You'd better applaud. Eve might kill you if you don't.
You don't know that side of Eve when you see her at the very beginning of the movie receiving the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award for theater performance. However, right before Eve touches the award, boom—she's frozen. The freeze frame allows us to fly backward through time and learn everything Eve did to get her conniving little hands on that award.
By the time we know the whole story, the award is more than an acting accomplishment. Yes, Eve earned it by her performance on-stage, but her performance off-stage was equally impressive. Is it possible to celebrate the role but not the actress? The people Eve stomped on to get there— Margo, Karen, and the gang—aren't feeling it.
The award returns a few minutes later when Eve leaves it in a taxi cab. Was she tired, or did she not really care about the award as much as she acted like she did in her acceptance speech? Either way, the award is picked up by a girl calling herself Phoebe, who's insinuated herself into Eve's life even faster than Eve wormed her way into Margo's.
We last see Phoebe holding the award and looking at herself in Eve's tripled mirror. There are hundreds of Phoebes and hundreds of awards, making us wonder just what else people will do just to get this flimsy-looking trophy. The award seems to represent all the worst of the theater world—its superficiality, cutthroat ambition, and fleeting fame.
All the important women in this film are rich, so we always see them in luxurious furs. Don't tell PETA. They live in New York City. It gets cold there. More than just looking pretty, the furs begin to represent a difference between New York theater actors (i.e. real actors) and Hollywood actors (i.e. terrible horrible no-good celebrities).
A Hollywood actress arrives at Margo's party, and we never even see her, but we do get to see her sable coat. Karen makes a smart observation, saying, "Women with furs like that where it never gets cold…" When Birdie comes to retrieve the coat, she has to ask which one is sable. To Birdie, Margo's assistant who doesn't have a fur coat, it's nothing more than just another fur coat. When Karen asks what she expects, Birdie says, "A diamond collar, gold sleeves —you know, picture people..." She doesn't realize she's not far off, considering all the outlandish outfits that show up on the red carpet...
When Margo announces that she and Bill are getting married, someone asks her what she'll wear. She says, "Oh, something simple. A fur coat over a nightgown." That's a loaded image. It contains glamour and sex, but also suggests that those fancy furs are covering up something much more ordinary. They're like that glittery trophy—they look good but don't necessarily mean anything. Underneath, even the stars are just real people.
Mirrors are a big part of any actor's dressing room. Not because they're vain, although they may be, but because it's necessary for an actor to know what she looks like. In this film, the mirrors are all about self-reflection—the psychological kind.
When we're first introduced to Margo Channing, she's looking in a mirror and taking her face off, so to speak. Also her hair. We see Margo stripped down, looking at herself. Margo the woman, not Margo the actress. As we learn, though, Margo has blurred the two. Just as we look at her reflection and wonder who she is, she wonders the same thing.
Mirrors have a similar function in the role of Eve, but with a twist. Critic Kate Bellmore suggests that Eve is a psychopath and that the mirrors help to visually represent her mental illness (source). It's almost as if Eve has to look in the mirror to remind herself who she's supposed to be at any given moment. If the shape-shifter lets her guard down, the whole act is up.
Finally, mirrors play a part in the movie's final scene, which we talk more about in our "What's Up with the Ending?" and the "Mode of Production" sections. The phrase "smoke and mirrors" comes to mind here. In fact, Margo smokes like a chimney, and there are plenty of scenes where she's enveloped in a cigarette haze, too—another way of suggesting her identity crisis.
The mirrors represent one of Joseph Mankiewicz's favorite themes, which the smart folks over at the Harvard Film Archives describe as "the theater as a mirror game of real life in which human identity is revealed to be mercurially unstable, an illusion founded in role-playing and disguise (source).
Couldn't have said it better ourselves.
The Hero's Journey most closely mimics Eve's journey, making it more of an anti-Hero's journey. Her ordinary world is on the outside, waiting by the backdoor of a Broadway theater for a shot at meeting her idol. She's just like any of us who have tried to get an autograph or waited to meet Klingon #4 at a local Star Trek convention.
Eve unexpectedly finds herself on the inside when Karen invites her backstage to meet her idol, Margo Channing. Continuing the Star Trek analogy from step one, this would be like going to a Star Trek convention and being invited onto the USS Enterprise. Beam us up, Margo.
Eve's tiny refusal is a ruse, intended to make her look much more nervous and humble than she actually is. Eve's grand plot is to meet Margo, study her, and become her. (In one last Star Trek reference: Eve is the Borg.) Her brief "I'm not worthy" moment is something she must do to not seem too eager. She must be sneaky, or Margo may suspect her ulterior motive.
After being taken backstage by Karen, Eve meets her idol and mentor: Margo Channing. Unbeknownst to Margo, Eve is taking all Margo's advice and using it for her own personal gain, which will happen at Margo's expense.
Eve wants to be a celebrity, so she literally crosses a threshold from the back alley of a Broadway theater into the hustle and bustle of the backstage. When Margo offers Eve a job, she eagerly takes it. This presents her with another threshold to cross—the one of Margo's personal home. Crossing this threshold gives Eve unfettered access to her mentor's personal life. It's like if a robber walked into a bank and found the vault wide open.
Typically in this stage, the hero finds out who to trust and who not to trust. Because Eve is an anti-hero, she must convince others to trust her. To do this, she allies with other manipulative, untrustworthy characters, like sketchy critic Addison. Eve slowly pushes boundaries here, trying to get an audition and, she hopes, a starring role in a play.
Eve wants to be a celebrity because she wants people to like her. The irony is that she turns Margo, Karen, and others against her in her ruthless pursuit to the top. Eve seemed genuinely happy to have friends at the beginning of the movie, but to gain the adoration of the public, she loses the people who considered her a friend. She convinces Karen to keep Margo away from the theater so that she can get an audition.
Margo discovers that Eve pulled the wool over her eyes. Eve wants Margo's role and her man. If Eve weren't a sociopath, it would destroy her to hurt her friend so badly. However, Eve wants fame more than anyone else, so she doesn't really care that she hurts Margo, making this stage much more of an ordeal for Margo than for Eve.
The reward usually comes from defeating the enemy, but in Eve's case, her reward comes from becoming the enemy. After conning Eve, Karen, and even her ally Addison, Eve wins the starring role in a new play, which is what she has wanted since the very beginning.
Eve's world will never be the same. Her "road back" is more like trying to repair all the bridges she burned on her way to stardom, just in case she ever does need their help again. Eve didn't just burn those bridges, though. She napalmed them. An opportunist to the core, all of Eve's apologies are self-serving.
After Addison uncovers all about Eve—basically that she has been lying since the beginning—she fears that her career might be over. However, she submits to Addison's will, becoming "his," whatever that entails, to hold on to her fame.
Eve ends up with a literal award—the Sarah Siddons Award for being a wonderful actress. She definitely deserves it, because Eve pretends to be another person both on-stage and off. Eve doesn't quite return to where she started, but the movie does come full circle with Phoebe. Phoebe is like Eve. She is obsessive and determined to get what she wants. The cycle will repeat itself, this time with Phoebe playing Eve, and Eve playing Margo.
Like the run of a play itself, All About Eve takes place over a few months in the "present day" of time period 1950.
All About Eve couldn't take place anywhere else. Eve's scheme, which relies on her becoming Margo's understudy, wouldn't work in Hollywood or on television. Plus, theater actors look down on Hollywood, and everyone looked down on TV at the time. Addison even says, "That's all television is, my dear. Nothing but auditions." The sad fact was that in 1950, television was starting to seriously compete with movies for audience.
Despite taking place in the New York theater world, we don't see much of the city itself in this film. The action always takes place behind the scenes or in Margo's house or a restaurant, never on the streets of the city. There's one shot of Eve and Addison walking through the street, but they're in New Haven, Connecticut, and they are clearly walking in front of a backdrop, an embarrassing bit of film trickery that has not aged well.
The 1950s were a time when most women defined themselves by their relationship to a man. Even Margo Channing, a legendary actress, worries that she'll lose her man to a younger woman; when he finally proposes, she leaves her career behind. With strong female characters like Margo and Eve, you might think this was a feminist film. You'd be wrong.
All About Eve is told almost entirely in flashback. From the moment Eve accepts her award at the beginning of the film, she hangs there suspended while we figure out how we got there.
Even though the story is about Eve and Margo, Eve doesn't get a say in her story. Instead, we have theatre critic Addison DeWitt and playwright's wife Karen Richards narrating in voiceover, as well as a few reminiscences from Margo herself. Addison and Karen are arguably the outsiders of all the main characters—they're not actors, writers, or producers—yet they're the ones telling us the story. This technique puts a distance between us, the lowly viewers, and the true celebrities— the actresses, the writer, and the director.
All About Eve might be the ultimate classic drama. It doesn't do anything to play with the genre or attempt to twist it in any way. It features masterful performances, a traditional character arc, and features the bad guy, Eve, getting punished in the end.
Even though Eve isn't a psychological thriller, we can see roots of it in similar modern-day psychological thrillers. You know the ones, where the girl (or guy) introduced at the beginning of the movie turns out to be not so innocent, and really has it in for the protagonist. The main characters in these movies, like Bridget Fonda in Single White Female (1992) or Cristal Connors in Showgirls(1997) or the famous writer in Misery (1990), never see the crazy train coming. However, because of All About Eve, we know to be suspicious of anyone who says they're your #1 fan.
As Cristal says, "There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you" (source).
"You all know all about Eve... what can there be to know that you don't know...?"
That's what Addison says at the beginning of the movie, but he couldn't be more wrong. We don't know anything about Eve. Heck, looking at the DVD case or the thumbnail on Netflix, with Bette Davis' face front and center, you probably think she's Eve. However, Addison promises to tell us "All about Eve, in fact." Good job using the title, bro.
Pretty much everything about Eve is bad, and it takes a while for the characters to learn all about Eve along with us. Eve isn't the main character, but she's the catalyst that changes everyone's lives. The title hints that there's a lot more than meets the eye about this manipulative schemer.
What goes around comes around. In the final scene, we see that Eve's about to get her comeuppance in the person of a star-struck young fan whose brazen invasion of Eve's life puts Eve's own invasion of Margo's life to shame.
"Phoebe" (she says she "calls herself" that) has sneaked into Eve's hotel room on the night of the Sarah Siddons Award presentation. After a freaked-out Eve calms down, the girl gets busy tidying up the room and answering the door when Addison comes to deliver the award statuette that Eve left in the cab. "Phoebe" sucks up to Addison then doesn't even tell Eve that he was there—she says it was just the cab driver. Eve, lying exhausted in a chair, sounds as cynical and jaded as Margo.
As Eve rests in a chair, "Phoebe" picks up the stunning jacket that Eve was wearing at the ceremony. In an echo of an earlier scene with Eve and Margo's dress, she puts on the jacket, picks up the statuette, gazes at herself reflected infinitely in Eve's triple mirror, and graciously accepts the award and the adoration of her imaginary fans.
The scene sums up all the movie's themes: the quest for fame at all costs; pretense and manipulation; the fleeting nature of celebrity; the theater's search for the next, better, younger star; the inevitable disillusionment. The message? It's getting worse all the time. Looking in that mirror, we see that there are thousands of Phoebes out there, ready and willing to do anything and everything to be famous.
All About Eve was made in 1950, which means that it couldn't be shocking if it wanted to. Due to the Hays Code, a morality code for Hollywood pictures, there was very little "mature" language, hardly any implied sex, and definitely no nudity.
That keeps All About Eve strictly in family-friendly territory even though it's way too sophisticated for a younger audience. Addison is a little creepy and controlling at the end, but we're not sure if his motivations toward Eve are sexual in nature. We see one shot of Eve in a towel, but it's done in a tasteful, modest way. Back then, that's about as shocking as it got.