All About Eve is one of the most enigmatic and elliptical films of classical Hollywood – a paean to obsessive fandom, and to the allure of the actress, that never quite implicates, and never quite extricates, its audience from what is taking place on the screen. By now, the story has passed into cinematic legend – actress Margo Channing, Bette Davis, is approached by ingénue Eve Harrington, an ambitious fan. Encouraged by Margo’s best friend Karen Richards, played by Celeste Holm, who doesn’t see the danger until it is too late, Eve ingratiates herself into every part of Margo’s life, and eventually eclipses her on the stage as well, with the help of theatre critic Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders. From the very outset, we’re positioned uneasily between Eve, Karen and Margo, as writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz starts with Eve receiving an award at a theatrical function, and Karen and Margo watching on from one of the tables, their expressions difficult to read at the early juncture.
From there, Mankiewicz shifts back in time, to Margo’s first meeting with Eve – or, rather, Karen’s first meeting with Eve, who she discovers outside the theatre where Margo’s latest show is playing. Upon learning that Margo has seen every single performance, Karen takes her backstage to meet Margo, and a kind of mimetic fandom ensues, in which Eve becomes Margo’s shadow self – taking on her day-to-day administrative duties, entirely replacing her former assistant Birdie, played by Thelma Ritter, and eventually even writing letters to Margo’s lover, Bill Sampson, played by Gary Merrill, without consulting Margo herself. As time goes by, Eve seems to pre-empt Margo’s every thought, using Margo as the springboard for her own borderline personality, despite the fact that even the most good-natured and loyal of Margo’s friends believe her intentions to be pure. The uncanniest aspects of this first act is this widespread and largely unquestioned belief that Eve is sincere – Bill defends her with his honour, and Karen insists that being with Eve makes Margo happier than she has ever been.
This inexplicable investment in Eve gradually plays as a way of pre-emptively rationalizing Margo’s redundancy and expendability as an older actress, since she seems to be reaching the end of her first golden era when the main part of the film begins. In one of their most tender conversations, Eve reflects to Karen that she can achieve everything in the world and still not be counted as a woman if she doesn’t court the male gaze in just the right way – if she can’t get up from the table, or turn over in bed, or walk out on stage, and see men looking at her in the appropriate manner. She fears that “helplessness you feel when you have no talent outside of loving your husband,” especially as she is not married to Bill, who is eight years younger, while she turned forty three months before, as she tipsily confides to Karen.
Through her friendship with Eve, Margo thus glimpses the affective infrastructure of the theatre gradually turning against her, and yet Karen doesn’t see this until it is too late, despite continually insisting, like Margo, on the singularity and irreducibility of a woman’s perspective. To some extent, Eve hastens this process, but she also assuages it, since Margo channels her anxiety into a mutual erotic regard with her protégé that allows her to live off Eve’s more exuberant and youthful energy, even if Eve is clearly the more predatorial party in the relationship. As this relationship evolves, Mankiewicz paints a vivid portrait of a theatrical world in which women have a distinct use-by date, and are therefore forced to fetishise their own youth vicariously, by fostering younger ingenues – but also a world in which homoerotic desire between women is prohibited in any direct, explicit or open manner.
In order to survive, Margo thus needs to cultivate a homoerotic gaze from Eve, but broker it to restore the heteronormative gaze of her audience, explaining why she can never quite attach to Eve, nor entirely discard her either. In that sense, Eve helps Margo make the bridge from artist to wife, reiterating that a woman, in this world, can’t simultaneously perform an artistic role and hold down a marriage, despite the apparently liberal trappings of the theatrical milieu that the film inhabits. Conversely, Karen’s marriage ends when Eve shacks up with her husband Lloyd, played by Hugh Marlowe, leaving Karen without either a marital or artistic sense of purpose, and explaining why her fate haunts the last part of the film with a pregnant absence that Mankiewicz translates into her evocative voiceovers. Only Eve, for a brief moment, manages to be both artist and wife, but the great twist of the third act is that her marriage to Addison is entirely instrumental, a queer meeting of minds (or just a queer line of flight) that reimagines Adam and Eve as Addison and Eve: “That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of impossibility, although that is probably the reason.”
Whereas Margo and Karen both try, and fail, to broker marriage with their own personal aspirations, Eve sees heteronormativity as purely functional, as Mankiewicz tacitly acknowledges that the family-friendly visions of classical Hollywood are in fact built on unseen (or only partly seen) channels of queer labour. Since Eve’s queer desire can only manifest as ambition, she is always performing – and always performing her ambition as much as anything else, which perhaps explains why her ambition initially seems so charming and domesticated to Margo and Karen. Notably, Eve is the only women amongst the three who never insists on the privileged position of woman, since her womanhood is always performative. By contrast, Eve and Margo’s privileged awareness of themselves as women, and their irreducible experiences as women, is eventually undercut by Eve’s queerness, which often makes All About Eve seem like a trans manifesto before its time, as much as a vision of queer fandom.
Yet Eve’s assumption of queerness is neither static nor complete, as the incredible final sequence of Mankiewicz’s film makes clear. After her breakout performance, Eve returns to what seems like an empty hotel room, sitting down at her makeup table only to glimpse a woman sitting on the sofa behind her. Eve and the audience only notice this woman in the mirror, so she has an unusual and uncanny presence. On the one hand, she looks like a stalker who has made her way into the apartment, but, on the other hand, she could plausibly be a domestic companion who is so comfortable in Eve’s personal space that she doesn’t even need to greet her. It’s at this point that the film’s lesbian logic, and logic of feminine expendability, converge, as Eve finds herself scrutinised in the same way as Margo, but in a more heightened way than Margo as well, since Mankiewicz has framed this “new” Eve to appear as both more domesticated, and more predatorial, than he did with Eve herself. When Addison arrives, he accepts this younger Eve at the door as a matter of course, and without the slightest pause, as if the two women have been cohabiting for years, or are even married.
Like Margo, Eve now recognises that there is no way for women to grow old as artists without a younger surrogate, but she seems cannier about using this new woman – her own Eve – as a transitional object for her own continued individuation, mediation and replication. Through that heightened confidence, Mankiewicz suggests that this tension between enforced homoerotic regard and proscribed homoerotic affect is likely to grow more intense with each new generational cycle, as Eve’s scrutiny of herself and her new protégé converge at her mirror, evoking a crystal-image, a passing down of this affective structure, in which the homoerotic content becomes more dissonant, and more difficult to ignore. By the end of the film, Eve realises that the award ceremony is ultimately servicing this affective structure, rather than her in particular, much as Mankiewicz seems to acknowledge that his film is also indebted to it, removing Margo and Karen as soon as their femininity is eclipsed by Eve, in the same way that we never once see Birdie again after Eve takes over Margo’s dressing room.
By the same token, Eve seems to sense her eventual expendability earlier than any other woman in the film – and to use it to her advantage. For that reason, none of the women – none of the theatre people generally – can quite bring themselves to reject her, or to reduce her to a femme fatale, because she also represents the vicarious continuation of their own feminine stardom into the future. By the time we get to the awards ceremony, Eve seems to have absorbed Karen and Margo into herself, which only makes her more prescient that she needs to absorb herself, in turn, into the young woman waiting for her in the hotel room. In that sense, Eve is never exactly a character so much as a homoerotic energy that connects to a shifting array of hosts, meaning she never comes to a character-driven “conclusion,” but is instead left suspended between her absorption into older and younger generations of women – totally disseminated into the homoerotic mise-en-abyme of her bedroom mirror, which fractures her face into a million brilliant reflections in the magnificent closing shot of the film.
This, then, is Mankiewicz’s crystal-image – a way of trying to represent what remained unrepresentable in Hollywood at this time; namely, Hollywood’s own project of promulgating a normative feminity by means of an affective logic that encourages homoerotic fixation amongst women, and the gay fans who adore them. Watching All About Eve is like witnessing the heteronormative superstructure of classical Hollywood giving way to the homoerotic labour that sustains it – but never quite giving way, and never quite losing its superstructural status. That devolution would come with later Eves, especially the Eves of 70s horror cinema, since Mankiewicz’s Eve occupies the dissonance of Hollywood so eloquently that she has to play the role of sociopath, giving license to many sociopathic female characters to come. Yet even as All About Eve verges on horror in its dissonant vision of diverging heteronormative and homoerotic agendas, this dissonance has also become more institutionalized and domesticated in its final scene, as we learn that the young woman in Eve’s hotel room is part of a nation-wide fan club. In these closing moments, Mankiewicz seems to wonder how even the more homoerotic fringes of his vision might be domesticated and sanitized in years to come – and the different ways in which the creative destruction of Hollywood might continue.
The result is one of the most resonant and emergent visions of cinematic fandom ever filmed. Oddly introspective and contemplative for a story so focused on the expendability of its female characters, the style is quite novelistic at times, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t need to be too visually flashy to evoke a fully inhabited and embodied cinematic milieu. And yet for a film about feminine expendability, and a film in which all three women vanish by the closing scene, All About Eve remains acutely invested in its three protagonists. Margo remains centre stage, and her charisma never really goes away, even if we don’t see her in the final scenes; Eve dominates the third act, as Margo and Karen retreat to their modified lives; and Karen provides the narration, despite being abandoned by both Eve and her husband in the latter part of the story. That determination to work against the grain of Hollywood, to evoke women who survive despite every affective structure allied against them, is the closing (and opening) note of All About Eve, which grows more unusual and visionary with every watch.