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All About Eve: An Analysis

To:  Professor Koschmann

From:  Rebecca G. Agee

Date: 6 December 2009

All About Eve: An Analysis

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950)[1] is the story of the rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an ambitious and manipulative young actress.  Under a guise of meekness, the scheming Eve manages to befriend a great lady of Broadway, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and her intimate circle of friends.  Along the way, she tries to seduce Margo’s love interest, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), steal Margo’s roles (and limelight) and break-up the marriage between playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife (and Margo’s best friend), Karen (Celeste Holm).  As a result of her machinations–and her association with acid-tongued theatre critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders)–Eve eventually finds success. Ultimately, All About Eve both portrays and questions the humanity (or the lack, thereof) of individuals who stop at nothing in order to achieve fame and fortune.

All About Eve garnered six academy awards, including that of Best Picture of 1950. It’s noted for its outstanding, witty dialogue, the revitalization of Bette Davis’ latter-day career and the uniquely successful marriage of theatrical sensibility and cinematic form.

In the following paper I will be using the theories and ideas proposed by Metz[2], Mulvey[3] and Doty[4] to conduct a critical analysis of All About Eve. In his essay, “Identification, Mirror and The Passion for Perceiving,”[5] Metz applies the system of semiotics to the examination of film. He suggests that the physical and psychological aspects of the cinematic experience are based on the perception and interpretation of signifiers. Many of his ideas (which stem from Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacan’s concept of mirror identification)[6] emphasize the types (and effects) of pleasures film spectators receive through scopophillic, and voyeuristic viewing.

Mulvey’s “male gaze” concept, from her seminal work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”[7] is a critical contribution to feminist theory. Expounding and expanding on ideas suggested by Metz and Lacan,[8] Mulvey contends that the female film character serves as image, while the primary male character acts as “bearer of the look.” [9]The “look” is that of male spectatorship, which the male protagonist incorporates and acts as vicarious instrument in order to gaze and pursue the female. According to Mulvey, the male …“As a spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.”[10]

Working from within the realm of queer theory, Doty supports the notion of a “female gaze”[11]—one that establishes and emboldens (what appears to be) the forgotten power of the female spectator and the female protagonist.  The female gaze is based on recent queer studies—which as Doty suggests—includes particular forms of gay and lesbian characterization, authorization, dialogue and auteurship.[12]

If, as Metz writes, “Thus film is like the mirror”[13]then All About Eve is a Lacanian funhouse of mirrors. It is not only a ‘cinematic’ mirror, reflecting imagery for the film spectator’s pleasure—it also contains key scenes and pieces of business where a mirror plays a vital (if quiet) role.

The first instance of mirror-presence is in Margo’s backstage dressing room, where she and her friends first meet and ‘get to know’ Eve. Most of this scene takes place with the dressing-table mirror as either the centerpiece or backdrop to the conversation. The second mirror-sighting occurs during Eve’s ‘employment’ as personal assistant to Margo. Once again, at Margo’s backstage dressing table mirror, Eve–staring at her own reflection and fussing with her–hair mentions her “…latest bit of interior decorating.”[14]

The third example is the extremely telling scene where Eve–holding Margo’s dress–bows to her own image (and an imaginary audience) in a standing mirror when she is supposed to be delivering the dress to the wardrobe person. The fourth use of a mirror is a quick one—a swift view of a wall-mirror in Margo’s bedroom while she and companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter) share knowing looks after Eve’s announcement that she sent Bill birthday messages.

The fifth instance happens prior to Bill’s birthday party, Margo dresses in front of her bedroom mirror and discusses the whereabouts of ‘late’ Bill with Birdie. Later, the sixth example occurs as Karen, fixing her hair at the same bedroom mirror, discusses fur coats and (more importantly) the possibility of an understudy role, with Eve. The next mirror-sighting is once again in  (what is now) Eve’s backstage dressing room. Eve attempts (and fails) to seduce Bill—and in frustration slings her wig at the mirror. The eighth instance is in Eve’s room after the Sarah Siddons Society Awards Banquet—when Eve first spies the reflection of Phoebe (Barbara Bates) asleep in a chair.

The final and perhaps most telling and memorable of all the mirror-uses is that of Phoebe, draped in Eve’s gown and clutching Eve’s award, bowing before a hall of reflecting images of herself, her more perfect “self,”—a myriad of reflections of all of the other Phoebes/Eves which will continue to come—endlessly–armed with narcissism, ambition and a certain non-humanity.

The strong presence of mirrors in All About Eve contains several connotations. Firstly, it supports the notion that the film is both a vehicle of spectator gaze as well as a metaphor for the entire filmic experience. As a perfect image of “self,” the mirrored reflection has a natural home in a film that primarily deals with the egos of actors.

The characters whose mirrored-reflection is most often portrayed in All About Eve are those who are most concerned with image and/or career viability—the actors (Eve, Margo and Phoebe). Psychologically, where Eve is concerned, the mirror offers a multitude of possibilities: Eve is all about (no pun intended) image, perfection—the importance of not revealing what is really going on internally—but exhibiting an externality of what she thinks is correct (self-love/ego), what those around her perceive (those who can help her achieve her goals) and especially, the spectator– both of the theatrical variety as well as the cinematic—all of which contribute to the production and function of “the gaze.”[15]

Further, the aforementioned internal theatrical setting of All About Eve lends it the necessary “empty space” or “gulf” between “object and eye” that–which Metz writes–is a necessary component for the voyeur[16]; however, as a film, it naturally serves as an example of “scopic regime.”[17] Metz offers the differences between theatre and cinema in terms of spectator experience:

What distinguishes the cinema is an extra reduplication, a supplementary and

specific turn of the screw bolting desire to the lack…what defines the specifically

cinematic scopic regime is not so much the distance kept,  the “keeping” itself

(first figure of the lack, common to all voyeurism) as the absence of the object

seen.[18]

Interestingly, several characters in All About Eve disparage film, Hollywood, etc. (These include Eve and Birdie); however, Bill’s  (and possibly Mankiewicz’s) slant on the differences between theatre and cinema runs contrary. After Eve expresses concern that Bill is leaving “the theatre for Hollywood”[19] he argues that “everything is theatre…Donald Duck…a flea circus… wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience, there’s theatre…”[20] To Bill, even Hollywood is theatre.

Gazing itself is intrinsic to the narrative/plot of All About Eve. The film opens with everyone gazing and listening to the speaker at the Sarah Siddons Society Awards Banquet—and it ends with Phoebe gazing at her own endlessly reflecting image.  As theatre critic, Addison DeWitt’s profession is literally one of gazing. The Broadway/theatrical setting is of course, all about gazing (of audiences, actors, etc.).   Essentially, just as Douchet writes of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954),[21] All About Eve is a “…metaphor for the cinema”[22]—filled with moments of gazing courtesy of its many mirrors, its theatrical setting and intense character relationships, to which I now turn.

Typically, the male gaze of which Mulvey writes centers around the two main female images in All About Eve—Margo and Eve—with Bill as the “bearer of the look.”  Margo’s continued quest for fame and her insecurities concerning her age and appearance are, ultimately, not based on the need for theatrical audience approval—but for that of the look-bearer, Bill.

Discussing Margo’s age-related anxieties, Lloyd states, “Week after week, to thousands of people you’re as young as you want.”[23] To which Margo remarks, “As young as they want, you mean. I’m not interested in whether thousands of people think I’m six or six hundred.”[24] To which Lloyd replies (referring to Bill), “ Just one person, isn’t that so?”[25]

Similarly, Eve wants adoration from Bill, but not as it represents Bill’s affection (as bearer of the look) but as its use as a necessary stepping-stone to the fame and adulation she desires from the theatrical audience. In this sense, Margo’s image/identity is one based on the need/desire for fetishism and scopophillia, while Eve’s desires lean toward that of sadomasochistic voyeurism.[26] It is hardly surprising that Eve winds up with the cruelest character of the film, Addison DeWitt, of whose “desire” she quickly succumbs after he slaps her. Film critic Staggs writes, “Referring to the hotel-room scene where Addison slaps Eve, (production-code head) Joseph Breen wrote demurely, ‘We ask that the slap across the face be eliminated.’  It wasn’t and when Breen saw this slap on screen in its context of implied sadomasochism, he may well have bemoaned the leniency in letting the pagans retain such perversion.”[27]

Karen’s image/identity (and her insecurities concerning her marriage) are a lesser replication of Margo’s. She, too, is the object of fetishism, but on a much smaller scale.  She is, after all, not an actress—but as “the wife of a playwright” [28] –as Addison DeWitt states–she is only “theatre by marriage.”[29]

Karen’s image issues are never intertwined with the limelight or theatrical ambitions—as are those of Margo and Eve. The gaze Karen wishes to maintain is fore-mostly that of her husband, Lloyd. Because Lloyd is not the sadistic voyeur-type (ala DeWitt) his relationship with Eve is never a true threat to his marriage to Karen.  Lloyd lacks the necessary ‘tools’ of the voyeur. As Mulvey writes: “The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned on to the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman…”[30] Eve may have the requisite, established guilt –but Lloyd lacks any kind of true power, legal or otherwise.

As aforementioned, Doty suggests the existence of “queer auteurship”[31] within the cinematic experience. He cites Mankiewicz as one of a group of heterosexual filmmakers who is “made” queer auteur because “…their films hold, or have held, particularly meaningful places with queer cultural history, with or without knowledge of the director’s sexuality.”[32] All About Eve is a showcase of Doty’s contention that as writer/director Mankiewicz utilizes particular aspects of queer culture.

The  “female gaze” that Doty describes as both consequence of male suppression (and male gaze) and function of lesbian desire is represented throughout the film. The most prominent (and important) female gaze is that which Eve fixes on Margo.  This gaze is blatant and full of purpose, design. As Birdie describes it to Margo, “…like she’s studying ya (sic). Like you was (sic) a play or a book or a set of blueprints.”[33] Margo repeats these comments (almost verbatim) to Bill prior to his birthday party.

Further, neither companion Birdie nor best friend Karen has aversions when it comes to gazing at Margo. In fact, Margo—as lady of Broadway—is the object of a lot of male—and female–voyeuristic gazing. Eventually, Eve replaces Margo in this capacity as her star rises and Margo marries and retires. The gaze Phoebe quickly fastens on Eve replaces the one-on-one fetishistic gaze Eve heaped on Margo early on—thusly guaranteeing a continuing cycle of female gazing,

Other features of queer culture assert themselves throughout All About Eve. Bette Davis, a perennial favorite within the gay community, portrays Margo—the type of dominating Broadway presence often revered by gays. Addison DeWitt –whom Lloyd (tellingly) calls “…that venomous fish-wife”[34]–is the quintessential ‘confirmed bachelor,’ He has exquisite taste, charm and the nubile Miss Caswell (portrayed by another gay cultural icon, Marilyn Monroe) on his arm when he needs the ‘safety’ of an escort.

Further, Mankiewicz’s script is replete with (direct and indirect) gay/lesbian dialogue., including: Karen to Margo (referring to Eve): “…she worships you. It’s…it’s like something out of a book. …You’re her whole life.”[35] Eve: “I’d like anything Miss Channing played in.”[36] In response to Margo’s remark, “There are other plays”[37] Eve replies, “Not with you in them.”[38] Margo to Bill (referring to Fox producer, Darryl F. Zanuck): “Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck—what are you two, lovers?”[39] Bill: “Only in some ways.”[40] Margo to Bill (referring to Eve): “Suddenly I’ve developed a big protective feeling toward her.”[41] Margo describing the early days of Eve’s employment/relationship with her: “The honeymoon was on.”[42] In response to Bill’s asking if she needs help going to bed, Margo asks: “To put me to bed? Take my clothes off, hold my hand, tuck me in, turn out the lights and tip toe out. Eve would, wouldn’t you, Eve?”[43] Eve: “If you’d like.”[44]

As aforementioned, Eve is not the only female character who demonstrates strong female interest in Margo. Noteworthy also is Margo’s “companion” Birdie. It is obvious early on that older, man-less, ex-Vaudeville “gal” Birdie has strong bonds with unmarried Margo.  Further, there are noticeable implications of Birdie’s dislike (jealousy?) of Eve’s relationship with Margo well before Eve’s true nature begins to show—such as her snide comments regarding Eve’s attempts at decorating Margo’s dressing room. Luckily for Birdie, Eve eventually reveals her conniving and manipulating character, which results in Margo’s giving her the “heave-ho” [45] and effectively propelling Margo back under Birdie’s protective wing (pun intended).

Like so many other works of art, All About Eve is a film that shines with subtlety and nuances that cry out for a variety of interpretations. There is its institutional framing of a traditional Hollywood film—one created within the context of the dominant, patriarchal culture. There is also its status as a medium for feminist text and its position as an enduring representation of gay/lesbian iconicity and culture. Further, there is its status as winner of numerous academy awards, film history citations and the vehicle that best represents and forever congeals the talents of both Bette Davis and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  All About Eve is a timeless film that both represents and reflects many different things to many different people—perhaps that is what great art does best.


[1] Mankiewicz, J. [Director], All About Eve, [USA: Twentieth-Century Fox], 1950.

[2] Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier, “ Screen 1975. 16: 14-76.

[3] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004) 837-848.

[4] Alexander Doty, “Whose Text is it Anyway? Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Authorship,” Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin (London: Routledge, 2005) 17-38.

[5] Metz 14-76.

[6] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2009) A child’s “mirror phase” as the moment a child recognizes his or her own reflection, at once comprehending the more complete, realized version of “self” and body and how the image is an alienated one, existing as it does outside of his/her self; this moment constitutes both the formation of ego and a passion for one’s image.

[7] Mulvey 837-848.

[8] Mulvey 840 Like Metz, Mulvey contends spectators have a Lacanian interest in their own image and those that appear on the movie screen; it is this idea that feeds into the “gaze” and its various forms.

[9] Mulvey 841.

[10] Mulvey 842.

[11] Doty 29.

[12] Doty 17-20.

[13] Metz  822.

[14] Mankiewicz 1950.

[15] Mulvey 837-848.

[16] Metz 828-830.

[17] Metz 828-830.

[18] Metz 829.

[19] Mankiewicz 1950.

[20] Mankiewicz 1950.

[21] Jean Douchet, “ Hitch et son Public,” Cahiers du Cinema, Nov. 1960: 10.

[22] Mulvey 845.

[23] Mankiewicz 1950.

[24] Mankiewicz 1950 (italics mine).

[25] Mankiewicz 1950.

[26] Mulvey  844.

[27] Sam Staggs, All About “All About Eve,” (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000) 57.

[28] Mankiewicz 1950.

[29] Mankiewicz 1950.

[30] Mulvey 845.

[31] Doty 29.

[32] Doty 24.

[33] Mankiewicz 1950.

[34] Mankiewicz 1950.

[35] Mankiewicz 1950.

[36] Mankiewicz 1950 (italics mine).

[37] Mankiewicz 1950.

[38] Mankiewicz 1950.

[39] Mankiewicz 1950.

[40] Mankiewicz 1950.

[41] Mankiewicz 1950.

[42] Mankiewicz 1950.

[43] Mankiewicz 1950.

[44] Mankiewicz 1950.

[45] Mankiewicz 1950.

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Discussion

One thought on “All About Eve: An Analysis

  1. Hi!
    Thanks for your essay – interesting. I don’t see Eve’s obsession with Margo as queer, though I’m sure she’d have sex with Margo if it was going to get her somewhere! Eve has narcissistic personality disorder. She studies Margo intimately because she wants everything Margo has. She feels she is more deserving, and day by day, she steals Margo’s life from her.
    Freaks with NPD are incredibly ruthless and cut others off completely when they no longer serve their purpose or are uncovered. They’re experts at hiding their devious ways, and are total liars.
    Despite Margo having some narcissistic tendencies, I don’t think she has a personality disorder like Eve. Margo could be a bitch, but she never lied about who she was.
    Cheers

    Posted by Mish | May 15, 2013, 6:42 am

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