“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. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman.”
With the record for most Oscar nominations at 14, including a Best Picture wins, All About Eve is truly a classic film. One of the first fifty movies inducted into the National Film Registry and sitting at an impressive 14 on the AFI Top 100, it’s one of the most significant stories to come out of American cinema. Well, the name sounded familiar, but I had no idea what this thing was even about when I watched it. It gets a lot of attention for being one of the first films with Marilyn Monroe in it. This seemed intriguing, but it’s a tidbit that fell to the wayside upon actually watching the film. With a wonderfully crafted story and some of the best performances of the black-and-white era, All About Eve is one of the most surprising delights I’ve seen in a while.
What you’re led to understand immediately is that this is a film about someone’s rise to power, that someone being the beautiful young actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). The movie opens with a scene in which Eve accepts a prestigious stage acting award, suggesting she’s made it to the top of the game. Then we jump back roughly a year to find Eve as a lowly theater patron making her way through the streets, friendless and harmless. She soon finds her way into the life of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a beautiful but aging leading actress whom Eve adores. Through charm and wit, Eve manages to become Margo’s friend, then assistant, and then performance understudy. As their friendship gives way to a heated rivalry, you see a transformation in Eve unlike most any other character in a movie, and your perception of the film forever changes when you find out what Eve is really capable of.
There’s quite a few factors behind the success of the movie, but I think the story itself is at the center of it. It’s such a fresh concept: the rise of an ingenue through the world of professional theater. What makes the story so juicy, however, is the relationships. From the opening scene in which Eve’s former friends glare coldly as she receives her award, you know that some divide comes between them, but it’s hard to imagine such a sweet character as Eve being at fault. For the first part of the film, she’s nothing but courteous and gracious to her new friends for the connections she’s allowed and the care they give her. Then you start to see the real Eve Harrington, one of the most cunning snakes in cinema, the saboteur and the obsessive backstabber. In her lust for the spotlight, Eve proves herself willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the top. We even come to learn that this isn’t a change that comes about in Eve’s character, but she has been deceitful from the start. It’s a long, calculated ruse which brings Eve from obscurity to the top of the world at the expense of her friends. The film also makes sure that things aren’t too perfect for our shining heroine. Some mistakes along the way cost her greatly, and while she gets away clean with her rise to stardom, accumulated baggage will seemingly plague her for the rest of her life.
Four women in the film were nominated for acting Oscars, and they’re all worthy of recognition. While the titular Eve is played beautifully by Anne Baxter, with enough charm and wit to fool both the audience and the other characters, the real star of the movie is Margo. Bette Davis nails the cynicism of an actress on the decline. Her character never fools herself into believing she’s a star forever, and her 40th birthday takes the character into a dismal sort of melancholy that marks some of the finest acting in the film. While I wish we could have gotten a cleaner face-off between Margo and Eve towards the end of the film, their rivalry is written with such fire and precision that you can’t take your eyes off either of these actresses. Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm also bring strong performances as Birdie and Mrs. Richards, respectively. They show opposing sides in respect to how they approach Eve, with Birdie showing an immediate, sour disdain for Eve’s facade which Mrs. Richards is more sympathetic to believe. When we see Celeste Holm give a horribly defeated performance towards the end of the film, we remember Thelma Ritter’s warning from the start that Eve was not one to be trusted.
I’m always attracted to films about ambition, what people will do on the path to greatness, and All About Eve is another masterpiece of this category. We see Margo facing her decline as a younger, fresher actress rises through the scene, suggesting that it’s all just a continuous game. A central message of All About Eve is that nobody stays on top forever, but it’s also a film that questions whether being on top is worth the price, as evident by the friends Eve has to betray and the way her life is altered as a consequence of her actions. The film even presents a young woman at the very end, looking into the mirror while holding Eve’s trophy and draping herself in Eve’s wardrobe. It’s an image which leaves us with a reminder: we’re only watching a small piece of a cycle, one that continues to this day. It’s a commentary about age and stardom that still holds true for modern audiences, and it makes All About Eve a timeless film, well worth of the label of classic.
Films Left to Watch: 927