The genius of All About Eve (1950) is that it does not drag out its fairly obvious premise that Broadway star Margo Channing’s enthusiastic, young super-fan, Eve Harrington, is deviously plotting her own career rise at Margo’s expense. Barely a quarter of the way into the film, Margo (Bette Davis) has already deemed Eve (Anne Baxter), whose fandom and sycophancy she’d rewarded with a personal assistant job, a threat to her career and boyfriend. In true theatrical fashion, Margo unleashes her first wave of retaliation by drunkenly making a scene at her own party.
Frustrated by her boyfriend Bill’s refusal to coddle what he views as unchecked vanity, Margo’s mood is set to high voltage by the time her first guests arrive. If she had been banking on her friends’ support, her hopes are dashed as her they immediately fawn over Eve. Playwright Lloyd extols Eve’s “quiet graciousness” (in contrast to Margo’s brash grandeur), producer Max comments on the feminine new tidiness Eve has brought to the house, and best friend Karen puts the final nail in her ego coffin, saying, “Nothing you’ve ever done has made me as happy as your taking Eve in.” These attacks on all fronts set Margo down an increasingly childish – and hilariously witty – path, one to which her friends are all-too accustomed, ultimately setting up one of the great lines in cinematic history.
Karen: “We know you. We’ve seen you like this before. Is it over, or is it just beginning?”
Margo (while combatively killing a martini and wallking away): “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
And bumpy, it is. What should have been a celebratory night for Margo spirals into self-destructive paranoia, with each move of hers downplayed or eclipsed by her guests. When notoriously catty gossip columnist Addison DeWitt turns up uninvited, he arrives toting around a perfect distillation of Margo’s worst fear: a blonde bombshell played by – who else? – a young Marilyn Monroe. Seeing the ease with which a predatory writer, a rising starlet and her newly-minted nemesis handle themselves, Margo succumbs to her insecurities and chases one martini and pointed barb after another, leaving no threat unremarked.
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz crafts what could have been a mediocre tale of woman pitted against woman into a thoughtful consideration of the ageism, sexism, anxiety, and insecurity to which women, especially those in show business, are subjected. Within the frame story of an aging actress struggling with her relevance, Mankiewicz presents a deliciously comic portrait of both problems and solutions, without resorting to one-dimensional characters or clunky moralizing. Instead, as the party scene so exquisitely proves, his characters are allowed to make mistakes and grow – or not – from them. Margo is not the preyed-upon victim a lesser film would make her, but a sharp, intuitive and proactive lead character in a world of boundless aspirations.