Joseph L. Mankiewicz All About Eve, a fascinating exploration of an aging actress getting replaced and forgotten, came out in 1950, the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Because both films are masterpieces, and even more because Sunset Boulevard is also a film about an aging actress getting forgotten, the films are often brought up together, as I’ve done here. I hesitated in doing this, but I have a point. When I first watched these two films about twenty years ago, I watched them in close succession and felt I needed to pick a favorite. All About Eve is the film that went on to win the Academy Award, and I think that partially affected my thoughts at the time: Sunset Boulevard was robbed! I’ve watched Sunset Boulevard a number of times over the past few years, but I hadn’t revisited All About Eve until Criterion released their new edition a few weeks ago. I’m not here to say that I was always wrong about Sunset Boulevard being the better film. I am simply going to say that I don’t care about that argument. In fact, I’m a little upset I even had it with myself all those years ago. By picking Sunset Boulevard and championing it, I was reducing the two films. What did I see in All About Eve this time? All About Eve: What an amazing story. What an amazing script to tell that story. What amazing performances to convey that script. I neglected to uncover its riches. What a shame!
I love how this film opens. Our narrator is a theater critic named Addison DeWitt, played by one of my favorites George Sanders. He’s attending the ceremony for the Sarah Siddons Award (which was not a real award at the time, but which, due to All About Eve, was established in 1952; Bette Davis won in 1973). DeWitt recognizes that this night is a monumental night, filled with drama and intrigue, and he loves being in the middle of it.
To his left sits Karen Richards (played by Celeste Holm), and she thoughtfully looks away from the table where this year’s winner sits.
To his right sits Margo Channing (Bette Davis in what may be her most iconic role). She also sits with a look of slight displeasure.
Everyone else in the room seems thrilled by the winner, the newcomer Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter.
This isn’t the way things were meant to be. This stage has always been Margo Channing’s, and she and her friends feel it should still belong to Margo Channing. Worse, while being dethroned certainly touches upon Margo’s existential dread as she ages (she’s on the wrong side of forty), there’s betrayal.
Just a year ago, it turns out, no one even knew who Eve Harrington was, and that’s because she was nobody.
After the fascinating award ceremony, we go back to when Eve first stepped into the lives of the established theatrical elite. Eve was an onlooker. At first, she appears to be a devoted fan of Margo Channing, going to each and every one of her performances and then lingering outside. She looks so pathetic and sweet that Karen, one night upon meeting the humble Eve, invites her in.
Eve is dressed poorly, but I love that this is how she finally meets the woman she idolizes. There’s Margo Channing, hair still pulled up for a wig, face shining after removing make-up. At this point, Margo doesn’t see Eve as much more than a passing fan, barely deserving of an ounce of attention.
Soon, though, due to Eve’s tragic story — she grew up poor in Wisconsin and lost her young husband in World War II — and due to Eve’s devotion and professionalism, which mostly means she honors her place, Margo befriends Eve and hires her as an assistant.
One thing I love about this movie, though, is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. It takes almost no time before Margo realizes that Eve’s unyielding attention is not necessarily in Margo’s best interest.
Because the film doesn’t play up the dramatic irony where we know Eve is bad news but the characters don’t, we get a much more interesting film that explores the crisis and doesn’t simply make it a twist in the climax. There are a host of relationships explored, with fault lines and power dynamics all over. Front and center, of course, is Margo and Eve, but the distrust that drives their relationship is highlighted and exacerbated in others. We have Margo and her successful director boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), who is eight years younger than Margo. We have Eve and Karen, the one who opened the door (and this one is particularly painful to watch I think). And then there is the critic, Addison DeWitt, and his cynical but insightful relationship with everyone. He eventually shows up to a party with the young Miss Casswell, played by Marilyn Monroe just before she would enter her own stardom as Bette Davis’s star dimmed. This scene, then, shows its own transition, one I doubt anyone involved could have foreseen.
This is a tremendous film with tremendous work from all involved. While I don’t think Mankiewicz is a visionary director, he did manage a brilliant cast through his brilliantly crafted script. It’s rightfully a top tier classic. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no reason to wait. If you, like me, once dismissed it, consider a revisit.
By the way, at the time of writing, The Criterion Channel is featuring a Bette Davis collection with 18 — that’s right 18 — films. While All About Eve is not among them, I strongly recommend checking out the collection as quick as possible. I doubt many — if any — will be around for long.