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Reexamining Our Enduring Love For ‘All About Eve’

The film leers at womanhood through an ancient lens, observing three compulsory stages: the innocent maiden, the devoted mother and the bitter crone.

November 15, 2019

Ajay Aravind
Silverscreen Lining

o those who do not read, watch old movies, go on the internet, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce you to All About Eve.

69 years ago, it smashed into the silver screen, leaving a crater in which the foundation for cinematic posterity has been set. No PR, only purple prose. The film is not so much a landmark as it is an institution: not only because it was the first to achieve 14 Academy nominations, or because it has seminal rock bands named after it, but because it is just that good.

All About Eve is generally viewed as a satire of the theater ecosystem (and the strange species that cohabit within), especially in the light of its decline with the emergence of Hollywood. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

So let’s talk about Eve, all about her, in fact.

All About Eve is a tornado with two eyes, two perspectives on existing in show business from two very different women. While the parable it preaches is clearly about women, its subtext offers us evidence to the contrary. To me, the film leers at womanhood through an ancient lens, one which trifurcates it into three compulsory stages: the innocent maiden, the devoted mother, and the bitter crone.

These universal archetypes are juggled between Margo and Eve with a seamless artistry — giving us a glimpse into the choices women make for themselves. However, it also attempts to convince us that these choices are inherent— proposing bitter punishments for the slightest of digressions from the benchmark established by female anatomy.

But first things first.

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All About Eve was a universal hit—Entertainment Weekly even called it “a smooth sip of champagne with a sprinkle of arsenic”. Creative, but terribly downplayed: I prefer to see it as a radioactive cocktail (one part bark, two parts bite).

Seemingly innocuous at first, the film takes its time to build up to critical mass and then, all at once, an expanding fireball blares across the screen, taking half the room and any hope for world peace along with it — leaving the fallout to gently precipitate into some delicious melodrama. What a script, indeed!

Director/writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s derision for the Broadway types — in their “ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City” — is as clear and as robust as the industrial-strength gin that the film’s star, theater-queen Margo Channing, chugs throughout. Even Bette Davis (who plays Margo) — notorious for white-ing out screenplays and implanting her own corrections — simply surrendered to the words.

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Fine lines were made finer by the persuasive cast: Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan), and the heavily undercut Marilyn Monroe (Miss Casswell). The only man worth mentioning is theater critic/professional serpent, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders in Shere Khan’s Mid-Atlantic drawl).

Addison is cannibalized by the same world-burning hunger experienced by Ledger’s Joker, but shrewdly coats it in electrocuting wordplay. The other three male actors, Gary Merrill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), and Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian) are reduced to mere targets for the women to sharpen their acid fangs on. It even ends up as the tagline of the movie: “It’s all about women, and their men!”.

And what about all these women? All About Eve is widely hailed as a feminist masterpiece; sure, it passes the Bechdel Test with zero effort (for a film released in 1950: a monumental achievement). Its women are potent, apparently on par with the men: they take what is their due with minimum resistance.

Look at Margo Channing — Mama Bitch — on a satin evening, hands in dress-pockets, snarling caution at her unwilling passengers against unfastened seatbelts. And her inverse, Eve Harrington — like a demon moth crawling out of a Fabergé cocoon — grows from a self-effacing ingenue to cheerfully trampling her enemies under her heartless heels. (As Margo does to innocent cigarettes).

“Funny business a woman’s career,” says Margo, “the things you drop on your way up the ladder — so you can move faster — you forget you’ll need them when you go back to being a woman.”

The moral that oozes out is this: Without a man, you ain’t a woman (Who is Eve without a man’s bone?) To wit, Margo’s true form is unveiled a bleached actress; her recent fortieth birthday (“forty! four-o!”) aggravating her insecurities in both career and femininity. And she refuses to relent against her self-loathing, even when Bill Sampson, having subdued her with his all-American arms, mansplains something about how she is “a beautiful and intelligent woman; a great actress at the peak of her career.

However, at the end of the film, Margo gleefully chooses penis over profession, because “it means I’ve finally got a life to live! I don’t have to play parts I’m too old for — just because I’ve got nothing to do with my nights!” Can you blame her, though? It was hard enough to have a career as a ’50s woman, let alone keep it going into her fifties. At least this way she had a Real Man™ to fall back on.

These paranoias were simultaneously exhibited by Bette Davis. Once the sassiest star in the L.A. sky, she had bombed incessantly at the box office for most of the 1940s. This was largely due to her unorthodox nature, ever colliding with Jack Warner (one of the Bros.) and his slave-contract system, although her advanced age ensured that all the shoulders she rubbed were cold. As Anne Baxter (Eve) later reiterated, “She thought she was through, did you know that? 41 years old.”

Bette was not blind to her nature, though, admitting in her autobiography:

I was a legendary terror. I am sure I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and oft-times disagreeable.

Who else could have lain claim to Margo Channing’s bomb-proof liver? In performance, Bette was forced to confront the parallels between reality and role: all her righteous bile fermenting into Margo. (Mankiewicz declared that Margo “was the kind of dame who would treat her mink coat like a poncho!”, or, in Addison’s venomous silk, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent!”)

And she is a spectacle — those limelit eyes will forever be canonized in pop culture.

Sadly, All About Eve was not the Second Coming of Bette Davis, not nearly as much as she wanted it — because, unlike Margo, Bette was not lucky enough to decay into domesticity. Instead, she went on to weather a fourth failed marriage, unfulfilled Oscar debts, and a career that refused to be relit, despite the fiscal triumphs of more than one film.

In interviews, she claimed she was nothing like Margo, “her frenzy about her age — I have never gone through this at all.” But did she ever wonder, perhaps if her marriages hadn’t failed, perhaps if she had worked harder at being a (young/pliant) woman, then maybe she could have had her own little ’50s fantasy like Margo Sampson née Channing?

As we (most of us) know by now, the ’50s weren’t all that great for women. But they were a lot worse for POCs, and absolutely horrendous for queer folx. In fact, the latter were actively hunted by the State for being “security risks”.

This persecution extended to Hollywood, where the Motion Picture Production Code — a myopic document anointed in Cold War fears and Catholic guilt — forced filmmakers to maintain “American traditional values” in their work. It insisted, on pain of Blacklist, that queer persons/relationships were to be renounced altogether, unless said phenomena were clearly displayed as being predatory, sterile and inhuman.

All About Eve, in aligning to the norms, basks in its contempt for homosexuality, mirrored in both Addison’s catty veneer and stylized camp (gay trope), and Eve’s womanly duplicity and unwomanly spunk (lesbian trope).

For a film revered by its queer fans, it pushes no envelope for our rights.

All About Eve played straight into the toxic heteropatriarchal bullshit still freely stalking Hollywood — in timid women characters, unshattered glass ceilings, the unhappy slews of #metoo, the dearth of female authority (cast or crew) — all stifling signs that Cinema Americana remains a boys’ club.

Did you know that Editor Barbara McLean and Costumer Edith Head were nominated for and won their respective Academy Award for this movie? Neither did I until I researched for this piece, because the only other names associated with it are Producer and Director (obviously both men). Hollywood gave Margo, Eve, Karen, Birdie and Miss Casswell free will and rich personalities, but continued to sculpt their paths for them.

The very concept of feminism — a nascent ideology in postwar America — loses what tender roots it spreads in this film’s beginnings just two hours later.

None of this coterie of goddesses deserved their fate, and the shoddy attempt at crushing them only clarifies the obvious: that women are brief etchings in the male narrative: a supporting cast, if you will, who must serve, obey and bear children without complaint. Or, if you are fluent in doublespeak, Freedom is Slavery (and we all know what happened to poor Winston and Julia when they tried to rise beyond their station.)

Margo, the hysterical shrew, is tamed into womanhood through marriage and housewifery. Eve refuses to atone for her ambition — the “bitch virtuosity” that producer Daryl F. Zanuck so loved in Anne Baxter — so she is left snugly wrapped Addison’s malevolent coils.

Karen, once a happy little housewife, now a moonlighting spy, is torn between losing her marriage or her BFF. Birdie, the tough Brooklyn broad, the woman who understands men all too well, is too dangerous to leave around: She entirely disappears after the first act.

And Miss Casswell — Marilyn — who commits to her slapstick brainlessness with a genius rivalling Jack Lemmon, is bumped down to sex symbol (it seems that gentlemen prefer dumb blondes).

For bonus misogyny: Phoebe, who appears at the end of the film as a reincarnation of Eve — the same hero-glazed look in her eyes, the same rabid thirst for fame — worms her way into her Eve’s life, determined to inherit her idol’s career-driven audacity. Barely sweet sixteen, Phoebe is a warning to all the teenage girls out there — Do you want to end up like them? — against selfhood, against ambition, anything to keep them from discovering the power they could wield with each snap of their enameled fingers.

The intended, and inevitable, victors in All About Eve are the men, who have always gotten what they want: a woman willing to pledge their life to them, consent optional.

But here’s the thing: the more I rewatch the film, the more I realize that these are not women who fly too close to the sun and are disciplined for their ego (with a scorching screenplay!) They are women who believe they can fly, and while they never get to where they really want to go, they at least tried, dammit!

As American novelist Ursula Le Guin — another woman who annexed and reshaped a world populated by men — puts it: “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.

Eve, Margo, Karen, Birdie, Miss Casswell, and Phoebe, while bound to their parochial environments and fixed destinies, still manage to make their voices heard and their stories alter the course of history, regardless of how their journeys end.

These are all the women that All About Eve, perhaps unconsciously, is about.

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