Shakespeare turned 450 this week, so let’s take a look at a film that illustrates one of his most famous statements: “All the world’s a stage.” True, As You Like It isn’t actually quoted in All About Eve; instead, a darker variation on the sentiment, the “Life’s but a walking shadow” soliloquy from Macbeth, is referenced. But contrary to what Lloyd Richards might argue, the atmosphere of All About Eve is comedy, not tragedy. As a satire on an entertainment industry that punishes actresses for getting older, it draws immediate comparison to Billy Wilder’s Hollywood noir Sunset Boulevard, but tonally, the two films are polar opposites. There is neither violence nor madness to be found in this film, just a clear-eyed and piercing look at an industry that trades on illusion. No stage acting is portrayed in the film, but that doesn’t feel like a loss. The characters in All About Eve never stop acting.
Such is certainly the case for Eve Harrington. She’s the antagonist of the film for the simple reason that the story is never told from her point of view. (Three other characters provide voice-over narration at one time or another.) The audience learns almost nothing about her interior life beyond the fact that she wants to be a star and will do anything to become one. All the rest is an act. First, she plays the role of the naïve girl harboring a harmless obsession with her idol, the Broadway star Margo Channing. Sycophancy ensconces her in Margo’s inner circle until she finally gets an audition and the subsequent attention of an influential critic. As her star begins to rise, she quickly embraces the prima donna role, burning all bridges behind her. In every moment, she’s calculating how best to manipulate reality to fit the story she wants to write for herself. When she wins her acting award, it’s easy to see it as recognition for how she became “Eve,” not for a particular performance in a play. (Indeed, starting from scratch, she makes herself a star in only eight months. Anything in Footsteps on the Ceiling to top that? I doubt it.)
Margo also does her share of offstage acting, as a few characters acknowledge (including herself). The manipulation of reality has become a desperate necessity for her. Life asks her to play a forty-year-old woman, while the stage demands that if she wants to remain a star, she’ll have to keep on pretending she’s in her twenties. This is why Eve has set her sights on Margo. The time is right to take the parts once reserved for the aging actress. Margo’s career and life have so fused that a threat to one is a threat to both. At first she resists the usurper, but eventually she surprises everyone by taking on a thoroughly different role. This decision might be regressive from a feminist standpoint, and it might settle the main conflict of the story with a few scenes left to play, but the grace it lends to this film stands in stark contrast to all the backstabbing and sarcasm that precede it. Margo makes an elegant transition to a new stage of life, and she doesn’t sacrifice any happiness to get there. That’s a performance worth emulating.
The entire film is a performance, in fact — Hollywood playing its older sibling, Broadway. The point is not to poke fun at the foibles of the legitimate stage or make a case for the superiority of movies, but to show that, as theater director Bill Sampson explains in one scene, Hollywood and Broadway are part of the same big family. They both trade in “magic and make-believe.” But they have more than a few flaws in common, as well. So All About Eve takes a few jabs at the movie business, too. In essence, the film is less about the “particular abnormalities” of a specific industry than it is about general principles, and so it makes itself something of a hybrid of movies and plays. This is my response to complaints that the film is “stagy.” Of course it is; that’s the point. The film can uncover truths about the culture surrounding stage plays because it understands how they work. It derives its visual pleasures from the same things they do: performances, blocking, costumes, and props. The foundation on which the film rests is not direction, cinematography, or editing. It’s the script.
And that script, by Joseph Mankiewicz (who also directed), is a gem, one of the greatest ever written. It tells the story so thoroughly, and with such verbal firepower, that I can imagine it being pure pleasure to sit back and read — the rare screenplay that doesn’t feel like an incomplete experience in and of itself. It’s literate without being pretentious, bringing Shakespeare, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Our American Cousin, Beaumont and Fletcher (“All playwrights should be dead for 300 years!”), and Thespis into the mix as high-class punchlines. The metaphors are evocative and precise — the light shining atop the tower, the piano that thinks it wrote a concerto, “killer to killer/champion to champion.” Above all, the script is generous with its wit. Every character gets to reveal intelligence and insight. These people know each other extremely well.
The cast returns the favor. Everyone is great in this. Bette Davis during the dinner party sequence gives quite possibly one of the greatest performances by anyone, ever. Ranging from romantic jealousy to Liebesträum-soaked gloom to bitter frustration and anger, she downs cocktails and shoves her hands into the pockets of her Edith Head-designed dress without ever losing the ability to find just the right words to cut to the bone. The relationship between Margo and Bill mirrors the relationship between the actors playing them (Davis and Gary Merrill got married before the film was even released), which gives their scenes together an extra charge. Meanwhile, Anne Baxter as Eve and Thelma Ritter as Margo’s assistant Birdie use blocking as a tool for character development. The suspicious Birdie barrels into the upstart Eve’s path, and Eve simply steps aside without appearing to acknowledge the other woman’s existence. This happens in two separate scenes. So much of this film’s appeal is verbal that even little moments like that stand out. And finally, there’s Marilyn Monroe, in one of her first film appearances, making an impression in a role that was explicitly designed not to make an impression. George Sanders and Celeste Holm take full advantage of juicy parts, but Monroe makes poor Miss Casswell into a vivid self-portrait. Sanders’ character, Addison DeWitt, can see her career “rising in the east like the sun” even as he mocks her acting ability. History has given this film even more pathos than it produces on its own.
I’ve done some acting before, but to say that I truly understand the life these people have made for themselves would be a stretch. Still, there’s enough familiarity for me to respond to this film every time I see it. The characters in All About Eve love art, they love drama, but they also know how to step back and critique these things, as well as themselves. The film itself shares this attitude. Acting is a wonderful gift. There just needs to be a deeper self informing the public performance. Otherwise, life is hollow. It becomes an endless cycle of self-promotion, “signifying nothing.” That’s not a show anybody wants to see.