How does “All About Eve” examine identity, sexism, and ageism in regards to fame and success?
The opening scene of All About Eve (1950) introduces the film’s players, including the narrator providing the introductions. “Those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live,” the voice says, “it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself.” The voice belongs to Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a theater critic and sardonic brute whose ego immediately colors his character as he offers his opinions of everyone else.
Focus is given to Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the consummate professional actress who Addison declares is a “great star, a true star,” who “never was or will be anything less, or anything else.”
With Margo, we meet Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), who is in the world of theater by marriage, not talent. Addison makes the point clear that Karen’s personality is defined by her husband. Karen is one of Margo’s closest friends despite harboring a desire to take her down a few pegs. She, as with the rest of their clique including director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) often grow tired of Margo’s melodrama, as she tends to bring the dramatics of the theater into real life. Finally, we’re introduced to Eve (Anne Baxter), the reason everyone is gathered together. The next two hours and spent observing how she sweetly and innocently wormed her way into Margo’s inner circle through endless enthusiasm and helpfulness, only to be eventually revealed as a conniving, ambition-obsessed opportunist.
All About Eve contains two major currents running through its narrative: sexism and ageism, particularly as they relate to celebrity. Margo represents the late stages of appeal as a theatrical lead. She’s still playing roles written for 24 year-olds when she’s twice that age, finding herself jealous and insecure about the younger crop of talent she knows is soon to replace her. There’s a very real, very legitimate, very believable fear of aging dominating Margo—something every person deals with but that those whose careers depend on appearance feel even more poignantly.
When her lover Bill goes to Hollywood to shoot a film, Margo’s worried she will lose him to a younger starlet. When Eve moves in to become Margo’s secretary and assistant, Margo is quickly irked by the men in her life issuing compliments about Eve’s gracious nature. This is especially true with the 32 year-old Bill, who “looks 32, looked it five years ago, and he’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.” Even though Bill only has eyes for Margo, she brings it upon herself to take every kind word he offers about Eve as a personal attack.
Bill : “Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?”
Margo: “It hasn’t been laid out, we haven’t finished with the embalming. As a matter of fact, you’re looking at it - the remains of Margo Channing, sitting up. It is my last wish to be buried sitting up.”
Eve represents everything Margo used to be and the force Margo knows is coming to take her place. The film employs various tactics to show Eve’s evolution into Margo before we as audience members even realize Eve’s duplicity. Wardrobe is one approach—the first time we meet Eve, she’s practically dressed like a man in a trench coat and hat. Later, she’s wearing one of Margo’s old dresses that doesn’t fit Margo anymore. By the time Bill’s birthday party arrives, the two are dressed like equals, wearing similar-quality gowns that are of indistinguishable status. Finally, by the conclusion, Eve is performing in a role intended for Margo, replacing her on the stage.
Eve, while talented, has to connive her way to the top of the ladder. She’s revealed as someone who doesn’t have the means to make it without deceit. The theater culture in All About Eve presents itself as a man’s world from the first moment we see an elderly actor presenting the Sarah Siddons award to Eve. Both Bill and Lloyd are viewed as successful without being devious, as though they’ve earned their respective statuses solely through their artistry. They haven’t given up any part of their self to make it in the business or had to resort to nefarious methods of getting attention. The cinematography often exists from a male perspective, when the male characters are positioned higher than the females they overpower. Margo is similar in that she’s a natural talent, but she feels she’s had to sacrifice much of herself to become who she is. Margo holds resentment toward Karen’s existence as a happy housewife, yet her contempt comes from a place of desire. She doesn’t feel like a woman because she is single.
“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 go back to being a woman.”
“That’s one career all females have in common - whether we like it or not. Being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it.”
The problem of Margo’s character is essentially solved by a very sudden out-of-character decision to marry Bill and to surrender her role in Lloyd’s upcoming play (a role which, of course, went to Eve). Her speech announcing her intent finishes with the sentiment, “nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.” Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz clearly wrote that line as a man rooted in the culture of the 1950s, coming to the conclusion that Margo’s continued career was sacrificial to the necessity of becoming a wife.
There also exists buried sexism in the fact Lloyd only writes plays focused on 20-something characters, as if a story depicting an older woman would have no interest to anyone. This is despite repeated claims that he writes plays specifically for Margo. He talks about having to compromise, since he writes plays for Margo but designs the characters much younger than she—as if the alternative has never occurred to him. Lloyd could easily keep Margo’s career going with shows centered around an older character, but that’s not the culture they feed. DeWitt writes in his column about “the lamentable practice in our theater of permitting, shall we say, mature actresses to continue playing roles requiring a youth and rigor of which they retain but a dim memory.” Those actresses may be interested in roles for older women if they existed, but he also seems keen to ignore that they don’t.
Thematically, like with the evolving costumes of Eve, Mankiewicz employs other cinematic means of exploring identity. Mirrors link to the concept of identity throughout the picture and reflect not only the importance of appearance to the film’s characters but also the many faces of ambition. The mirror in Margo’s dressing room when she first meets Eve serves as an icon. Eve appears as an adoring fan when she has actually just launched a plan to steal Margo’s identity. Eve later dances in front of a mirror while holding Margo’s costume—an act paralleled in the film’s final scene, when Phoebe (Barbara Bates) shows up in Eve’s room and does the same thing, restarting the sequence.
Eve doesn’t even seem to realize that Phoebe is pulling the same wool over her eyes that she had just used to blind Margo. However, scene speaks volumes to the themes of ageism and the dark fears hounding the celebrity identity that still ring true today. As soon as a star finds her way to the top, there’s always another younger, talented, ambitious person waiting in the wings.