The World, the Flesh, and All About Eve

JMJ

20th Century Fox’s 1950 masterwork, All About Eve, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also wrote the screenplay) and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, is a classic of Christian theology. Staring Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and George Sanders, at least for the purpose of the credits, it should also list St Paul, St James, and St John as writers. Even though the eponymous Eve (Anne Baxter) is the seeming focal point, the starring role of Margo Channing, more of a Mary Magdalen played by Bette Davis, is the one who gets saved. How she gets saved should put every post-modernist on edge.

If you’ve not seen the movie I have provided, on another page, a Synopsis. It lists the prologue, seven acts, and an epilogue. The following commentary is more thematic. You may want to read the synopsis first.

Synopsis (Spoilers)

Although it’s not usually classed as such, I treat this as Film Noir. Culturally, the Noir arose in the aftermath of WW2. In the economic collapse of the post-war economy and the cultural confusion that resulted from the sudden peace, men returned home, women lost their war jobs, and people tried to “be normal” again. But many rural families ended up in urban environments, there were also many refugees coming into this country. What was hoped to be “normal” ended up being very strange. Film Noir provided a cathartic release for these tensions: clipped dialogue, shady characters, confusion, but a good ending where all things work out well. And yet an undercurrent of concern and suspicion. This movie has all of the above. It takes place in a few glitzy NYC apartments, a world unfamiliar to most audiences. It has some very cardboard characters – until all the masks come off and people are people. But the ending is classic noir.

During the Prologue we are introduced to all the main characters in turn through a voiceover from Addison DeWitt. By way of this filter we learn more about Addison than we do about others: as Critic who writes for the press, Addison thinks of this world, “The Theatre,” as filled with royalty and a bloodline. He speaks of people being “of the Theatre” by birth or by marriage. Curiously, through the course of the movie, we learn that the only other person who shares this view is Eve herself. Bill will blow this idea of The Theatre out of the water indicating it includes show girls and vaudeville, radio, TV, movies… it’s not just wooden stages and a few blocks on Broadway. Margo will ignore the traditions of the theatre when it suits her, Lloyd married a young college student. Etc. So, most of The Theatre is normal people who are actors. But there are a few cultists, for whom this is everything. Maintaining the purity of the cult is very important.

The characters Lloyd and Karen do not make much of a journey in this movie. They serve as foils for Margo and Bill, but their characters do not evolve much. Karen stays the calm housewife, Lloyd is the hard-working writer. Their actions result in changes in Margo (especially) but they do not change. Addison, too, does not change. He is a snarky queen, of a sort that may be familiar to anyone who watches black and white movies of this era.

Bill does not make much of a journey himself. He’s matured: Margo says as much in one of her famous lines, “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.” He’s hit where he’s going to be for a while. Margo, however, matures a lot in the course of this movie. In fact, although the movie is called All About Eve it really is all about Margo. This is Margo’s journey. What we learn about Eve is how Margo can go wrong: Eve is Margo’s shadow. Eve falls as deep as she can. Margo rises so far and above all expectations.

Eve is an ingenue -or at least she pretends to be. Margo is in her 40s and yet tends to play 20-somethings on Broadway and act 20-something when she can’t get her way. Eve is begins to learn her own way by copying everything Margo does. Eve thinks that pretending to be like Margo will make her as Margo. Margo does not notice that’s at first, but when pretending to be like Margot results in needing to have Margo’s boyfriend and Margo’s job then things go awry. Margo finally notices the sort of theatrical Invasion of the Body Snatchers just in the nick of time and saves herself from the defenestration that would have resulted in the “cancel culture” of the day, if an elderly matron was seen to be standing in the way of a young darling of the theatre community.

What others do not see (except for Karen and Lloyd and, of course, Bill) is that Margo sidesteps Eve not by killing her or stabbing her in the back or leaking rumors to the press, but by getting married and going TradWife. This quote does not tend to make it into the “Favorite Quotes from this Movie” listing on the internet but it’s important. When Margo and Karen are talking in the car about what would make Margo happy the subject of Marriage comes up:

[Eve is…] so feminine, so helpless. The things I want to be for Bill. Funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forgot that you will 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. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it. No matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You are something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings. But you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.

The resurfaces later, after Margo and Bill announce their engagement.

Groom! (She’s addressing Bill) You know what I’m going to be? (A cowboy? He replies.) A married lady… I’m going to look up at six o’clock and there he’ll be. Remember Karen? … No more make believe off stage or on.

Salvation has come to Margo by marriage.

Margo realizes that the important things in life are brought to fulfillment in relationship. Her (future) marriage to Bill, her friendship with Karen and Lloyd and Birdie and even with Max, the producer of the play, are the real things in life. Her plays, her acting, what reviewers say about her are nice things – and yes, it’s nice to be on top of her craft – but these are not real things. They do not matter at all compared to looking up at six o’clock.

At the same time Eve falls to the very depths of depravity. Eve goes from copying Margo – especially in clothing, in voice, and in personal style – to trying to steal Margo’s place in the theatre and in Bill’s heart. Since her one goal is theatrical success without any moral underpinnings (such a cold woman with a lack of morals is another Noir trope) she doesn’t imagine love as between Margo and Bill or Karen and Lloyd has any real value. She thinks everything is playacting – not real. She wants to rewrite the script with her in it instead of Margo, but she doesn’t think she’s ruining Margo’s life… that has no value. Margo will just find another playwright, another play to be in. Nihilistic solipsism is also a Noir trope.

As Eve falls further and further she tries to steal Lloyd away from Karen. But it doesn’t matter if she succeeds or not, she only wishes to appear as if she has succeeded. It’s a play: appearance is the only thing that matters. Then she doesn’t care at all only the next part must be hers. And when she gets it she doesn’t see Addison swooping in for the kill. He will ride her coattails, having discovered the truth about her. He can spill the beans (by way of blackmail) or she must take him with her. In the one act of violence in the whole movie Addison slaps Eve and says, “Never laugh at me.” There’s reality when there are no morals, there is only honor and pride.

In the closing scenes as Margot and Bill go off with Karen and Richard and their friends to a party to which Eve should be coming -as she is the guest of honor – Eve realizes no one likes her. Their parting lines are cold. Eve has missed a signal somewhere: this is not about acting. This is about relationship, but she doesn’t know how to do that. She’s only a shell of a person.

When she meets Phoebe, later in her apartment, Phoebe wants to be like Eve. But Eve’s not a person… Phoebe wants to copy the shell that is Eve. And in the final scene, we see hundreds of Phoebe-shells, all trying to be like Eve, like Phoebe. Not persons, just shells. Snatched bodies. Eve is the first of this new race of shallow non-beings.

Slow curtain, the end.

A note on Names:

Margo means Pearl. The thing of beauty that arrises from so much irritation. This is as perfect a symbol of salvation as possible: for we take our cross and offer it to the Lord and the cross, itself, becomes our throne. Margo’s cross – at this point in life – is realizing that she is female but that she has never worked out being a woman.

Bill comes from William and it means “Protector”. That’s what Bill is for Margaret: a protector.

Karen is a derivative of Catherine and it means Pure. Karen’s motives are pure throughout the movie, nearly naive. But because of the purity of intention the motives succeed – even when Karen thinks they’ve failed.

Lloyd is a Welsh name meaning grey. It comes from the word llywd. It implies worthy of respect, a sort of elder wisdom. It’s a perfect name for a writer, but also for one whose function is basically to be the strong silent type.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.