In Joseph Mankiewicz’s classic, catty exploration of female ambition and envy, famous Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis in one of her most memorable turns) faces the sly machinations of her protege Eve (a pert Anne Baxter). Eve begins as an adoring fan who has purportedly travelled cross-country to watch Margo’s various stage performances over the years. With her deceitful backstory calculated for maximum impact, she ingratiates her way into Margo’s orbit as a suspiciously attentive secretary.
On the face of it, it may seem that the focus of Eve’s obsession is success as a theatre actress and the superficial plaudits attached to it. If she needs to copycat, undermine, and usurp her idol, Margo Channing, that’s just healthy collateral damage. With its timelessly snappy and sophisticated dialogue, All About Eve fundamentally seems to understand the fawning faux-ingenue routine used by ambitious young women to get to the top - giving them space to be complex, sympathetic, vain, and unlikeable all at once, at times.
But there’s a second string obsession in Mankiewicz’s film; it’s Margo’s own preoccupation with youth and beauty. ‘You know what I feel about this age obsession of yours,’ her (younger) boyfriend Bill tells her. Throughout the film, Davis makes numerous brittle comments about women and aging, and her increasing wariness of Eve causes the men around her to accuse her of jealousy and spite. But Margo is clear in her convictions: she’s hit forty and the world sees that as a weakness. So does her adoring secretary.
It’s a vicious cycle, given that young hopefuls seem to be forever nipping at the heels of aging actresses, and Margo is right to intuitively worry about her position at the top of the heap. In fact, in the last part of the movie - when Eve becomes successful as a stage actress - she gets her own little shadow; a young girl who tries on her clothes and fawns over her every movement, just as she once did to the established Margo. Obsessive fans can easily become jackals. It’s perfect karma, and a clever full-circle commentary on the brutality of show business. With ageism around Hollywood actresses as salient a topic as it ever was, All About Eve registers with just as much vitality and prescience as it did on release.
Christina Newland writes on Film and Culture, with work in the Guardian, Little White Lies, Sight & Sound and mubi Notebook.