A witty, sometimes vicious look at an intergenerational rivalry between two actresses and the social circle around them, one rising and the other falling, All About Eve is a movie about actors that is a showcase for its actors, leading to five acting nominations (the only one who won was the sole man nominated, which is kind of funny), and an enduring reputation as one of the great movies. Well, I’m not enamored of movie stars or actors, so the display works less on me, but there’s still a whole lot to enjoy in the film. It’s another shining example of how Classic Hollywood worked, bringing talent around a singular idea driven by a central creative force to create an entertaining package.
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being honored with a great acting award and all of her friends are there, looking rather glum and displeased with her. Narrated by the theater critic Addison Dewitt (George Sanders), we’re introduced to the theater director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the screenwriter Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), the producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), and the older actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). We then go back about a year to when Eve was a nobody waiting outside the stage door of Margo’s current performance, shyly begging for an audience with the great actress through Karen, getting it, giving her sob story about losing a husband in the war before she saw Margo in a San Francisco production and deciding that she had to become a Margo acolyte. Margo is taken in by the sob story and flattery, deciding to let Eve tag along for the evening where she has to say goodbye to her beau, Bill, who is off to Hollywood to direct a film.
Eve quickly ingrains herself in Margo’s life, and Margo sees no problem with it. Eve is dedicated and capable, including arranging a call at midnight California time for Margo to wish Bill a happy birthday. On the surface, everything is great, but it doesn’t sit well with Margo’s long-serving assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who simply does not like Eve, seeing her as a calculating, underhanded young woman who obviously wants something from Margo.
Everything turns during Bill’s return party, a grand affair of top theatrical personalities in New York, where Eve moves from quietly ingraining herself into Margo’s life to making moves to replace Margo. It’s this scene where I think the film goes from mildly entertaining and witty to actually engaging, and it has everything to do with Anne Baxter’s performance as Eve.
Eve is a viper, and the film ultimately becomes a twisted love story between two vipers, but as the wide-eyed innocent just looking to ingratiate herself with the star she’s loves, the movie is just not as interesting. There’s witty banter all around, and performances are universally excellent with the early half really focused on Bette Davis’ Margo with the ideas focused around a forty-year-old woman coming to the realization that she’s too old to play twenty-year-old parts anymore (Lloyd’s specialty, it seems). There’s certainly a meta-aspect about it all, giving Davis a few scenes to essentially play herself, but to those who don’t worship movie stars, this is only so interesting. Narratively, Eve striking out and supplanting Margo is much more entertaining.
Eve’s still partially hidden, so she’s able to convince Max to assign her as Margo’s understudy and Karen to delay Margo from coming back into the city one weekend so that Eve can play the central role one performance, a performance that happens to include all of the city’s major critics, including DeWitt, in the audience. This is all made possible by Eve using DeWitt’s attempts at promoting the career of Claudia (Marilyn Monroe), a hopeless cabana girl and wannabe actress who wants an audition that Margo promises to help with but is late to because she’s always late to everything, leading to Eve doing the reading with Claudia, impressing everyone. The rest of the moves are inevitable at this point. The veneer of Margo has been shattered by showing that someone else can play the part in Lloyd’s plays who is more age appropriate to the roles, that Eve’s talent is just as great as Margo’s, and that Margo is a prima donna past her prime.
The height of this film is when DeWitt, seemingly a happy patsy for Eve’s rise to stardom, turns the tables on her during an out of town premiere of Lloyd’s new play where he reveals he knows her true past, her lies that got her there, and we watch the two completely shed all of their facades just to confront each other. It’s a Hollywood version of the sorts of things that Bergman would do a couple of decades later on television, and, as written by Joseph Mankiewicz, it’s a witty, amusing scene that pits two well-written characters against each other.
The acting world seems awful and full of awful people, and it entertains me.
My problems with the movie are small. I find the second half more entertaining than the first, and I’m disappointed that Thelma Ritter disappears from the movie at about the halfway point. She’s easily the most entertaining part of the first half, playing her typecast role of the smarmy, cynical handmaiden like she played in Rear Window, and I’m always up for her to snarky more. But that’s it.
There’s a nice circular nature to the structure so it ends pretty much where it begins, implying that this star chasing is never ending, that fame is always fleeting, and that there’s always going to be another generation just around the corner looking to supplant the current generation. That George Sanders is the only actor in the film to actually win an Oscar for the film is kind of funny for a couple of reasons. First, Sanders rarely seems like he’s acting across his career, essentially using his accent and his own witty demeanor to carry him through Hollywood productions. The other is that this is a woman-centric film where the women dominate, and the four female performances were pitted against each other, two in the leading category and two in the supporting category, seemingly canceling themselves out and leading to actresses in other films winning. The Oscars are dumb anyway, so this just tickles me.
Anyway, All About Eve really is an entertaining film. I think it’s a bit overpraised, but just a bit. That probably has something to do with the fact that I really couldn’t care less about Hollywood stars, so Bette Davis imitating Tallulah Bankhead (not really, apparently) while baring her soul on screen don’t mean much to me. I would have definitely voted for Sunset Blvd. if I had been an Academy voter that year, is what I’m saying.