“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
All About Eve was one of those films I’d always heard about, but had never seen. It’s revered as a classic film, and set a record for number of Oscar nominations (14) that was not matched for 47 years and has never been surpassed. It’s widely regarded as one of the smartest films of its time. Watching it for the first time in 2020, I wondered how it would hold up without the rose-colored lens of nostalgia to help me view it. I’m happy to say this is absolutely still a great film, and it lives up to the hype. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, A Letter to Three Wives) and starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, this is a film with great performances, a smart script, and some intriguing commentary on Hollywood that’s stood the test of time.
The plot follows two characters: Margo Channing, an accomplished actress turning 40 and wondering if her age means the twilight of her career, and Eve Harrington, a sweet young woman who idolizes Margo and dreams of being famous like her. Eve connects with Margo and becomes her assistant, and eventually her understudy in the theatre. When Margo misses a show and Eve steps in to play her role, Eve receives high praises and critical acclaim, making her what Margo once was: the woman everyone is talking about. As Margo feels her career slipping away and Eve rises to the top, Margo begins questioning how much of it is Eve simply being the right place at the right time and how much is intentional scheming on her part. And as Eve becomes more successful, Margo has to question what it is that she really wants out of life.
Funny business, a woman’s career—the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.
There’s a lot to like in All About Eve, from the complex characters to the sharp dialogue to the surprising moral ambiguity. This film is firmly classic, but holds up well among more modern films that have benefited from the learned lessons of decades of cinema before them. I’ll admit, I’m not the type of movie-watcher that automatically loves all classic films; they have to grip me as a modern viewer, and some classics don’t do that anymore. All About Eve definitely does, though, and the tension kept me glued to the screen for the duration. I loved the growing conflict between Margo and Eve, and how their friends were forced to pick sides. I didn’t find myself necessarily cheering for anyone, I just watched to see how it all would play out, and that’s a difficult thing to achieve.
Bette Davis put on a terrific performance as Margo Channing and was one of the highlights of the film. David had a reputation as a perfectionist and had gone as far as rewriting dialogue for some of her previous characters. In fact, Edmund Goulding, one of her previous directors, contacted director Joseph L. Makiewicz when he found out she had been cast and warned him that “she would grind him down into a fine powder.” The sharp screenplay made an impression on David, however, and she didn’t want to change a thing. Mankiewicz found her to be one of the most professional and agreeable actresses he’d ever worked with. This is one of those rare cases where a brilliant actress was matched with a brilliant script and they just worked flawlessly together.
This was an interesting watch because, as a protagonist, Margo was not entirely admirable. She had major flaws, although she was aware of these and accepted her shortcomings. At the same time, Eve, as an antagonist, was morally complex and even relatable throughout many parts of the film. I hesitate to call Eve an antagonist at all, because she runs the gamut from antagonist to the second protagonist, and I will say that the ending got me thinking more about the character of Eve. If you’re looking for hard lines and good guys and bad guys, this film will disappoint; but the characters have stood the test of time and many characters even today fail to reach these levels of depth.
All About Eve is regarded as one of the best films of all time, and it’s for good reason: the intelligence, complexity, and execution of this film are all top-notch. It initially made a comment on how Hollywood latches onto the new hot talent and callously disposes of older actresses, and that’s somewhat less poignant and relevant today, but the film still stands up well as a tense drama showing a cat-and-mouse game between a rising star and a respected actress in the twilight of her career. If you’re on the fence about classic films, this is still one you should check out. If you’re a classic film fan and you haven’t seen this one, this is absolutely an essential film.
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz