Number twenty-eight on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time is All About Eve (1950). It stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a well-known Broadway actress. You might look at that character’s name and the title and think there is something amiss. That will become clearer once I get to the synopsis. For now, I will tell you that Bette Davis films deserve to be on this list. She had a distinctive look, and the acting chops to back it up. As I understand it, this film in particular is somewhat autobiographical, even if the character is devoted to the stage. In any case, it underscores the awful nature of showbusiness. In that sense, the film borders on distasteful. This is, of course, my Catholic sensibilities speaking, or at least my peculiar brand of them. I want my protagonists, or whoever a movie tells you they are, to have redeeming qualities. You will find little of that here, and that is arguably the most tragic part.
All About Eve starts at the end, as you will see. The eponymous person is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). She is being honored for her talents on the stage at an awards banquet. It takes the various people the camera focuses on before getting to her to fill you in as to how we get to this point. We start with the wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Karen (Celeste Holm), and how she first meets Eve. After one of Margo’s performances, Karen notices Eve lurking in the alley back stage. Eve tells Karen about how she has not missed a single one of Margo’s shows. Intrigued, Karen decides to bring Eve in to meet Margo. Eve tries to protest, saying that she would not dream of disturbing her idol, but Karen insists. Once inside, to get to know Eve, they ask how she came to New York. She spins a tale about being from a poor Wisconsin farm family. To make ends meet, she had worked as a secretary at a brewery in Milwaukee (as you do). During World War II, her husband had served in the Army Air Corps (there was no Air Force during World War II). Yet, he had died before they could meet in San Francisco. Being there, she turned to her lifelong passion: theater. She had seen Margo on stage there, and decided to follow her to New York. So taken is Margo by Eve’s dedication that Margo decides to bring Eve on as her assistant. Eve appears thrilled by this prospect, is effusive in her thankfulness, and humbly prompt in the carrying out of her duties. Everyone is charmed by Eve, at first, including Margo. It is the slightest of things, though, that begin to change one’s mind. For Margo, it is when Eve took it upon herself to remind Margo’s lover, director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), to call Margo on his birthday. Margo had not expected to be telephoned, but she plays off the surprise as if it had been her idea all along. To her, it means that there is something more to the naivete Eve gives to the world. Increasingly, Margo perceives Eve as trying to mimic everything the star does. As Margo becomes more suspicious, her friends cannot understand why she could think anything negative about the seemingly innocent Eve. Things begin to truly break down at a birthday party held for Bill upon his return to New York. Margo makes her growing disapproval of Eve known. Yet, because of the sympathy she has garnered, Eve is able to take steps to secure her advancement in the theater world. Namely, she arranges to be named Eve’s understudy. This is mostly Karen’s doing, who believes that Margo is being churlish towards Eve for no good reason. This reaches its apotheosis when an audition is held for Lloyd’s next production. When Margo is nearly two hours late and they decide to go on without her, the part is read by Eve and everyone is impressed. This sends Margo on a rant that has those gathered turning against her. Indeed, even Karen arranges to have Margo miss a performance so that Eve could have a chance to act in her place. It is at this point that things commence to unraveling for Eve. The person who largely orchestrates it is renowned stage critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). After a dazzling performance in Margo’s role, he witnesses Eve making an unsuccessful pass at Bill. She then grants Addison an interview, and the resulting article reveals a little more about the naked ambition that underlies everything Eve has done. He is also clever enough to know a fraud when he meets one, and eventually discovers that much of her back story had been a lie to gain sympathy. Yet, it is what he prints about her that has everyone furious, though she once more feigns innocence. At the same time, she essentially blackmails Karen into getting Lloyd to name Eve as the lead in his next play. This turns out to be just as well as Bill and Margo decide to get married, and she is willing to allow Eve the spotlight. Truly feeling like she has arrived, she decides that she is going to try to get Lloyd to leave Karen. It takes Addison reminding Eve of what he knows about her true identity to keep her from destroying a marriage. All the people described above are at the award ceremony you see at the outset, and now that you know the rest of the story (thank you, Paul Harvey), you can understand the emotional weight involved. Afterwards, Addison escorts Eve home. When she enters her apartment, she finds a strange woman asleep in her chair. This is Phoebe (Barbara Bates), and she is Eve’s biggest fan. It should be clear to you what the movie wants you to think of this person in relation to where we have come. If not, it makes it clearer with Phoebe posing in front of a multi-paned mirror, giving the illusion of infinite copies of her, wearing Eve’s evening cloak and holding the award.
In the introduction to this review of All About Eve, in so many words I referred to this as a tragedy. As I said, part of this is because none of the characters are likable. There are some who enjoy a plot with, well, a lot of plotting. That is okay, but I want at least one person who is dedicated to doing the right thing. The closest we get to this is Bill. After Margo’s outburst in the wake of the missed audition, apparently unwarranted at the time, he says his goodbyes to her. However, a little while later he is proclaiming her love for someone who has treated him like dirt, and does not seem capable of loving anyone but herself. That does not seem like a recipe for happiness. To be a Christian means to choose happiness. This does not mean that life will be nothing but rainbows, sunshine, lollipops, and kittens. We recently had a stark reminder of this with Good Friday. On that day, Jesus chose a martyr’s death for our sake. He did not seek it out, but rather it had been ordained for Him since before time itself. Margo plays at being a martyr. A true martyr is one who dies to self, the resulting end of life being merely a product of the circumstances. Playing such a part, as Margo does, involves seeking out the sympathy that typically comes to people who fill such roles. Such actions falsify the sentiment. In other words, it has to be earned, at least among our peers. God looks at us differently, thankfully. Margo does not do so. Because she thinks her place is threatened, she lashes out, and pushes away any attempt at genuine appeasement. It is ghastly behavior, though she does relent somewhat. Either way, I pray for people like her, who feel that the spotlight is the only place where they can feel love. Eve is the same way. God’s love lasts longer, and is warmer.
If you want a textbook spoiled brat performance, then All About Eve is the film for you. It is not my preference, but this is my own taste. Otherwise, you can see an early cameo by Marilyn Monroe, though it is not a flattering one, either. At any rate, it is all very Shakespearean, if you are into that sort of thing.