Since it is a medium and world dominated by larger-than-life people, situations and obviously egos, it makes sense that the backstage shenanigans of great theater would make…great theater. “All About Eve,” Joseph Mankiewicz’s spectacular, acid-soaked love letter/brutal deconstruction of the high society of New York theater in the ’50’s is perhaps the most iconic, well-known movie about this world, and deservedly so. The allure of fame, and how it is dispersed like a warped form of currency, is covered so extensively that it might as well be tracked by the New York Stock Exchange. The story of a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ingenue from Wisconsin who becomes the usurper of the career of middle-aged Broadway legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis, a legend in real life) is eternally wicked stuff, especially in world built by Mankiewicz and this incomparable stable of actors.
This allegedly wholesome climber is the title character, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), who treats the grand stage of Broadway like a second home. She idolizes Margo, watching every performance of the middlebrow play written by Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) she’s trapped in even though she’s way too old to play a young, murderess wife. Eve makes her way back stage, thanks to Richards’ sweet-natured, worldly wife Karen (a wonderful Celeste Holm). Eve’s chronicle of idolatry and slaving away in a brewery in Milwaukee, along with her constant digressions about the overpowering awesomeness of Ms. Channing, captivates Margo, and she hires Eve as her assistant, But Eve has plans that go beyond picking up Margo’s cigarette butts and scheduling appointments. She wants the spotlight that seems to follow Margo everywhere she goes.
We don’t get any scenes of Margo acting in her play, but we don’t need it. This film is about the performances these people give in the world around the stage, in their secretive inner lives. Writer/director Mankiewicz apparently knew very little about the world of stage acting, but as a Hollywood lifer he did know how the powerful and egotistical bounced off each other, so the minor details about stage craft didn’t matter. What does matter? The film’s screenplay, and how we should all bow down to it. Good dialogue can liven up a conventional narrative; great dialogue can be a special kind of music. We get just as much of a charge from listening to it as the actors must get when they deliver it. Witty, brutal, satirizing Hollywood at every opportunity, every line just crackles, bringing every aspect of this world to life. There’s Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders who was literally the voice of caustic wit, as the cynical theater critic whose daily newspaper column can shoot a career into the stratosphere and bring it crashing back to Earth by the evening edition, who has a taste for vapid, dull ingenues (Marilyn Monroe in her film debut). There’s Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the ambitious stiff of a director with aspirations toward Hollywood, who is Margo’s lover and plaything in equal measure. The Richards’ are the voices of reason, but even they can’t bend to the will of the massive self-regard that exudes from everyone around them.
At the center of this self-obsessed storm of sarcasm and duplicity? Eve and Margo. Bette Davis treats the Mankiewicz dialogue like the feast it is, and tears through it with reckless abandon. Margo Channing isn’t that far off from Davis’ off-screen persona. Chain-smoking, drowning herself in martinis, running on bitterness as deep as the crow’s feet around her enormous, iconic saucer-like eyes, Davis rips through any pre-conceived notions that stars are eternal and idols of romanticism. It’s a deconstruction of what happens to actresses of a certain age. 1950 was also the year of “Sunset Boulevard,” where Gloria Swanson portrayed a silent film star who blew way past irrelevance into full-on madness. Margo isn’t crazy. She’s demanding, paranoid, intimidating for sure. But these two performances were a shock to Hollywood’s hollow, cruel system. Margo isn’t in the “pictures,” but the hurt that 40-year-old actresses feel in this world is still an inconvenient truth in contemporary pop culture as well. It’s a performance that is also an autopsy.
But the film is “All About Eve,” as DeWitt tells us in the film’s prologue, where the blood drawn from Eve’s carnivorous vocational escalation is writ on the faces of everyone at the awards banquet honoring her meteoric rise as an actress. Ann Baxter’s performance is hard to grasp at first. She seems mannered, calculated, not as much at ease with Mankiewicz’s peerless dialogue as everyone else. But that may be deliberate. We are just as puzzled and intrigued by her as Margo and co. are. She’s constantly underestimating herself, even though she goes from being Margo’s assistant, to her understudy, to being, well, basically Margo herself through Machiavellian machinations. Baxter’s performance grows in power as her ambition escalates. It’s hard to compete with a performance as ferocious and magnetic as Davis’ but Eve is the reason why Margo is so fascinating. Eve Harrington is a product of fandom turned virile, but also of the contrast that dominates the peformance industry; young taking over old, fresh replacing the stale.
“All About Eve” came at a time when Hollywood films started to examine what the cogs of the entertainment industry do to those who built it. There are plenty of Margo Channings in the world, but even more Eve Harringtons. For everyone involved, at a certain point that red curtain starts to resemble a guillotine.