“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
That iconic line succinctly captures the essence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, a sharp commentary on the treacherous relationship between female ambition and the American obsession with youth that still rings—and stings—true nearly 70 years later.
Based on Mary Orr’s short story The Wisdom of Eve, Bette Davis is Broadway legend Margo Channing, who’s turning 40 and sees doors closing in her professional and personal life. One rainy night, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), Margo’s bestie, happens upon a young starstruck fan waiting backstage to meet Margo after a performance of her latest play, the aptly titled Aged in Wood. The fan, of course, is wide-eyed Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a mousy but well-spoken girl in an oversized trenchcoat who says she followed Margo from San Francisco to New York City and has seen every performance of the play—from the back of the house.
Karen, whose husband is none other than playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo’s frequent collaborator and author of Aged in Wood, brings Eve into Margo’s dressing room to meet her. Lloyd is there, along with Margo’s fiancé, director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), and her crusty sharp-tongued maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Eve wins over everyone in the room with her poignant backstory about a poor midwestern upbringing on a farm, a husband killed in the War, and a humble stiff upper lip. Everyone, that is, except Birdie—she smells a rat.
Margo takes Eve under her wing as her personal assistant. Eve quickly proves to be an ace at organizing Margo’s affairs—and sneaking herself squarely into the middle of them. She aligns with caustic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who like Birdie doesn’t buy what Eve puts out there but unlike Birdie sees a mutual opportunity. Things sour all around when Margo learns that her producer, Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), designates Eve as her understudy without consulting her first.
Often compared to Sunset Boulevard for a variety of reasons, All About Eve is not as dark or campy but is way bitchier. From a technical standpoint, the script is tighter, the production more sophisticated, and the story a lot wittier. All things considered, it’s way more fun and has held up quite well—sure, the voiceovers are overdramatic, but these are theater people so it fits. I found it particularly interesting to see this film again right around the beginning of the FX series Feud, which not only is half about Davis but elaborates on the same issues that All About Eve raises. It underscores much of what Davis said about the industry in interviews late in her life.
None of the men here have any reason to worry about their age; for all of them, their success has nothing to do with how old they are or even how they look (their thing is power, but that’s another discussion). The women, on the other hand, constantly struggle to secure and then maintain their positions—and they’re ruthless about it. Eve earns the acting award she gets at the end (which is really the beginning): she fools everyone to manipulate them into giving her what she wants. It’s clear that sooner than later, she’ll be right where Margo is, for better but more likely for worse.
In one of her earlier roles, Marilyn Monroe makes an amusingly memorable appearance as dippy starlet Miss Casswell, who’s trying to catch a break. She’s got the best line of all: “I don’t want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.” Amen!
In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed All About Eve “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
With Barbara Bates, Craig Hill, Helen Mowery, Steven Geray
Production: 20th Century Fox
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
(AMC River East) A