The Cinephile: All About Eve

The Redeeming Culture Cinephile is our new series about classic films; we hope you enjoy another look at some of the formative films in cinema history.

All About Eve is not only intelligent and real; it is also sharp. Very few lines in this movie don’t deserve quoting. It’s a popular misconception that the writing and acting in all classic, black and white Hollywood movies is over dramatic and simplistic; yes, there are a lot of bad old movies that do that (and a fair amount of good ones), but one refreshing thing about All About Eve is that it is so realistic about how people actually behave and speak. What stylization there is makes sense among people who live in the world of theater. It’s just their cultural language, but these groups of friends talk and sound like real friends do, whether lounging in a dressing room or sitting together on the stairs. Those times are when people level off. Producer, director, hand-servant to an actress, all are equal in these chats. In life, when real things are being discussed, no one is a respecter of persons.

All About Eve also understands* interpersonal manipulations at a deep level: how they work, how they can be maintained, and how they can be subverted. Fortunately, the film’s emotional IQ is off the chart—not just compared with movies of its time, but of any time. It understands friendships in a mature way, and makes that the milieu in which the manipulations of this film happen. If it was less wise about people, the movie would be merely cynical. Instead, it dismantles the very cynicism it expresses so cleverly.

Guest of the Group

Broadly**, the plot is that a tight group of friends who work together on Broadway welcome a humble, worshipful, down on her luck fan into their fold. The group are composed of celebrated actress Margo Channing; her director and boyfriend, Bill Sampson; their playwright, Lloyd Richards; his wife Karen; and Margo’s personal assistant, Birdie. Eve Harrington is their guest (and eventual new family member); and she has designs on Margo’s career, as well as whichever male partner in the group she can dislodge and claim for her own. In the end, she gets the career.

Incidentally, as you can see, I’ll be telling you what the most of the results are in this picture. If you still haven’t seen them happen, then be encouraged that that is the film’s richness. This isn’t a mystery; it’s a fascinating process, and in that way, All About Eve is basically unspoilable.

It even begins with the results itself. Right up front, we see Eve being presented The Sarah Siddons Best Actress of the Year trophy, and as she thanks this group of friends, we see the forthcoming film on their faces. They are willfully unimpressed, not even veiling their contempt, and this movie will show us how they got there.

That Quality of Quiet Graciousness

Like a coating of silver dross on earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. Enemies disguise themselves with their lips, but in their hearts they harbor deceit. Though their speech is charming, do not believe them, for seven abominations fill their hearts.
Proverbs 26:23-25, NIV

Eve appears with what Lloyd calls, “that quality of quiet graciousness.” She is calm, polite, and deliberately humble, in both tone and word choice. She only seems to be doing good, and for a short while, almost everyone is convinced she is golden; but she seems to worship Margot.

It feels wrong. It’s over-praise. Eve is a schemer, but it seems like it would be rude to say the things someone who is onto her ought to say. Birdie does, right away; and gets shut down for it by the otherwise cynical Margo.

Better is open rebuke
Than love that is concealed.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.
Proverbs 27:5-6, NIV

Birdie has the unenviable position of being the person who is looking out for Margo with actual care, which can mean being negative when all Margo wants to hear is the positive. This difference between them doesn’t last long. Margo quickly sees how thoroughly Eve, whom she has brought in as another assistant, attends to every detail of her life, including those involving her boyfriend Bill. Pretty soon, Margo and Birdie are exchanging glances as Eve makes her controlled, gracious, polite moves.

Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.
Proverbs 20:11, NIV

Margo catches on early. She makes quips and barbs at Eve, reversing the game such that Eve is the one who must not say what she thinks. It doesn’t undo the damage Eve is causing, but it’s fun to see Margo allow her to play her game, while they both know that Margo knows it’s a game.

Scripted Social Interactions

Meanwhile, she is direct about Eve with the others. Because she is duly upset, while Eve remains calm, they don’t believe her, and defend Eve. They have fallen victim to the notion that in any conflict, the calmest person is the correct one, or at least is the adult in the room.

Sometimes that can be true, but it can also be a ploy. All About Eve is loaded with Scripted Social Interactions; and I don’t mean the script of the film, but the little culturally accepted snippets of exchanges we all absorb. They become parts of our conversations, and some use them to fence others in, conversationally. The manipulator realizes that if they say X, and say it in a certain manner, then normal social behavior all but requires the other to say Y back, rather than what they need to say, or at least to only say things which match the tone that has been established. This will prevent them from stating the direct thing which must not be allowed to be spoken aloud, that which would lay the cards on the table for all to see, rendering the jig up.

Until the end of the film, Eve keeps herself in that seemingly untouchable mode, born of behaving with a certain amount of calm and feigned humility. Since there are plenty of available reasons why Eve might sound so controlled and prepared, even while some might see through her deliberate self-presentation, we can see why others might still fall for it. She’s in a room full of strangers whom she admires, for instance. It’s credible that in such situations a person would always speak with careful planning. Never in this movie do we feel like anyone is frustratingly blind because this tightrope between slimy and appealing has rarely been walked so well as is done by Anne Baxter. Only Paul Reiser in Aliens comes to mind as a rival. Unfortunately, this kind of tonal manipulation usually works well for a while.

Karen: Eve, I’m fond of Margo too. But I know Margo. And every now and then there is nothing I want to do so much as to kick her right square in the pants.

Friends and Schemers

Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan. For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer.
Jeremiah 9:4, NIV

That’s is a little harsh, but it speaks to the film’s understanding that no one is above reproach. Karen comes up with a little scheme. Like real people, sometimes they’re very adult with each other, and sometimes they act like children. These people know each others’ foibles and character flaws, and like real friends, those things are irritations, not the ways relationships must end.

Karen doesn’t intend to overturn her career, just to help life give Margo the little smack in the fanny she thinks she needs to return to a humbler way. She notifies Eve, now Margo’s understudy, to be ready to step into the lead role on Sunday, as she plans to arrange for the car to run out of gas when they return from a weekend away. She intends the faithful wound of a friend, but she has connived, and it goes badly. Eve calls every critic in the city, and by Monday morning, she is the talk of the town, at Margo’s expense.

Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.
Psalm 41:9, NIV

Karen has caught on surprisingly late. Or maybe it’s not so surprising, since she is the standout for handling people with grace, and giving the benefit of any possible doubt. But this is seen as a stark betrayal, which breaks Eve’s relationship with the whole group; and once crossed, Karen doesn’t even bother to confront Eve, she just writes her off. She’ll speak to Eve only when it’s unavoidable, and then without the grace of which Eve has taken too much advantage.

Turning Away

But Lloyd is writing another play for Margo to star in, and Eve wants the part. She manages to have a private conversation with a brittle Karen, feigning ignorance and trying to mend fences.

A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a citadel.
Proverbs 18:19, NIV


Karen is unmoved, so Eve switches gears, offering to reveal publicly how she was warned to be ready to perform; something which would tar Karen with Eve’s ugliness, and surely end her friendship with Margo. Karen is given the alternative of talking her husband into giving Margo’s part to Eve.

A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.
Proverbs 16:28, NIV

Karen returns to the engagement celebration dinner with Margo, Bill and Lloyd. She is stricken. Given what I see of her character, I believe Karen was going to just come clean about her part in Eve’s ascendance, and hope for the best. In this film, she might have eventually been forgiven, but something else happens. She is being watched over. Before she can say anything, Margo tells Lloyd that she no longer wants to be the lead in his new play. All are astonished, so she explains:

I want everybody to shut up about Eve…Never have I seen so much elite – and all with their eyes on me. Waiting for me to crack that little gnome over the noggin with a bottle. But not tonight. Even Eve. I forgive Eve…You know why I forgive Eve? Because she’s left good behind – the four of us, together like this… I’m going to have a home. Not just a house I’m afraid to stay in. And a man to go with it …that’s for me. And no more make believe! Off stage or on. I don’t want to play “Cora.” …it isn’t the part – it’s a great part. And a fine play. But not for me anymore – not a foursquare, upright, downright, forthright married lady. I’ve finally got a life to live! I don’t have to play parts I’m too old for – just because I’ve got nothing to do with my nights!

Margo, always the center of attention, has had a deep, wholly unanticipatable change of heart, and it takes Karen right off the spot. Her laugh is amazing here. These four have been through some things, but have come out stronger, with each other. They do know what the better thing is. One fully fleshed out side character, theater producer Max, underlines this by not falling into the standard characterization of people in his position, people you wouldn’t want to be connected with.

Proverbs 23:6-7 says, “Don’t eat with people who are stingy; don’t desire their delicacies. For he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. ‘Eat and drink,’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you.” We know Max is a good man by his exemplifying the opposite of this:

MAX: Let the rest of the world beat their brains out for a buck. It’s friends that count. And I got friends.

Just Desserts

-Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 25:17, NIV

It winds up being unfortunate for Eve that it takes so long for anyone to play the truth card with her directly, dismantling her act and forcing her to be straight about her intentions. She also might have been met with some grace, eventually repaired some friendships, and still gotten the acting career she wanted, as she clearly was genuinely talented. She could have wound up in a happier place.

Instead it is critic, and sometimes narrator, Addison DeWitt who is straightforward with her; and when he does it, any pleasantness Eve might have achieved for herself through her machinations is absolutely decimated.

Having failed to woo Bill from Margo, near the film’s end she is convinced, perhaps incorrectly, that she has persuaded Lloyd to leave Karen for her, and she explains this to Addison, who has been instrumental in her rise through his writings. He has also looked into her background, and determined that most of her stories are lies, and the truths are not complimentary. It is clear that he genuinely likes Karen and her husband, and in part, he makes moves to protect them; but regarding Eve, he is merely greedy, and he bests her Machiavellianism. She will make no more moves on Lloyd because he absolutely owns her. He says it to her directly, and he backs it up. He breaks her like a cornered, imprisoned child. It is not the film’s triumph; he is nothing other than a better skilled villain. A brutal one, but hers is the villainy with which we’ve spent time, and for which we get to see justice.

In the very end we return to see her having received the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress; a Death-By-Chocolate Dessert for a chocoholic to someone so in need of adulation as she is.

Yet, she is completely joyless.

She skips a party in her honor to go home alone, and we see her being thoroughly cold and unpleasant once her walls come down, when she is alone with her own interloper. The movie ends suggesting that what she did will happen to her through this new, young character, but it also shows that she has already reaped the whirlwind in the dryness of her soul. What goes around has already come around, and for her, nothing in life remains rewarding.

What appears to be the film’s cynicism is instead the film’s insight into the realities that lie under syrupy lies and false positivities. And because the movie isn’t truly cynical, that reality isn’t all ugly. We see this in microcosm when Bill’s apparent cynicism about his very occupation winds up circumventing snobbery, a smug disease which is its own punishment, a thief of joy and insight, and commonly found in the so-called high arts. Talking with Eve early in the film, he expresses this wonderfully:

“The Theatuh, the Theatuh- (he sits forward) – what book of rules says the Theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna? (he gets up) Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band – all Theater. Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience – there’s Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don’t understand them all, you don’t like them all, why should you? The Theater’s for everybody – you included, but not exclusively – so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it’s Theater of somebody, somewhere.”

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Thanks for reading. The Redeeming Culture Cinephile seeks to examine the classics of film history through a culture-redeeming lens. Read more reviews of classic flims here.

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* Possibly like yourself, I balk a little when I hear people say things like, “The film is smart about this” or “It doesn’t know what it wants to be.” Obviously, a film doesn’t actually know anything. People do. So I could say that writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz knows these things; but for what I’m describing, so should the actors, each of them, in any moment. So should the editor and the cinematographer have to know these things. Even the composer must score the emotions with some savvy. In that sense, the easiest, and maybe best, way to talk of this is to say that “the movie knows this,” as a way of referring to all creative people and elements, to the whole troupe.

** Also, you should definitely watch this, but if you really can’t, then for a stunningly thorough synopsis, rich with quotations, you can click here.

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