As I sit writing about All About Eve on the eighty-ninth eve of the Academy Awards, it’s hard not to think about the ego and artifice surrounding the basic nature of any good actor. After all, what makes a good actor if not an amazing liar and master manipulator? For the men and women devoted to theater life in Eve, the unreal becomes the real, and the truth becomes mired in falsity and performance with identity serving as a battleground for insecurities and insatiable egos. If it’s true that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then how is it possible to know the real truth about any of the players in All About Eve?
Bette Davis’s Margo Channing is a woman who does not know herself except as the characters she plays—an argument that could be made for Davis in real life—and Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington is a case study in manipulation. Both women need the stage to create their identities, yet their performance does not end with the fall of the curtain—life itself becomes the ultimate performance in both cases. An identity crisis is bound to keep them in cyclic conflict, with Margo even admitting at one point that “so many people know me—I wish I did.”
The roles Margot plays and the stories she performs for her audiences feed her ego and earn her acclaim, but ultimately they also remove her from her own identity. Likewise, Eve’s entire identity is a falsehood, making it impossible to know anything about her.
Eve introduces herself to her hero Margo through a performance... the telling of her own “story,” which is later revealed to be a complete fabrication. It’s such a convincing performance that Margo even cries afterwards, falling victim to the same “cheap sentimentality” that she later claims to despise. The filmmaking convinces the audience of Eve’s integrity as well; a slow pan in on Baxter during her convincing tale manipulates us, the audience, into believing [in some part] her story as well.
But the cause of Margo’s tears comes from the fact that Eve’s story is an act; for Eve and Margot, everything is performance. Their performances are a way to deceive people into loving them, and the ultimate goal when the curtain drops is to receive this love in the form of applause from strangers. These thunderous accolades are just like earning a shiny gold award to fill the place where a heart should be. But in the end, isn’t this at the heart of any good performance? It at least makes the idea of handing over an Oscar to Casey Affleck make more sense...
The ego at the heart of Eve’s story explains the title—everything is all about Eve, even when Margo wishes it was about her. To maintain the ego, a story always has to accommodate the leading lady—even if the role is written for someone of a different age.
Storytelling itself is an act of manipulation in All About Eve; it is a way to manipulate people’s affections and to achieve one’s own agenda. Eve manipulates several characters, including Margo and Karen, by spinning her lies around them with the storytelling finesse of a good playwright. In fact, the only person to immediately see through Eve’s bullshit is theater life outsider Birdie, who sees Eve’s manipulations and even calls out Margo’s Gertrude-esque acting when she first meets Eve. Everyone else is quick to point out and accept the idea that all of their lives are simply a performance, with numerous references made to playing their roles, acting dramatically, and comparing their real lives to the unreal theater without any real distinction between the two.
The theater is a place of acceptable artifice. Audiences know to suspend their disbelief, but for the people who make their living behind the curtain, this suspension carries on well past curtain call. As theater critic Addison DeWitt [played with appropriate menace by George Sanders] points out, “We’re a breed apart from humanity, us theater folk. We are the original displaced personalities.” DeWitt is no better than the actresses he attempts to manipulate through his writing. The critic, the director, and the playwright all have their own manipulations to enact—fortunately for them, they don’t have to also worry about their age blemishing their chances at placating their egos.
What’s interesting is that the drama also reflects the eventual reality behind the scenes of the movie, albeit through a distorted looking glass. Bette Davis married her movie-husband in real life, although after their divorce claimed that who they really fell in love with was each other’s characters. At the Oscars, Baxter and Davis’s on-screen rivalry boiled over into reality as they competed for Best Actress. It may become apparent that the cliche of the egotistical actor is a cliche for a reason: it can be completely true [the upcoming Davis-Crawford FX series Feud provides an embellished argument to this idea].
The interesting thing about All About Eve for me is how deeply [and fantastically] cynical and biting the film is toward actors, theater, storytelling, and celebrity in general. In the shadow of the Oscars, an annual ritual where we watch famous people try to out-famous each other by giving a golden idol to whoever lobbies the Academy the most, it’s important to remember what the audience looks for when we look at actors. We want to be manipulated, after all. We’re okay with crying at false representations. We will even make allowances for ridiculous behaviors from their real-life counterparts because at times the real can be difficult to discern from the unreal.
We want actors to lie to us, manipulate us, reflect our best and worst qualities, and make us tear up even when we know it’s all a ruse, a con, a parlor trick dressed up in nice dresses that sparkle under the limelight. We look to the movies for answers and truth, missing the irony of just what an illusion such stories are.
In a film like All About Eve, everyone seems to ultimately get what they want or need, but this isn’t how it works out in real life. While on some level we understand this, we still crave the illusion; we need the lies the actors provide just as much as they need the applause and trophies we bestow upon them in return.
Celebrities, whether they are actors, YouTube click-bait, or politicians, are all personified wish fulfillment, and no one seems to know wish fulfillment more than the actors in All About Eve. Margo worries as much about falling down the ladder of success as Eve works to scurry up it, and all the other characters are audience to the unfolding drama. In the end, Margo can only be free of her ego once she abandons the stage [and becomes a housewife, of course…] and Eve gets to become the hot starlet that the next hot starlet is ready to trample over in her own reach for fame. It’s a lovely cycle that is always ready to repeat itself, night after night, performance after performance, so long as there is an audience ready to submit itself to the fantasy provided, no matter how bumpy the ride may get.