Many things make All About Eve an enduring classic, but maybe chief among them is the generosity of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s script and direction. Because she gets most of the screen time and has the clearest arc, Bette Davis’s Margo Channing is the center of the story, but neither actress nor character seems to overshadow the others. The other characters have clear, relatable perspectives, and the other actors are allowed moments of their own—even, in a Hollywood innovation for 1950, occasionally speaking over each other.
And in fact, the story is narrated with voice-over from two different perspectives: Margo’s friend Karen [Celeste Holm] and the theater critic Addison Dewitt [George Sanders]. Dewitt is ultimately the framer of the story, as Karen’s narration is somehow nested inside of his; the story begins and ends [with the exception of the epilogue] with his wry, cynical perspective on the events of the story.
Dewitt is also the catalyst of the film’s turning point: it is he, in a New Haven hotel room he and Eve [Anne Baxter] are implicitly sharing, who finally, violently forces the ambitious actress to confess to her lies and betrayal, and attempts to blackmail her into continuing their implied sexual liaisons.
The haughty but apparently harmless Dewitt takes on a new aspect in this scene, as in his physical and psychological violence toward Eve we can recognize not only the evil to which his cynicism has led, but also the fragility of his ego. He demands that Eve acknowledge that she “belongs” to him. Eve retorts with a smirk that the phrase sounds medieval, and Dewitt observes coolly that “So does the history of the world for the last twenty years.”
Eve breaks out in laughter at the suggestion that she should have assumed their connection would last. Dewitt slaps her. “Now remember as long as you live never to laugh at me,” he says through clenched teeth. “At anything or anyone else, but never me.”
In 2003, the character of Eve made the AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains” list as the #23 villain in Hollywood history, but the honor should probably have gone to Dewitt. Eve in the film is something of a flat stereotype. The character betrays some degree of masculine anxiety on Mankiewicz’s part about the ambitious woman, and about the supposed particular susceptibility of women to dreams of stardom, as emphasized by the film’s somewhat reactionary ending.
Dewitt, on the other hand, is more fully realized villain, one with complex motives and character, and one whose attitude seems to me a much more pernicious one than Eve’s. Eve is a cynical capitalist, believing that anything justifies her race to the top, but Dewitt is something worse. He too has no compunctions with saying one thing and doing another, has no true beliefs but his own fulfillment.
But Dewitt also believes that because he recognizes that the world is an ugly place, that others too use cynical, “medieval” tactics, that his actions are justified. Eve cries when confronted with the truth about who she is and what she does. Dewitt hardly reacts to anything in the film with more than the raise of an eyebrow—until, that is, Eve dares to laugh at him.
Moreover, Dewitt thinks that the detachment his expertise in theater [and apparently, modern history] affords him grants him a position outside of the squabbles of the film’s true main characters. He narrates the film as if he were an outsider to the story, as if no part of it had touched him in the least. Yet we see him use his position to bed hopeful young starlets [Marilyn Monroe in her small role as Miss Casswell], and in the film’s final third that he is a central character in its development, hardly the ironically distanced narrator who began the film.
In using him as a narrator, Mankiewicz uses Dewitt as a foil—a foil for his co-narrator Karen, who is an unselfish if not perfect friend to Margo, but also one for the style of the film itself, which is so democratic. One of the things that makes All About Eve such a masterfully staged film, one whose snappy dramedy is surely as effective today as it was in 1950, is this use of multiple voices. This is a theme within scenes, as characters clash with and over each other, and in the structure of the film as a whole.
The structuring role of Dewitt’s narration makes the film’s tone a kind of competition between a [dangerously] cynical “critic’s perspective,” with its ego-shielding commentary, and the more giving “storyteller perspective,” represented both by Karen and by Mankiewicz’s direction. Does the film therefore contain a kind of Hollywoodian anti-critic statement?
I don’t think it can be so simplistically summarized. All About Eve is about the cynicism bred by show business as a business, and the nexus of poisonous personalities this creates. [In its more conservative moments, it’s also about stardom’s adverse effects on normative femininity.] As Dewitt recognizes—or thinks he does—the cynical critic and the modern star are bound by the fame and notoriety they provide one another. The film is something of a classically navel-gazing Hollywood story, making the actor’s world into a microcosm of modern existence, but memorable characters like Dewitt and the [related] intricacy of its narrative structure makes it stand head and shoulders above the countless other films set in the actors’ milieu.