When Bette Davis was offered the role of Margo Channing, she'd already won two Best Actress Oscars, one for Jezebel (1938) and one for Now, Voyager (1942). By 1950, though, her popularity had waned, and she knew that Margo Channing could be the role of a lifetime.
She never stopped thanking Joseph L. Mankiewicz for resuscitating her career.
The movie might be called All About Eve, but it's really all about Margo Channing. Margo's a brassy dame, a powerhouse of a stage actress, a Broadway legend; but in the entertainment biz, she's past her prime. Prime being, oh, probably about 25. Margo, at forty, is way past this expiration date, and because Lloyd will only write young characters, Margo's faced with a crisis – play below her age, or give it all up. Strangely, the subject of having Lloyd actually write an age-appropriate character never even comes up.
MARGO: Miss Channing is ageless. Spoken like a press agent.
LLOYD: I know what I'm talking about, after all they're my plays.
MARGO: Spoken like an author. Lloyd, I'm not twentyish. I am not thirtyish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh. That slipped out, I hadn't quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I feel as if I'd suddenly taken all my clothes off...
Life is complicated by the introduction of Eve, a young, single white female with her eyes set on one thing: Margo's career. Margo's the perfect target for Eve, who's a hot young up-and-comer, because Margo's on the other side of the hill, and she's very insecure about it.
This insecurity generates the biggest conflict between Margo and her love interest, Bill. He calls it her "age obsession" and accuses her of getting into "a jealous froth" whenever he spends time with Eve instead of her.
When she sees Eve schmoozing with Bill at his birthday party, she slams down a few martinis, sweeps up the stairs, and announces to everyone:
MARGO: Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.
Yes, Margo's insecure, but honestly, she has every right to be. Her career choices are limited by her age. It comes with the territory of being a woman in the entertainment industry. Also, she turns out to not be paranoid about Eve. Eve really is studying her like "a play or a book or a set of blueprints." Only when Eve's true nature comes out in the newspaper does Bill run back to Margo and apologize. Aww.
According to Lloyd, "Margo compensates for underplaying on the stage by overplaying reality." Margo's definitely just as dramatic off-stage as she is on. Maybe even more so. That makes her an interesting character to watch, but a challenge to be friends with. Margo's drama queen behavior causes tensions between herself and Bill, and herself and her friend, Karen. Still, she's genuine enough to know when she's gone overboard.
MARGO: Relax, kid. It's just me and my big mouth.
Margo's insecurity about her age can make her act like a child, throwing tantrums. She knows this about herself and spills her guts to Karen:
MARGO: Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave— they'd get drunk if they knew how— when they can't have what they want. When they feel unwanted or insecure…or unloved.
Margo wants nothing more than to reconcile her two selves, but she can't do it on her own. This is the 1950s. She needs a man to help her. Ultimately, Margo wants Bill, and she has to let go of her career to do it.
MARGO: I want him to want me. But me. Not "Margo Channing." And if I can't tell them apart, how can he?
We're not sure who Margo is when she isn't acting, and she isn't sure either. Karen tells her, "You're Margo. Just Margo." Maybe she isn't that different off-stage after all. She shouldn't have to be; we think she's pretty fabulous.
Why does Margo quit acting? In her own words:
MARGO: It means 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!
Really? This is what it boils down to? She's acting because she has nothing better to do? Here we've got a Broadway legend, one of the strongest female characters in the history of cinema, and she describes her talents as nothing more than a mere hobby, something to compensate for not having a husband. A bittersweet curtain call if we've ever seen one.
Margo gets in some great last words, though. When the scheming, two-faced Eve manages to land the Sarah Siddons award, Margo looks her straight in the eye and says,
MARGO: Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.
Remember how the biblical Eve was tempted by a snake? Well, in this film, Eve is the snake.
Eve Harrington's a manipulative fame-hungry actress wannabe who doesn't care who she hurts as she claws her way to the top. Addison takes her for a sociopath who's incapable of real human emotion. She uses a soft-hearted Karen to meet Margo Channing under the pretense of being an innocent, adoring fan. She slithers her way into Margo's life and studies her, figuring out what she'll have to do to replace Margo as the grande dame of the Broadway theater.
Roger Ebert thought that while Margo was a three-dimensional character, Eve was a "type"—the ambitious ingénue out to make it at all costs (source). Is that true? You could make the point that Eve isn't this one-dimensional. We do think she respects Margo's talent. She knows she's picked one of the best actresses to model herself on. Plus, Eve is a fast learner, and she has real talent—it's hard to fake that. A woman this evil has to be a great actress in order to convince others that she's a modest, decent person.
We first meet Eve as a star-struck young woman hovering in the shadows waiting for her theater idol to exit the stage door. She just so happens to approach Margo's best friend Karen on her way out of the theater. Karen just has to take this #1 fan to see Margo:
KAREN: I'm going to take you to Margo…
EVE:(hanging back) Oh, no...
KAREN: She's got to meet you.
EVE: No, I'd be imposing on her, I'd be just another tongue-tied gushing fan...
Eve's always gushing about the theater—the perfume, the applause—it's all magic, according to Eve. She sells herself as completely devoted to the theater. Of course, Eve knows exactly what's she's doing. She's flattering Margo, who loves to be flattered, and before you know it she's making herself indispensable; she knows it's a vulnerable time for Margo because Bill's away in Hollywood.
Pretty soon she gets a little too indispensable. Here's how Margo describes it:
MARGO: The next three weeks were out of a fairy tale, and I was Cinderella in the last act. Eve became my sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist and cop - the honeymoon was on...
Margo's saying this with benefit of hindsight, but at the time she doesn't know what Eve's up to. By the time we uncover Eve's true motivations, it's too late. Eve manipulates her way into a role as Margo's understudy, then makes a shameless pass at Bill:
BILL: I'm talking about you. And what you want.
EVE: So am I.
BILL: What have I got to do with it?
Fortunately Bill doesn't buy it; this is his first inkling that Eve isn't what she seems. Things go downhill from there, as everyone catches on to Eve. She tricks Karen into making Margo miss a performance, then threatens to expose her if she doesn't get Lloyd to cast her in his next play:
KAREN: A part in a play. You'd do all that just for a part in a play?
EVE: I'd do much more for a part that good.
Eve wows the audience as Margo's understudy, and, just by absolute sheer coincidence, all the famous theater critics attended that night.
Eve doesn't know when to stop. As Karen says in one of our favorite lines, "Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello." Eve wants to steal away Bill from Margo, and that fails, because Bill has honor. Plus, he doesn't like to be pursued. He wants to be the one who goes after women, not vice versa. Then she tries nailing Lloyd by faking some emotional meltdown to get him over to her apartment in the middle of the night.
Eve also makes the mistake of using an even bigger manipulator in her schemes, the devious theatre critic Addison DeWitt. When Addison realizes he's been had—that Eve is telling people he manipulated her words—he takes over, calling Eve out on all her lies and threatening to expose her if she doesn't obey him. Her name isn't even Eve; it's Gertrude Slojinski, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Addison, being even more of a manipulator and narcissist than Eve, knows he's got her. He's the critic who can derail her career with a single bad review. As long as she dances to his tune, he can make sure she's Broadway's next big star. Eve makes a deal with the devil, and wins the prestigious Sarah Siddons award, being sure to fawn over all her "friends" who helped her along the way.
EVE: [...] and it was Karen who first brought me to one whom I had always idolized, and who was to become my benefactor and champion. A great actress and a great woman— Margo Channing.
What a sweetheart.
At the end of the movie, we're happy to see history, or in this case her story, repeat itself, as Eve seems to take Phoebe on as her protégé; did she forget what she herself did to Margo? Perhaps those stars in her eyes really do blind her to the truth. As Phoebe secretly puts on Eve's elegant coat and bows in the mirror holding the statuette, we can sure see what's coming even if Eve can't.
Karen Richards is Margo's best friend. She's a playwright's wife, which, in a world of actors, directors, and writers, makes Karen the closest thing to us: a normal person. She even calls herself "the lowest form of celebrity." That makes her the perfect POV character for us average Joes and Janes to understand this glamorous world.
Note to self: Where'd she get those fabulous pearls?
Even though she's in the theater only by marriage, as Addison says, she gets the action rolling when she invites Eve into the theater to meet her idol. Margo's not interested but Karen insists:
KAREN: You can't put her out, I promised... Margo, you've got to see her, she worships you, it's like something out of a book.
Karen lives to rue the day she stood up for Eve. Karen had no way of knowing what a schemer Eve was. No one did, and no one blames Karen for it. Her heart was in the right place, and it almost always is. Karen is intelligent and fabulous at all times. She defends her husband, saying his play is "a fine and distinguished play," and she's a supportive friend, always by Margo's side.
Margo trusts her enough that she can speak her mind. When Margo starts downing martinis at the disastrous party, Karen knows something is about to go down:
KAREN: We know you, we've seen you before like this. Is it over - or just beginning?
Karen has a moment of weakness, though. She gets a little tired of Margo treating her friends like "members of her supporting cast." She hatches an idea to force Margo to miss a performance, giving Eve a chance to go on in her place. A harmless prank—she sees Margo getting increasingly paranoid about Eve, so she wants Margo to see that everything's okay even if Eve is Margo's understudy. Karen reasons that, "Every now and then there is nothing I want to do so much as to kick [Margo] right square in the pants."
This plan backfires fast.
She drains the gas in the car on a weekend trip and sure enough, Margo misses her call. By the time they return to New York, they see that Eve had planned this all along, and as a bonus called every critic in town to dazzle them.
Things really hit the fan for Karen when Eve threatens to expose her, and to tell Margo that Karen drained the car on purpose. This would destroy not only her friendship with Margo, but her husband's career, too. Lucky for Karen, Margo quits acting to become a wife. Eve gets her role and Karen gets to keep her secret, but she never lets Eve forget it.
We last see Karen basically ignoring Eve at the award luncheon. She may have started as Eve's friend, but she's a sadder but wiser gal now.
Let us introduce theater critic Addison DeWitt with some of his own humble opening lines:
DEWITT: My native habitat is the Theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the Theater.
Broadway critics can make or break a show with their reviews, and DeWitt knows it. Yeah, he's condescending and full of himself. His sarcastic commentary introduces the story to us and he assures us he knows "all about Eve." He's on to Eve before anyone else, because that's what he does for a living—he watches performances and he knows one when he sees one.
Addison knows the seedy underbelly of the theater as well as anyone:
ADDISON: It is senseless to insist that theatrical folk in New York, Hollywood and London are no different from the good people of Des Moines, Chillicothe and Liverpool. By and large, we are concentrated gatherings of neurotics, egomaniacs, emotional misfits, and precocious children.
He knows how to take advantage of all this. We see him at the party coaching Miss Caswell to throw herself at the somewhat decrepit but powerful producer Max Fabian:
ADDISON: You see that man, that's Max Fabian, the producer. Now go do yourself some good.
MISS CASWELL: Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?
ADDISON: Because that's what they are; now go and make him happy.
Being a critic keeps Addison on the margins for the first half of the movie. An actor, director, and playwright aren't exactly going to hang out with a critic outside of the theater, are they? However, he's brought into their social circle unwittingly, like a demon accidentally summoned by a Oujia board, when Margo introduces Eve and Addison at a party. It's a match made in heaven.
Margo pushes them together because of Eve's "great interest in the theater," and because Margo, who calls Addison "Rasputin," wants to punish Eve. Spending time in the company of a blowhard like Addison DeWitt is punishment indeed. However, Eve sees this as an opportunity. She knows Addison is disliked and manipulative, so when Addison writes a column about Eve that insults Margo, Eve easily blames it on Addison.
Big mistake. Addison recognizes a fellow psychopath. He decides to take control of Eve. Addison's a creepy control freak, even when deciding dinner. Eve, in a bath towel, says to Addison, "You take charge." He responds, "I believe I will." We respond "EEW!"
Addison's creepiness goes full tilt when he tells Eve, "you will belong to me." He doesn't even like her, though. Why does he want her? In his words:
DEWITT: You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition— and talent. We deserve each other.
As creepy as he is, we kind of have to agree. However, he goes too far when he slaps Eve for laughing at him. That's when Eve realizes what she's in for.
ADDISON: Remember as long as you live, never to laugh at me. At anything or anyone else, but never at me.
What does Addison get out of this relationship? A sense of power and control over the most esteemed actress in the business? He couldn't do that with Margo—she's too tough and too authentic—but Eve's met her match in Addison.
Bill is a theatre director, which means he's Margo's boss, in a way, in addition to her boyfriend. The movie isn't concerned with Bill's professional life with Margo, only their private life. Which is good for us, because his private life is a lot more interesting than what's happening on stage.
Bill's devoted to the theater, but he's not a pretentious jerk about it, unlike some of the other characters. We like to think he's channeling Joseph L. Mankiewicz when he says to Eve:
BILL: The Theatuh, the Theatuh… 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? 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.
First of all, props to Bill for dating a woman 8 years older than he. A very strong, outspoken, opinionated older woman who's way more famous than he is. In 1950. That counts for a lot in our book. Bill loves Margo, but she's afraid that he'll leave her for a younger woman. He's done nothing to make her suspicious; it's her insecurity talking. It frustrates him to be accused of something he'd never do.
One of the first times we see Bill, his love for Margo is evident. She's not wearing her wig and has tape around her hair; she has cold cream slathered on her face; she's described as looking "like a junk yard," but Bill's still gaga over her:
BILL: My wonderful junk yard. The mystery and dreams you find in a junk yard.
Never have junk yards seemed like such a compliment. Compared to a summer's day? Boring. Compare us to old tires and broken axles any day.
However, Margo lets her jealousy of Eve, specifically Eve's youth, get the better of her despite Bill's protests. When Eve takes over as Margo's understudy, Margo believes it's because Bill has the hots for her. He tries to convince her otherwise:
BILL: I love you. You're a beautiful and intelligent woman, a beautiful and intelligent woman and a great actress, a great actress at the peak of her career. You have every reason for happiness, every reason, but due to some strange, uncontrollable, unconscious drive you permit the slightest action of a kid, of a kid like Eve to turn you into a hysterical, screaming harpy! Now once and for all, stop it!
Bill has a point. Margo's worried about being seen as a hysterical screaming harpy, and her insecurity, as a result, turns her into a hysterical screaming harpy. Bill can't do anything about it; he decides to leave her.
After Eve's bravura performance as Margo's understudy, she decides to make her move for Bill. He rejects her advances in no uncertain (and very macho) terms:
BILL: I'm in love with Margo, hadn't you heard? […] Only thing, what I go after, I want to go after. I don't want it to come after me. Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass.
Bill rushes back to Margo's side as soon as he sees Eve and Addison's nasty article about her—a "piece of filth," he calls it. He sets us up for Margo's surprising decision to abandon her career for him when he tells her:
BILL: Bill's here, baby. Everything's all right now.
Mr. Romantic breaks the news to his good friends about marrying Margo:
BILL: I'm going to propose the toast. Without wit. With all my heart. To Margo. To my bride-to-be.
MARGO: Glory Hallelujah.
Swoon! We imagine they lived happily ever after. As Karen says, "They'd die without each other."
We know all about Bill's personal life, but not his professional one. Despite being a director, his role in the theater isn't discussed much. Eve, early on when she's still tricking us into thinking she's a decent human being, says Bill is "the best." Karen quips, "He'll agree with you." That's just good-natured chiding on Karen's part, though. Bill isn't cocky like that. He later says, "Geniuses don't need good luck. I do." A little bit of self-deprecation looks good on a man.
Now, just because Margo has to fret about acting and her love life and Bill doesn't, don't be confused into thinking this is a role reversal between the two, with the man's career being taken for granted while focusing on his romantic travails. No, the reason the movie doesn't focus on Bill's directorial career is because his career is guaranteed. Unlike Margo, who has to choose between a professional acting career and a private life as a wife, Bill never has to ask himself that question. He gets both.
Note to self: Jon Hamm as Bill in remake?
Lloyd, Karen's husband and a playwright, doesn't spend too much time in front of the camera. Why would he? He's the writer. He mainly exists to provide professional conflict for Margo. She's getting too old to play the parts he writes. Why doesn't Lloyd just write a character that's Margo's age? That question is never even asked. Like with Bill, Lloyd's career is never called into question. It's the woman's job to adapt.
However, Lloyd's a little bit insecure, despite his superior position in society merely by being born with a Y-chromosome. He wants his plays to be read exactly as written. What, is his work too perfect to be improved? He sure thinks so, telling Margo,
LLOYD: You've got to admit it would be a novelty. For once, to write something and have it realized completely. For once, not to compromise.
Lloyd, being a man, wants the woman to compromise, not him.
This conflict causes a huge blow-up between Lloyd and Margo when Eve reads her part as understudy. Margo lashes out at Lloyd when it's Eve she should be mad at, but Lloyd is asking for it when he shouts,
LLOYD: I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind! Just when exactly does an actress decide they're her words she's saying and her thoughts she's expressing?
Ouch. In other words, ladies, let the man think for you. Margo, who can out think anyone, man or woman, has a snazzy retort: "Usually at the point when she has to rewrite and rethink them to keep the audience from leaving the theater!" Lloyd can't let it go, though:
LLOYD: t's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!
Eve is appealing to Lloyd as an alternative to Margo for two reasons. The most obvious is her age. The other is Eve's willingness to read Lloyd's plays as written, the way he wants Margo to. Lloyd thinks Eve does this because she respects his work. He's right, to a point. Eve has ulterior motives, though; she always does. Eve reads Lloyd's work as written because she knows it's what he wants. Also, unlike Margo, Eve's willing to put aside her own agency and autonomy to get ahead in her career.
Max Fabian is a minor character who seems to only exist as comic relief and as a handy plot point. When we're introduced to Max, by Addison, we're told there are two types of producers. For one, "production mean potential ruin or fortune. This type is out to make a buck. Meet Max Fabian." This makes him seem like a greedy control freak, but if he is, we never see any evidence of it.
Poor Max basically sits around completely overwhelmed by all the powerful women in his presence. They give him heartburn, and Margo has to medicate him. We do see that he has a thing for pretty young women, but what man doesn't in this film? This makes it believable that he'd hire Eve, but she's a good actress, too.
Multiple times during the movie, characters speak of Max's death. We expect him to have a heart attack in the middle of the heated argument between Margo and Lloyd, but nothing much happens then either. Max produces drama on-stage, not off.
Marilyn Monroe playing a ditzy blonde bombshell? Who knew?
Miss Caswell is such a minor character, we wouldn't mention her if not for the fact that she's played by Marilyn. As Roger Ebert says, Marilyn "glitter[s] in the center" of the film and steals every scene she's in. (Source). Indeed she does. Despite being seen as a dim bulb and a bad actress (Miss Caswell, not Marilyn), a graduate of the "Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts," she gets some of the movie's funniest lines. In one of our favorites, she insults Addison, saying of him:
MISS CASWELL: You won't bore him, honey. You won't even get a chance to talk.
She's so pretty (and honest) he can't even get mad at her for this remark.
Unlike Eve, Miss Caswell can't act, so she has to flirt her way to get what she wants, and Addison encourages her.
DEWITT: You see that man? He's Max Fabian, the producer. Now go do yourself some good.
MISS CASWELL: Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?
Miss Caswell's definitely a type: the beautiful starlet wannabe without talent but with other, um, assets.
Birdie Coonan's a former vaudeville actress whose biggest performance these days is as Margo's dresser and friend. She's the no-nonsense, straight-talkin' voice of reason. She instantly sees through Eve's act in Margo's dressing room. After Eve tells the story of her sad and pitiful life, Birdie doesn't buy it:
BIRDIE: What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end...
Eve fools everyone else, forcing Birdie to apologize.
Later, after Eve calls Bill without Margo's knowledge, it's Birdie who warns Margo to watch her back because Eve is studying her. Strangely, Birdie flies the coop halfway through the movie without anyone ever mentioning her again. She's last seen taking an actress her fur coat. Did Birdie fly away home? Where is home? Did she steal that sable coat and hightail it outta there?
There's a lot we don't know about her, but we wish we did.
Phoebe, whatever her real name may be, is one of Eve's fans, a girl who sneaks into Eve's hotel suite after the award ceremony. She's the president of the Erasmus Hall Eve Harrington Fan Club, and Eve seems to quickly get over the fact that there's a strange girl in her bedroom. Is she too tired or drunk to care? It's apparent to the audience, but not to Eve, that Phoebe's the next Eve. She made up her own name, as Eve did; she finagled her way into Eve's private life, the way Eve did with Margo. However, Phoebe's even bolder than Eve was. She just sneaks into Eve's room while Eve's gone, not needing a Karen type to welcome her in. Since Eve doesn't have any friends, Phoebe has to use this method.
Phoebe immediately sucks up to Eve, cleaning up her spilled drink and helping her pack for Hollywood. Phoebe tells Eve, "I don't care if I never get home," which makes us think Phoebe's along for the ride. When Hollywood runs out of old ideas to rehash, we imagine we'll finally see the All About Eve sequel: All About Phoebe.