She's Got Margo Channing Eyes
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.
A Star is Unborn
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.