Although not about Hollywood, writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s satire about backstage intrigue, All About Eve (1950), staring Bette Davis as an aging theatre star Margo Channing. According to Roger Ebert, growing older was a smart career move for Davis, whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing (Ebert).
Davis smokes all through the movie, in an age where cigarettes were used as props, she does smoke as behavior, or to express her mood, but instead because she wants to. The smoking was unique in setting her apart from others, separate from their support and needs; Roger Ebert once said, she is often seen with a cloud of smoke, which seems like her charisma made visible.She was never entirely confortable with being a young unsophisticated woman; instead she was glorious as a professional woman, a survivor or a sharp toughed leading predator. Thus, her role as Margo Channing was her greatest and it seems she never played a more autobiographical role.
The movie begins at an awards dinner; Eve Harrington played by Anne Baxter is the newest and brightest star on Broadway and is being presented with an award for her breakout performance. Theater critic Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders, observes the proceedings and in a sardonic voiceover, recalls Eve’s quick rise to stardom. The film then flashes back a year, when Margo Channing, played by Bettee Davis, is one of the biggest stars on Broadway, despite her ever increasing age, having just turned forty and knowing what this means for her career. After a performance, Margo’s close friend Karen Richards, played by Celeste Holm, wife of the play’s writer Lloyd Richards, played by Hugh Marlowe, meets a fervent fan, Eve Harrington outside in the cold alley outside the stage door. Karen takes Eve backstage, having recognized and passed her by the stage door any times from past performance. Eve tells the group gathered in Margo’s dressing room, that she has followed Margo’s last theatrical tour to New York after seeing her in a play in San Francisco. She tells a sob story of growing up poor and losing her husband in the war. Moved by her performance, Margo quickly befriends Eve, takes her under her wing, and hires her as her assistant; little did she know this was a grave mistake and misjudgment of character.
Mankiewixz creates Margo Channing as a particular person, however Eve Harrington, is a universal type.
The movie highlighted the darkest corners of show business, exposing its inherent ageism, especially when it comes to female stars. Eve starts as a breathless fan, eyes bright with phony sincerity and admiration. She worms her way into Margo’s inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy and finally her rival. Faking her humility and sorrow as a “want to be actress” is her greatest strength and leading role. Margo believes Eve’s story of hard luck and adoration, however no actor has much trouble believer others would want to devote their lives to the. Many of Margo’s inner circle are fooled by Eve, especially one of Margo’s closest friends, Karen who sympathizes with the girl and arranges to strand Margo in the country for one weekend so that Eve can go on as her understudy. Mankiewicz wisely never shows the audience her performance because he wants the audience to imagine themselves and focus on the girl whose entire demeanor is a little too intense, focused and thus suspect.
Eve later repays Karen by attempting to seal her playwright husband, after she had unsuccessfully attempted to steal Margo’s fiancé, Bill, played by Gary Merrill, who earlier in the film mercilessly puts down Eve’s advances with a quick line, “What I go after, I want to go after. I don’t want it to come after me” (Ebert). These types of sharp poetic lines allowed this grouping of actors to immerse themselves in their roles and create a cinematic masterpiece.
Sanders as DeWitt, is the principal narrator, and with his cigarette holder, slicked down hair and flawless dress, he sees everything as an opportunity for power or control. He has his agenda and while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, DeWitt calmly schemes to keep Eve as his own possession. Sanders, who won an Oscar for his role as supporting actor, lets Eve have it in one of the most powerful, eloquent and savage speeches in film history: “Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them? I am nobody’s food. Least of all, yours” (Ebert).
An important social theme of the 1950s arises in the film. In terms of war politics and sexuality associated with the post-World War II pressure placed upon women to re-acquiesce to societies norms and expectations. This pressure to resume “traditional” female roles is especially illustrated in the film with the contrast between Margo’s mockery of Karen for being a “happy little housewife” and her lengthy and inspired monologue, about the virtuousness of marriage and the benefits of having a man by her side. In contrast, Margo is a seemingly independent, strong willed actress with a combative and egoist attitude, which was not apart of societies expectations of a “respectable” lady or wife. The pressure to acquiesce and value patriarchy, following the return of men from war, after having placed in traditionally male roles, was a problem fully ignored during the 1950s.
This movie took audiences on an emotional roller coaster and lifted the curtain, showing them the realities of backstage life in the entertainment industry, making actors and actresses real/tangible. The movie is cinematically perfect and has some of the best performances ever seen in Hollywood, but more importantly to the time, it fed into the star culture and audience’s fascination with the secret lives of actors and actresses.
It was honored with a record 14 nominations and six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film draws upon the film noir themes of the 1940s, specifically the masterful Citizen Kane. In its most basic form, film noir is known for its black and white chiaroscuro lighting, which gave scenes a more visually abstract composition and melodramatic attitude, which encompasses the tone of the cinematic masterpiece, All About Eve.