The Academy Award-winning 1950 classic All About Eve is as much about keeping women in their place as it is an indictment of the cutthroat path to celebrity. In fact, it uses women to embody a celebrity-obsessed society gone wrong. This cautionary tale set in the New York theater scene warns bossy women to reel it in and curb their ambition. Don’t forget your femininity, your nurturing role as a woman, and your ultimate goal of fulfillment as a man’s wife. Eve Harrington, a young, naïve super fan manipulates her way into an aging Broadway star’s life, only to Single White Female her mentor ruthlessly to the top, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. Eve’s false humility masks insatiable ambition and reveals a heart-sized hole in her heart, while the jealous, older actress Margo Channing proves paranoid and hysterical in response. The women are pitted against each other with the ultimate message being that there’s not enough room for the both of them.
Although Bette Davis acts the hell out of sassy, salty stage star Margo, skillfully skewering the double standards women face in the industry and society in general, this black-and-white drama leaves one with a sick feeling of gendered defeat. No doubt the strong women in the film are the protagonists, but their real power and agency stem from evil intentions or at best, too-big-mouthiness. They scheme and connive their way through each other’s lives, while the men-- save unscrupulous theater critic Addison DeWitt-- feign ignorance, watching the cat fight from the sidelines and shaking their heads. It is no mistake that Anne Baxter’s character has been named after the original woman of original sin, and you better believe she brings trouble to paradise. The dapper men appear as pawns in the women’s petty games and fall too easily from innocence into Eve’s traps.
But not so fast. The “nice guys” in the film really just want Margo to be taken down a notch, exclaiming she needs “a boot in the rear.” They warn her to shut up and accept her fate, and by the end, she kind of happily does, admitting that she needs to work on the role of being a woman-- as if being a true woman and an actor are mutually exclusive-- and needs a man to help define her: “I wish someone would tell me about me.” Margo eventually caves in to the sexist, ageist industry, exchanging her career for the real thing, marriage, saying she “finally got a life to live.” The men in the film also facilitate and cultivate Eve’s shameless rise to the top and then shun her for going too far. By the time Eve’s partner in crime Addison DeWitt puts her in check by blackmailing and slapping her, the audience is meant to be cheering. DeWitt speaks of their relationship as “killer to killer,” so the domestic violence must be okay.
Though carried by superb acting and diaglog, All About Eve ultimately perpetuates the idea that women must scheme, finagle and sleep their way up the ladder while the men are, well, just being men and naturally deserve the positions they’re already in. When these lucky, crazy ladies get too out of control, the men step in to remind them who’s boss. The award ceremony that opens the film and brings it full circle in the end feels more like a funeral for women’s opportunities on Broadway and in Hollywood. The final scene with Eve behaving cynically like Margo toward her own young stalker-replacement (spinning in a narcissism of mirrors) really drives the final nail in the coffin of narrow roles for women. A quick study of All About Eve would lead you to the conclusion that the women are kind of evil, or at least suspect, while the men are stupid. I don’t know which is better, evil or stupid, but both achieve the same thing. After all is said and done, fought and won (or lost), everyone returns to the same gender roles they were always confined to.