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Review by Timothy Lawrence
All About Eve opens with an award – the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achivement, addressed to Miss Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), placed squarely in the center of the frame. Describing the ceremony, Addison DeWitt (an unforgettably sardonic George Sanders, elsewhere described as a “venomous fishwife”) dryly announces, “Minor awards are for such as the writer and director, since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.” All About Eve seems preoccupied with the allure of this award, setting the stage for the story of Eve’s ascent to become that flashing light – but as the shot continues, the camera slowly pull away from the award to reveal a whole auditorium full of theater folk, and likewise, the film slowly pulls away to reveal that there is far more to theater than success.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1950 classic tells us all about Eve, but the picture it paints is hardly a flattering one. After the opening, the film jumps back in time to chronicle Eve’s journey up the ladder of success. Initially, the film seems like a rags-to-riches story. It starts with Eve’s discovery by Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the wife of Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), who writes the plays of Eve’s idol, Margo Channing (Bette Davis in one of her very best performances). The sympathetic Karen introduces the bashful Eve to Margo. Eve pours her heart out, and Margo, despite the skepticism of her maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), takes her on as an assistant. “She’s studying you,” Birdie warns, “like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints. How you walk, how you talk, how you eat…” Soon enough, Margo begins to share her suspicions, but too late. Eve has already ingratiated herself irrevocably into Margo’s circle of friends, and from there, as Eve inches closer and closer to her dreams of becoming an actress – a “star of the theater” like Margo – Margo’s relationship with director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) deteriorates, her friendship with Karen and Lloyd suffers, and her career is imperiled. Eve, on the other hand, is a masterful actress – “full of fire and music,” raves Addison – an artist so consumed with her art that her greatest performance is her life.
This idea of theater infecting life runs through the entire film. Eve describes her childhood thus – “Somehow, acting and make believe began to fill up my life more and more. It got so I couldn’t tell the real from the unreal, except that the unreal seemed more real to me.” It’s an ironic line – Eve’s description of her impoverished youth and tragic romance are part of her feigned innocence, her ploy to gain Margo’s sympathy. She’s not the only one who can’t tell the real from the unreal. The others (with the pointed exception of Birdie) are entirely taken in. When Birdie questions the validity of Eve’s story, Margo snaps, “There are some human experiences, Birdie, that do not take place in a vaudeville house!”
The line is a sly indicator of Mankiewicz’ intention to play mischievously with this idea of life and theater, reality and unreality, truth and make believe. Eve is the obvious example, but what of Margo’s melodramatic outbursts? “The theater, the theater,” rants Bill in the very same scene. “What book of rules says the theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? …Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience – there’s theater.” By this definition, Eve’s deception is certainly a form of theater – but what about the other characters, who variously mask their inner feelings with public personas? During the famous dinner party scene (whence comes the famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”), Margo slips into the ostentatious histrionics that characterize her work onstage, blurring the line between her private self and her public persona. Is she putting on a mask, or taking it off to reveal her true self? “It’s about time Margo realized that what’s attractive on stage need not necessarily be attractive off,” Karen remarks.
Mankiewicz teases out the idea of life as theater by directing the film like a play. It takes place almost entirely in small rooms that one can easily imagine on a stage somewhere. Dramatic camera flourishes are kept to a minimum, rather, characters are blocked simply and effectively. The loquacious dialogue, the stagy performances – none of it feels real. On the contrary, the film feels deliberately and magnificently theatrical. We never see the performances themselves. It's as though Mankiewicz is insisting on Bill’s claim that the theater itself is unimportant - that we’re seeing it “wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience,” acted out in the very lives of the characters. Of those characters, three interact most prominently with this notion of life as theater: Addison DeWitt, Eve Harrington, and Margo Channing.
Addison, crucially, turns the idea on its head – his life is not theater, but on the contrary, theater is his life. “I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith,” he tells Margo. “I have no other world, no other life.” Everyone in the theater knows him, Margo and friends regard him with a sort of weary hostility, while Eve sees him as yet another rung in the ladder to success. “I am essential to the theater,” he boasts. Throughout the film, Eve begins to fall more and more under his sway, and by the time he asks, “You realize and you agree how completely you belong to me?” he almost seems to have become a symbol of the darkest side of the theater itself.
Eve, for all of her apparent self-control, is a slave to theater, at the utter expense of any normal life. As she gives her acceptance speech, who can she thank but “the theater itself, which has given me all I have”? In contrast to Margo’s romance with Bill, Eve is almost sexless. Her romantic endeavors (first, unsuccessfully, with Bill, and then with Lloyd) are merely liaisons for the purpose of further success. “Lloyd and I,” she gushes, “There’s no telling how far we can go. He’ll write great plays for me. I’ll make them great.” Addison is correct in his assessment, “You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent.” By the film’s conclusion, Eve receives all that she wanted – success, fame, and the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. Was it worth it? We don't get to hear what Eve thinks, but Margo sums it up nicely: "I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."
Although Addison and Eve’s lives are both consumed entirely by theater, Margo is able to provide an unexpected counterpoint. For much of the film, she acts in real life as, we imagine, she does onstage, spitting out such verbal barbs as “Autograph fiends, they’re not people. Those are little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes” or “You’re looking at the remains of Margo Channing. It is my last wish to be buried sitting up.” However, as her life falls apart due to Eve’s machinations, Margo becomes acutely aware of what she’s lost and what she’s become, lamenting “the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster.” Upon reconciling with Bill, she decisively concludes, “No more make believe, off the stage or on.” Unlike Addison and Eve, Margo is ultimately able to escape from her own persona, to take off her mask – and, curiously, the face underneath is not terribly different. Perhaps the mask did not so much sequester her personality as amplify it.
During a key scene, Addison intones, “We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theater folk.” One might be tempted to agree, but Bill objects – “I’ll admit there’s a screwball element in the theater… but it isn’t basic.” In the end, the film proves Bill right and Addison wrong. Surely, the theater contains people like Eve, and always will: “The stars never die and never change,” Lloyd complains, and the film’s closing scenes hint that the process by which theater consumes lives will go on indefinitely. However, people like Margo are not beyond saving. Unlike Billy Wilder’s scathing Sunset Boulevard, 1950’s other great satire of the entertainment business, All About Eve’s portrait of the theater as a stage for ego gone berserk is ultimately tempered by an affirmation of normalcy, of ordinary decency. Theater isn’t bad, per se – but it is not and cannot be the entirety of one’s life.