Year of Release: 1950 Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and Marilyn Monroe.
As George Sanders provides his opening voiceover as the conceited theatre critic Addison DeWitt, the camera slowly zooms out from its focus on an aging actor, ignoring the actor – as DeWitt informs us we should – and instead revealing a prestigious awards ceremony, at the center of which is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). That shift of focus is apt foreshadowing of the story which follows, a story of backstage backstabbing, insecure aging actors, rising new stars, occasional romance, and a masterclass in manipulation.
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a star of the theatre; she became a star at four years old, and she will always be a star. However, Margo is aging, and at forty years old, she worries her glory days are soon going to end. After all, the good leading roles are twenty-year old characters. Compounding her insecurities are the new starlets whom Addison DeWitt touts, such as Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in a meta bit of casting before she became famous). However, Margo can be nice to the wannabes; she has far greater acting chops than any of them will ever have, so they’re no real threat to her. But Margo is also reminded of her age by her talented director boyfriend, who as a director and as a man will remain thirty-two for his entire career. And then, there’s Eve, a devoted fan of Margo’s who dreams of an acting career herself.
Unlike the other young actresses, Eve is talented, very talented. With the help of Margo’s good friend Karen (Celeste Holm), playwright Lloyd Richard’s (Hugh Marlowe) wife, Eve soon finds herself in the good graces of Margo and working as her assistant. The only person Eve fails to win over is Margo’s crusty maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who remains suspicious of the young girl who studies Margo’s every move, “as if she were a play or a book.” Given Margo’s insecurity about her age, losing her relevance, and being replaced, she soon subscribes to Birdie’s distrust as well, even as her friends find her actions and her rants more paranoid and insufferable than her usual anxieties.
If this film about the ugly backstage life of insecure famous actors with an eclectic ensemble of vibrant characters, one of whom is an intelligent yet arrogant critic, sounds kind of similar to the recent Birdman (which won the best picture Oscar sixty-four years after All About Eve did), the two films do have some thematic similarities. However, whereas Birdman opts for an ambiguously happy ending that gives all its characters a celebration which may or may not be deserved, All About Eve is unafraid to follow its characters to the end of each of their storylines, where happiness results from suffering and learning from mistakes and selfishness begets more selfishness.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz penned one of his finest screenplays for All About Eve, filled with clever references to stage productions and Hollywood films, and the entire cast turns in fantastic performances, delivering one brilliant line after another, such as “Have you no human consideration?” “Show me a human, and I might have!” This story of killers pursuing their desires of prestige and importance makes a bumpy but thrilling ride. I’m sorry, did I say “killers?” I meant champions.
Content Advisory: Some intense discord and discreet sexual references. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A+