When I first saw it at age fourteen, the 1950 black and white drama All About Eve shaped my sense that storytelling is power. The film’s cool glamour, its sparkling wit, its sardonic bite, its dark psychological aesthetic, and most of all, its depiction of two ambitious women: Margo Channing, an insider trying to hold onto her power, and Eve Harrington: a young, up and coming outsider trying to gain power for herself, buried itself in my neural circuitry. The film still feels like home some fifty viewings later, but the older I get and the more I understand power in the real world, the more I find myself wanting to defy the storyteller’s intentions for the film.
When I first saw it, I was immediately in thrall to the framed, nested narratives that the film’s writer and director Joseph Mankiewicz also used to good effect in A Letter to Three Wives. Each character’s flashback about Eve Harrington’s ambition upends the one that went before, a series of minor revelatory earthquakes that seem to give a true picture of what happened. Several insiders told an account of Eve as increasingly dastardly villainess seeking power and as a young and naïve viewer, I bought into this image.
When Margo ultimately lost a role to scheming Eve, I became eager to be shown Eve’s comeuppance. In adolescence, I was all about Dickensian black-and-white morality, all about that juicy hit of schadenfreude at a villain’s punishment. And sure enough, the film hints at retribution in its last scene with newcomer Phoebe: Eve will age, be controlled by a nasty critic, and be supplanted by another version of herself—same as she did to Margo. This gave me a cathartic satisfaction—I was entirely oblivious to the irony of an outsider such as myself taking joy in the restoration of a social order that would have crucified her, too.
At fourteen, I was an intense and ambitious kid with hardworking immigrant parents and a strong propensity for make-believe. But I didn’t allow myself to identify with outsider Eve, secretly scheming to become a star. I was repelled by her intensity, driven by the desire to look away from what reminded me of my deepest, most flawed self. I hadn’t experienced aging, and had never been an insider in any situation, yet I was drawn to aging actress Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, just as the director intended.
Davis was a revelation in the role—Margo remains one of the most memorable and complex onscreen female characters of all time. Davis was such a powerful actress that she commanded the screen as Margo, regardless of beauty standards, and regardless of whether I liked her. Margo was vain, bitter, angry, cynical, dramatic, pouty, utterly self-indulgent in her emotions, bitchy, and smoked like a chimney. She was a hot mess. Her complicated desires—to retain her stardom, to mourn the loss of her ingénue status, to transition into a serious relationship—seemed so very true. Margo had been a star since childhood, so I assumed she had a right to my sympathy. Secretly, I also suspected Mankiewicz had allowed her all those flaws because Davis had been a lifelong insider. No outsider would be given as much time or free rein to be so wonderfully flawed.
I’m now just around the same age that Margo was in the famous birthday party scene where she says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” The film remains a study on the complexity of women and the limits society places on women, but when I watch it these days, what interests me most is the director’s suppression of Eve’s voice. It is precisely Mankiewicz’s framed narrative, which I always liked so much, that misleads us about Eve’s ambition.
What exactly has Eve done wrong? Her brazen ambition is to try to cross the boundary between audience member and star, to become what she admires, and thereby belong to the theater’s inner circle. Sure, she tries to steal other women’s lovers and husbands, but this is treated almost an afterthought. We’re asked to empathize with complex Margo, and be horrified by Eve precisely because one is inside and the other outside. The director nudges us in that direction through intentional suppression of Eve’s voice, and even the initial introduction to her as simply two folded demure statuesque hands. It’s all about Eve, yet none of the story—but for her lies to the inner circle—is channeled through Eve herself.
Mankiewicz tries to show us that Eve is an overeager fan, sly and striving, fame-hungry beyond redemption—seeking to upend the hierarchy of the glamorous theater establishment so that she can steal Margo’s rightful place. Her voice is overly breathy, too eager to seduce us, like she is simply making things up. Eve is the ultimate villain. Mankiewicz tries to make sure that we cannot empathize with her.
But now that I’m close to Margo’s age, now that I’ve seen how narrowly any inner circle can be circumscribed so that an outsider remains outside power, nose pressed to the glass, for her whole life, I can no longer see it Mankiewicz’s way. Now, it is Eve with whom I empathize.
When you’re an outsider trying to make your way into the center, be it as the children of immigrants, or a fan trying to become a star, it’s common to give credit to the existing power structures, to sympathize with the powerful, and it’s that much harder to believe in yourself. It often takes years for a person who is truly an outsider to flout the culture into which she hopes to gain acceptance and have empathy for herself. As a writer, I often find myself writing most harshly about the characters similar to myself, and writing with greater compassion towards the ones that are furthest from myself. I make greater efforts to be fair to others. And so, as an adult, I’m fascinated by Eve’s storytelling, by her decision to reinvent herself from Gertrude Slescynski into the more WASPy sounding Eve Harrington. In a 1972 interview, Mankiewicz related:
Gertrude Slescynski (the name and person Eve had discarded) had rendered herself literally nonexistent. Not one facet of Gertrude’s previous life or personality did she consider worthy of including in the Eve Harrington she fabricated for the wooing of Margo and the others.
Mankiewicz also said the following in regard to his own childhood make-believe:
I became skillful at taking on the color of my environment without absorbing it, at participating in almost everything without becoming part of anything. I acquired an awareness of people the way an animal knows the woods in which he lives. I made no friends. I have no contact today with anyone who knew me as a child. I escaped into fantasies—thousands of fantasies…
I wonder if the writer-director included just a bit of himself in Eve’s character.
I can’t help but think that if Mankiewicz had given Eve a real voice of her own in the film—a voice more comfortable with itself, a voice less eager to seduce—the reasons for her extreme ambition as an outsider might have strongly countered the inner circle’s narrative about her. We might have clearly observed the inner circle of the theater world as smug, complacent, stagnating, unwilling to take risks, in need of a shake-up.
Margo and Eve are two sides of the same coin, after all. It’s the male characters—the director, the writer, the producer—who overtly control the theater world’s power structures, while both women struggle to find work-arounds. And what an even more magnificent and less conservative film it might have been had the storyteller given the young outsider the complexity it gave the older insider.
Now more than ever, the film’s conclusion seems to me like a skein of silk that shines blue in one light, purple in another. I no longer see young schemer Phoebe, a double for Eve, as a comeuppance. Instead, where it once provided me with catharsis and a misguided delight, the final image of Phoebe in the mirror—hundreds of her, all fantasizing about realizing their ambitions—seems beautiful and timeless. Power structures are not static conditions—they cannot be built to last permanently and disruptions by young ambitious outsiders are inevitable.
I continue to find this strangely comforting.
All photographs sourced via Creative Commons and in the public domain.