When I was a theater-struck kid in Chicago, the only important local honor for actors was the Sarah Siddons Award. I learned decades later that it was, in fact, a publicity scam, hatched by a 20th Century Fox press rep promoting All About Eve. What better plug than a “real” version of the fictional award Eve Harrington receives in the movie’s opening scene? Truly, everything about the theater is an illusion. And Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s movie is a hymn to the power of that illusion—one that still seems fresh and pertinent half a century later, celebrating its golden anniversary this week at Film Forum.
It’s not an affectionate tribute. Mankiewicz’s view of the theater is snide, cynical, and condescending. But as all old theater hands know, negativity is the best setup for bedazzlement. In All About Eve‘s magical backstage world, everyone betrays everyone else, everyone loses it and says things they later regret, and they all, ultimately, kiss and make up, while the illusion business keeps rolling along. Steeped in the theater’s ways without being of it, Mankiewicz lets them have their outrageous say, zooming in for long, lush close-ups while they threnodize, rhapsodize, or vituperate in aria-length speeches. Laden with antique stage lore—Clyde Fitch, Mrs. Fiske, Eliza crossing the ice—the script’s a patchwork quilt of theatrical manners, folkways, superstitions, and gossip. Mankiewicz turns it into a unified work through the ornate sparkle of his dialogue and three generations’ worth of overripe performers, from the 70-year-old onetime stage star Walter Hampden to the not-yet-bombshellian Marilyn Monroe.
The story is built on a horror-movie matrix, with deliciously clunky Anne Baxter, whose every move rings eerily false, as Eve, stage-door worshiper turned husband-stealing backstabber. She gets away with her depredations because she’s up against a pyramid of vulnerable egos, topped by reigning diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). The Van Helsing who stops Eve is, ironically, an even bigger monster: the critic Addison deWitt (George Sanders), who views theater people as “backward children” and thinks Eve shares his contempt. The irony’s on him, for Mankiewicz makes it clear (Production Code notwithstanding) that Eve’s urge to disrupt hetero couplings stems in part from her own lesbian preferences. (The sexual ambiguity tiptoes in early: This must be the only movie in which the heroine accuses her fiancé of being Darryl Zanuck’s lover.) Pre-Stonewall gays relished the hints of closeted activity as much as theatricals did the in-jokes; between them, All About Eve has one of the largest cult followings in moviedom. With elegant malice, Mankiewicz doesn’t let his own art off the hook either: At the close, Eve’s preparing to carry her machinations to Hollywood. “I’ll be back,” she warns, but history tells a different story about theatrical migrants to the Coast. What a pity Mankiewicz didn’t make Eve in Hollywood instead of The Barefoot Contessa.