I first watched All About Eve in an attempt to watch all of Marilyn Monroe’s movies [not a difficult task, as she wasn’t in very many given her early death], but now when I think about All About Eve, it’s not Marilyn Monroe I think of. She does well in her bit part, but she’s steamrolled by the enormous talent that the film is bursting with.
All About Eve is about an aging Broadway actress, Margo Channing [Bette Davis], who takes a young fan, Eve Harrington [Anne Baxter], under her wing. Eve then quickly infiltrates and sabotages Margo’s personal and professional life. The film’s conflict is focused on Margo’s insecurity about her age, and the fact that the playwright with whom she works, Lloyd Richards [Hugh Marlowe], is still writing plays with main female characters aged twenty-something for Margo, while she is, in fact, forty years old. Oddly, Lloyd seems bitter at Margo for getting older. In one scene while discussing with his wife the possibility of producing a play without Margo and instead casting the younger Eve, his wife quips, “Someone who will look the part as well as play it?” He responds, “You have to admit it would be a novelty” and goes on waxing poetic about having something he’s written fully realized “for once.”
It’s always been interesting to me that the idea of writing a play that featured a middle-aged woman never seems to cross his mind. It’s as if the concept is impossible, unthinkable. The result is that Richards has an enormously talented, prestigious actress who draws in audiences to consistently sold out performances but he refuses to change with her, leaving her in a panic about her age for the entirety of the film. Near the end of the film it is Margo willingly giving up the role that Lloyd wants to give Eve. Aging backwards is impossible; writing something different is not. However, it is Margo, portrayed as dramatic and stubborn, who compromises, bending to the unstoppable force of time.
All About Eve is 66 years old, but the subject matter remains relevant. There’s still an appalling lack of roles for women older than 10 years beyond puberty. In that way, it’s related to another film that came out that year, Sunset Boulevard, with which it competed with for the Best Picture Academy Award. It may or may not be a coincidence that this subject was the focus of two Oscar nominated films that year—or it may have been due to the relative newness of the issue of aging actresses. In 1950, filmmaking as an industry was still only a few decades old, and the allure of the celebrity became increasingly popular from the early days of Hollywood. Audiences—as well as producers, directors, and writers—were seeing their favorite actresses age out of the kind of roles that they loved them for. That happenstance wasn’t brand new—Mary Pickford retired at age 40 in 1933 because she was too old to play the feisty young woman roles she was known for. But even so, it was a relatively new issue at the time. It’s frustrating that Hollywood also suffered from the same mental block that assailed Lloyd Richards—they couldn’t conceive of writing parts for women older than their mid-twenties. Parts were there, but were rare and often required actresses to ridicule themselves, as in Sunset Boulevard.
All About Eve received 14 Academy Award nominations, a record broken only by Titanic and, just this year, La La Land. It won six of those awards, including Best Picture. Those wins and nominations are well-deserved. The acting is incredible [for the most part; I have one notable disagreement with the general consensus, which I will talk about in my upcoming “Re-thinking the 23rd Academy Awards” article]. The writing is sharp and witty, but pulls off tender and emotional in all the right parts.
Like most cinephiles, I break out in cold sweats when someone asks me what my favorite movie is. I often change my answer depending on my mood and how much hand-wringing I feel like doing. But more often than not, the answer I give is All About Eve. Because of this movie I am firmly team Bette. She is so much fun to watch, and in ten years I fully plan on going to a Halloween party dressed in a black party gown, drink in hand [“martini, very dry”] and telling everyone all night long to fasten their seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Here's all the coverage we'll have on All About Eve this week:
- A look back at the 23rd Academy Awards
- Manipulation and reflection in Hollywood performance
- More on the relationship between Margo and Eve
- Related Review of Almodóvar's homage All About My Mother
- And more!