By Gary Kafer
Margo Channing stirs the olive in her dry martini. With a knowing countenance, she plucks out the garnish before swallowing the entire cocktail in one gulp. Handing off the emptied glass, Margo sidles beyond her companions, momentarily pauses on the balustrade, and turns to declare with all the ostentatiousness one might expect from an aging Broadway starlet: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
And so goes one of the most memorable moments of Bette Davis‘ keystone performance in All About Eve, a solicitous 1950 Hollywood classic that might just as well be described as one “bumpy night” of a melodrama. Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and produced by Darryl Zanuck, the film charts the dynamic rise to fame of a certain Eve Harrington, a young actress played by a cool Anne Baxter, as she connives her way into Margo’s professional and personal life to study under, and ultimately surpass, her greatest idol. What begins as an innocent tryst by a theatrical ingénue slowly unravels as a devilish menagerie of betrayal, competition, and loss. It is here that the film shines for its complex and tense screenplay, which by the way earned Mankiewicz an Academy Award.
This is all of course goes without mentioning the tour de force of the entire enterprise – the acting, which assures the film as a fixture in classic American cinema. Rounded out by George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Barbara Bates, Gary Merrill, and even a young wide-eyed Marilyn Monroe, the cast carries the screenplay into new possibilities; not only do they bring to life a unique set of characters, but they also layer the film with a meta-conceptual framework in which their roles as cinematic representations also double as theatrical representations. Engaging with All About Eve from a contemporary perspective brings to mind several other works that also blend theatrical and cinematic time and space to arrive at novel conclusions: John Cassavetes’ 1977 Opening Night, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 Synecdoche, New York, and Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (a film that was in fact directly inspired by Mankiewicz’s project).
Within the context of All About Eve, these conclusions pertain to the intergenerational conflict that crystallizes between our leading actresses, a conflict that comes full circle when Eve too adopts a young thespian hopeful under her auspices at the film’s conclusion. While much of the film’s excitement emerges from the animosity between Margo and Eve as their cinematic and theatrical lives begin to blend, one particular observation from Margo recasts the movie in a much different light: “There’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman.” Here, it might be possible to understand the narrative as a cultural conflict that induces strain between our protagonists to all achieve the ideal image of “woman,” which finds haunting visual parallels in the film’s final shot as the reflection of Eve’s protégée bursts into a million copies in the double-mirror. Unfortunately, much of the same conflicts exist today, and perhaps Mankiewicz was not successful in seeking change from his scathing commentary. But for what it’s worth, All About Eve inspired a whole new generation of theatrical patronage and acting exemplars from which greater possibilities have come for both the stage and screen.
Gary Kafer, originally from southern Virginia, earned his B.A. in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently enrolled in the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago with a concentration in Cinema and Media Studies.
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