, you can already feel the tightness of the way in which the film is structured, because the most effective aspect of its commentary is the fact that everything plays as being part of a cycle. It all plays out to a frightening result, because as a viewer you end up feeling trapped within the circumstance – for all you hear about revolves around what everyone makes of Eve Harrington. Yet the more you hear about Eve and her relation to the environment you end up learning more about what it is that Eve truly wants with her position in life.
Looking into Mankiewicz’s observant directorial style, it’s also quite clear how much this film takes a bite at how women within the entertainment industry are treated. When you look more into the roots of what makes such a successful effort in All About Eve, there’s always something glaring coming out from the way Margo Channing talks with other women around her area compared to other men. In her own position in life, Margo Channing finds that everything about where she is feels so perfect where it is, but all of it has come at the cost of how men in the same industry have desired her femininity despite not being the truth – and it all comes forth in a speech made by Davis about what she seeks to show versus what the audience wants to believe. You feel the contempt running down your skin because of what you see about how men treat even a name that is deemed established and bankable, but they don’t want a new voice rather than something that satisfies their desires, for they never look past any of it. It was once in Margo Channing, who built herself up with the truth and now it is in Eve, a pretty face but also a conniving sociopath that cheated her way to the top because she is an object of desire and is aware of that.
Beneath the cynicism of All About Eve is also something so forward thinking, especially in regards to its own gender politics. It’s clear enough from the film’s tagline, “It’s all about women… and their men!” you already get a sense of where the bitterness in the rivalry between Margo Channing and the titular Eve Harrington comes into play. And what you still find yourself recognizing in our world today is that this is still something that runs in our entertainment industry, you’re only asking yourself how much we’ve truly learned even with the film’s reputation. I could go on about how this film surpasses the reputation that its record at the Academy Awards has set for itself with a total of fourteen nominations (a feat only achieved two more times since, in 1997 with Titanic and in 2016 with La La Land). I could go on about how morbidly funny this film is and how it draws you into the environment of Mankiewicz’s characters. I could go on about how this film is visually so perfect and every shot is constructed with such care. But I don’t really know where else to do, because All About Eve is truly one of the very best films ever made.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, from The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm
Release Year: 1950
Running Time: 138 minutes