I am always a little intrigued by films about cinema: the inward-looking eye, the self-criticism (more often than not). From The Artist to Kaagaz ke Phool, there’s something about films like this that I usually find appealing: perhaps because they offer a glimpse, even if unsavoury, into what lies beyond what one is currently viewing.
All About Eve isn’t about cinema; it’s about a related art, theatre (but there are nods here, aplenty, to cinema: there’s a passing reference to Zanuck—who produced All About Eve; and there are instances of people vying for a role, possibly even a career, in Hollywood). It’s about the ambition, the cut-throat competition, the fiercely burning desire to stay in the limelight—or to claw one’s way up there, in the first place.
The story begins at a glittering but exclusive awards night. This is the annual awards ceremony of the fictitious Sarah Siddons Society, and the who’s who of the theatre world is gathered here. While a boring veteran actor gives his speech, we are introduced, through a voiceover, to some of the characters attending this function. Characters, too, who play an important part in the story.
To begin with, there is Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), an influential journalist.
There is Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), who is not really part of the theatre, but is closely connected to it, in two ways.
For one, through her husband, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), who is one of the most popular contemporary playwrights…
And through her best friend, the actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), who has not just been one of the theatre world’s greatest leading ladies, but has acted in many plays by Lloyd. Margo, in fact, is so much a part of Lloyd’s writing, he’s written plays specifically for her.
Then, there’s Bill Sampson (Gary Merill), a director, as well as Margo’s lover.
And the dyspeptic, bluff Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), the producer.
Even as we’re being introduced to these characters, the veteran’s speech has wound to its conclusion. All the more minor awards of the evening have been given out; the one that remains is the big one, for the best actress. This one goes to the shining star of the evening, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), who comes up, smiling and self-assured, to accept it.
As Eve is ushered forward to give her speech, Karen Richards reminisces: just a few months back, in October (it’s now June) was when she first met Eve Harrington. A flashback begins, with Karen arriving at a theatre and heading for the stage door. Just outside the stage door, she sees, stepping out of the shadows, Eve. This is a very different Eve from the stylish, self-confident woman at the awards function the next summer. This Eve wears a trench coat and a shapeless hat; she is nervous and retiring.
Karen is open and welcoming; she has, after all, been seeing this timid and shy girl here, at the stage door, for many nights now. In a moment of generosity (and Karen, it is soon obvious, is very soft-hearted), Karen asks her why she comes to the stage door every night. Eve, who’s introduced herself by now, explains that she comes to watch Margo Channing. She’s been watching Margo in every performance of this play. Not one has she missed.
Karen is taken aback; isn’t that expensive? But Eve simply smiles and says that standing room doesn’t cost much. And anyway, where would she go if she didn’t come to the theatre?
Karen is so touched (as well, perhaps, as impressed) by Eve’s earnest adulation of Margo, on a whim, she ushers Eve into Margo’s green room. Here, Margo is busy taking off her makeup, with her companion/maid/friend Birdie (Thelma Ritter) beside her. Karen’s husband, the playwright Lloyd, is also there.
Karen introduces Eve to Margo, and Margo looks quite flattered. Though, being Margo, the superstar, so confident of her own hold over the world of theatre, she also seems a little amused. A little patronizing, perhaps, to the starry-eyed girl who is so besotted with her, Margo. There are thousands of fans, but few, it appears, so devoted as Eve.
Birdie is less impressed; she doesn’t seem to think very highly of Eve, no matter how highly Eve may think of Margo, whom Birdie is possessive and protective about.
Karen, however, is all for Eve. She doesn’t say it, but one can almost hear what’s going through Karen’s mind: what a refreshingly sweet, guileless girl this is! It is at Karen’s insistence that Eve shares her story, and it’s a sad one of misfortune at every turn. Eve talks of how she had got a job as a secretary in a brewery, a soul-robbing, mundane task that nearly killed her spirit—until she joined a little theatre group, which helped her get a hold on her life.
It was in that theatre group that Eve met the man she was to fall in love with: a pilot, whom she soon married. But life had not finished with Eve yet; the war broke out, and Eve’s husband was killed in it. Eve is now all alone in the world, lonely and friendless, the only ray of light the sight of Margo, up on stage…
How did this wide-eyed, timid girl, so eager to please, so absolutely enslaved by Margo’s talent, become the self-confident award-winning actress of just a few months later? That is what All About Eve is.
Based on a short story, The Wisdom of Eve, by Mary Orr (who, by the way, got no credit in the film), All About Eve was scripted and directed by Joseph Manckiewicz. Over the years, many who have seen the film assumed that it was based on the life of Tallulah Bankhead (Bankhead herself believed it), until Mary Orr herself busted that story. I haven’t read the original story, or the three-act play that was adapted from it, but All About Eve is a stunner, a worthy winner of the six Academy Awards (for Best Picture, as well as for the work done by Manckiewicz and George Sanders among them) it won.
What I liked about this film:
The characterization. I will admit that I am one of those people who tend to be blown away by intricate plots rather than brilliant characterization; but All About Eve, though it has a solid enough plot, is more about the characters—and I was very impressed by them. Each of the primary characters has a distinct and interestingly nuanced personality.
Among these, the two who especially stand out for me are Margo and Eve: two women who, at the start of their story (in the green room, in October) couldn’t seem more different from each other, but who may have more in common than is obvious at first glance… or they may not.
Of all of them, the two central characters, Margo and Eve, are not just the most interesting, but also the most brilliantly enacted.
Margo, to begin with. Forty years old, a woman who’s ruled the stage for a good many years, and whose dominance has given her a level of self-assurance that few can boast of. Margo takes no nonsense from anyone; she can be kind and charming (as she is shown, for instance, in her very first scene, when Eve is ushered into her presence), but she can also be brusque, self-opinionated, not afraid to put people in their place.
While on this subject, I must mention that Margo also gets some very witty dialogues. For example, there are these:
Lloyd : “You’ve been talking to that venomous fish-wife, Addison DeWitt!”
Margo : “In this case, apparently, as trustworthy as the World Almanac.”
Lloyd : “You knew when you came in that the audition was over, that Eve was your understudy. Playing that childish little game of cat-and-mouse!”
Margo : “Not mouse. Never mouse! If anything, rat.”
And yet, Margo is insecure, very aware that her best days are behind her. That her career is teetering on the brink of closure. Also, she is painfully aware that her lover Bill Sampson is all of eight years younger than her. As she blusters about, flashing those magnificent eyes at people, giving set-downs to everybody who dares come in her way, Margo seems indestructible, impossible to dominate. But in the moment when she realizes that someone has got the better of her… you see that Margo, in fact, is very human, very vulnerable.
Bette Davis is superb as Margo: brash, bossy, seemingly very certain of her standing as an actress, but the veneer wearing thinner and thinner as the story progresses. There are moments of vulnerability, brief slippages when you see the near-panic as she realizes, once again, that she is losing her hold.
Then there’s Anna Baxter, as Eve: for the first hour or so of the story, a timid, sweet girl: “helpless” as someone labels her. A girl so devoted to Margo, she will do anything for her idol: be secretary and maid, general dogsbody and welcome mat, if only she is allowed to be somewhere near the person she worships. Ann Baxter does this very well: she’s so beguiling, so earnest—and then, in one unforgettable scene in which Eve talks to Karen in the ladies’ room of a club, Eve lets her mask fall.
Two women, both ambitious. Both superb actresses. Both in their own way pretending to be something they’re not.
Which, come to think of it, is true of most of us, isn’t it?
I loved this film; it made me think, it made me marvel at just how far people will go to achieve their goals. True, I would have liked to have seen more of Thelma Ritter (her character Birdie simply dropped off the horizon without any preamble, or so it seemed to me). But barring that very minor quibble, there’s nothing here I didn’t like.
And, by the way: belated happy 100th birthday, Ann Baxter (she was born on May 7th, 1923). You were a champion.
Also, PS. Marilyn Monroe has a small role here as a somewhat ditzy actress, a Miss Caswell.
Note: All About Eve is available for viewing on The Internet Archive, here.
Brilliant film with brilliant acting. I was not a huge fan of Bette Davis, finding her a bit over-the-top. This film was the one that first had me rethink my views. But Anne Baxter is the one who stole the show for me because she is able to hold her own against the powerhouse that is Bette Davis. I did not know about her till this film – only seen her in a couple of other films after this – Ten Commandments and I Confess – she stood out in the former, but not sure I remember her much from the latter. Thanks for reviewing this film – now shall probably watch it again in the next few days since it has been a while.
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I agree with you; I too have never been much of a Bette Davis fan – too over the top, as you say. But she really impressed me here, both she and Ann Baxter: they manage to depict their characters so well. I wish I hadn’t taken so long to watch this film!
However, if you have not watched “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” – with both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, it is a fun experience. Both of them overplay the “over the top” and it becomes camp. The thriller elements are fairly well-played, but it is the camp that one will remember – and when done purposely, it helps make the film worth a view.
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Ah. Thank you for the recommendation! I’ve heard the name of the film, but because I don’t particularly like either Crawford or Davis, I’ve avoided it so far. Will put it on my list now.
The movie appears to be an excellent one as nicely narrated by you. I do not watch many English movies but will try to watch this. Hearty thanks for letting us know about this gem.
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It is indeed a gem, Jitendraji. Definitely worth watching.
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Like you, not a Bette Davis fan. But, yes, in this film, she was simply superb. And what a chilling film this is. (Why did I get the impression that you had already reviewed it?)
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You’re right, Anu – it is a chilling film. There’s something so completely scary about Eve when she begins to show her true colours.
I find that your readers are not very fond of Bette Davis. I had seen her several films in a ‘Bette Davis Festival’ organised by the British Council ages ago and I remember at least two: ‘The Letter’ and this one. I must say I was thoroughly impressed by her. Your excellent review prompted me to watch it again. Except the opening scene of the Award Ceremony, I had forgotten rest of the plot line.
This is a brilliant film, the transformation of Eve is quite unexpected. Bette Davis’s character is quite believable. I didn’t find her much over the top. It was Eve’s character that unsettled me at times – how could she? She got more than a match in Addison DeWitt, who excels in dark shades; I remembered him in ‘Witness to Murder’.
Could ‘Eve’ be seen as a common noun too, or am I reading more into it than the film makers? Another interesting point I noticed is that every major character gets to say smart one-liners. You have cited some. Here are some more:
– Not everybody can be Clark Gable.
– Just lock up all the blunt instruments and throw-able objects.
– When you asked me time just now, it was 5.42; now it is 5.43. If you ask me again, it would be 5.44.
A mighty snub for someone who is not attentive about names – ‘You have already met her. ‘When?’ Just now.
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Thank you for reading, AK, and I’m glad I was able to inspire you to rewatch this excellent film. You’re right, several characters get some really pithy lines; the dialogues are good.
I personally didn’t think that ‘Eve’ was supposed to point to a common noun, but who knows? Just my opinion. Whatever it is, Eve’s metamorphosis was deliciously wicked – it actually made me realize how good an actress Eve really was (even though we never see her onstage, acting for an audience) – she is such a good actor, she’s able to completely fool a bunch of people who live and breathe theatre into believing she’s really a sweet, helpless girl.