What a masterpiece.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film “All About Eve” is an absolute masterclass in twentieth century cinema, spearheaded by a phenomenal and career defining role by Bette Davis and a beautifully crafted script, encapsulating the magic of the Golden Age in Hollywood. There was something almost Shakespearean in the structure of this film, in fact I checked afterwards to see if it had indeed been based off one of his plays. It wasn’t, the film in fact was based on he 1946 short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, although screen credit was not given for it. I still maintain though that the story itself has a timeless quality, following the demise of a central hero with a tragic flaw at the hands of a manipulative, Iago-esque figure with a litany of memorable supporting characters.
The film opens on a theatre awards night in honour of young actress Eve Harrington, with a narrator articulating her brutal and merciless route to the top and introducing each of the players she’s taken out at the shins along the way. The rest of the film is an explanation of how they all ended up there on that night. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), is a seemingly wide-eyed fan of the veteran theatre star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). After noticing that Eve is attending every night of Margo’s current stage production and waiting outside after every performance to catch a glimpse of her idol, Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm) is touched by Eve’s devotion and introduces her to Margo. Margo too is suckered in and gives Eve a job as her personal assistant, somewhat out of kindness and compassion for Eve’s tragic past but also undoubtedly for her own vanity and the sense of self importance that comes from allowing yourself to be treated as an idol. As the film progresses, Eve slyly and discreetly manipulates her way into the inner circles of the theatre world, all the while maintaining her facade of innocence and naivety. Margo and eventually Karen too, soon become aware of Eve’s deceptive ways while their husbands (Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe) stumble along completely unaware and almost comically playing into Eve’s conniving hands. By the end of the film we are back where we started, and are able to see Eve’s acceptance speech for her award through the lens of what she’s done to get there.
First and foremost, this is the pinnacle of everything that was great about Bette Davis. Davis was notoriously strong willed and larger than life in Hollywood and in a semi-biographical sense, her role as Margo mirrored her determination to not be forgotten or replaced in an industry which so highly values youth and beauty. As Margo, Davis is formidable. There is something so iconic about the timbre of her voice and the snappiness of her insults and she commands an elegant and haughty authority whenever she’s featured on screen. Margo is by no means a saintly figure; we see her drunkenly berating her guests and bitterly accosting the people closest to her out of jealousy and fear of abandonment. Because of this, despite all the glamour, dazzle and undeniable stardom, Margo is painfully relatable and we as an audience root for her despite her flaws. Davis portrays a lifelike individual, who is sad sometimes, vulnerable sometimes, bitter and jaded sometimes but also strong, loyal, fiercely funny and completely transparent – she sure doesn’t suffer fools. I laughed constantly throughout this film, a lot of the time due to Davis’ delivery of some seriously brutal one liners courtesy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s screenplay.
The film is clever to start out with the narration by George Sanders, because we watch the unfolding of Eve’s manipulation with the knowledge that there’s always an ulterior motive. The film plays out very much like a theatre production, and its fun watching everything happen as an audience member knowing what we know while the main players don’t. Anne Baxter is sensational as Eve as well, because its totally conceivable how she manages to hoodwink everybody. Her wide-eyed adoration and devotion is believable and sincere, but in the scenes where she allows her mask to fall, with nothing more than a change in the expression in her eyes, she is merciless and chilling. There is a delicious sense of irony as the film comes to its close, and this is again due to Mankiewicz’ beautifully sophisticated yet simple sense of story. As Eve returns to her hotel room after the awards ceremony, she is surprised to see a young high school senior waiting for her, hoping desperately to meet her hero and in identical fashion to how Eve first encountered Margo, offers to help her and packs her trunk for Eve’s trip to Hollywood while professing her star struck adoration. Then, while Eve sits and enjoys a drink, she holds the bejewelled robe that Eve wore to the banquet in front of her and poses in front of a mirror, holding the award as if it were a crown. The story has come full circle; Eve is now the one oblivious to a younger, devious woman who is determined to make her own way to the top and will presumably fall victim to it.
The film closes on this with a poignant message; while it may seem as though Eve has triumphed over Margo and is the ultimate victor – she’s the one who returns to her hotel room, with all the fame in the world but alone and bitter, while Margo leaves with her devoted husband and her friends. Fame and glory are shallow trophies, and the end of the film makes that clear.
This was an experience, not just a film, that I’ll never forget, and am completely sincere when I say that I would consider this one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Pure movie magic.
By Jock Lehman