Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a Broadway diva beginning to show her age, meets the young fan who stands outside the theater after every performance (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington). Taken by her devotion, humility, and hard luck story, Margo gives Eve a job as a gofer/secretary. At first, she is delighted, but later comes to realize that Eve is ruthless and will stop at nothing to steal Margo’s career — not to mention her fiancÃ© (Gary Merrill as director Bill Simpson). Eve manipulates Margo’s friends and colleagues, becomes her understudy, and finally, after scheming to keep her away from the theater, goes on in her place, after arranging for critics to be at her performance. She takes the starring role in a new production that would have been Margo’s, and wins an award for it. But by then, Margo and her friends are back together, Eve is tied to a critic who is as ambitiously manipulative as she is, and as the movie ends, she too meets a devoted young fan who could be another Eve.
This movie, with one of the most literate scripts ever written (by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also directed) is not just the finest backstage drama ever filmed, but also a compelling parable of ambition and loyalty. Bette Davis is brilliant as Margo, bringing both the ferocity and the vulnerability of Margo to life. No one can forget her at the beginning of her party: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” She is the first to notice that Eve is not what she seems, but her friends assume it is just petty jealousy, and it only makes them want to protect Eve. That is just what Eve needs to get them to do what she wants, and it almost results in the break-up not only of Margo and Bill, but also of their best friends, playwright Lloyd Richards and his wife Karen. Ultimately, the loyalty of all four friends keeps them together. And ultimately, Eve is reigned in by someone who is her equal, acidic columnist Addison De Witt (a silky George Saunders).
This is a good movie to use to discuss how to determine what actions are appropriate to realize ambition. Compare it to movies like “Rudy” also about the achievement of a dream. It is not the dream that differs here as much as how it is achieved. Eve lies and has no compunctions about creating misery for others, while Rudy is scrupulous about meeting every requirement and doing everything with honor and integrity. Indeed, that is part of his dream; without that, it would not mean anything. “National Velvet” is another example. Velvet bends some rules (mostly by competing in a race in which girls are not allowed to ride), and relies on faith a good deal, but has enormous integrity in defining her dream and in her treatment of others.
“All About Eve” won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Best Screenplay, Best Direction, and Best Costume Design. There have been many other fine movies that offer a glimpse of life backstage. A very serious one is The Country Girl with Grace Kelly married to alcoholic former star Bing Crosby but falling in love with director William Holden. Some of the more light- hearted backstage movies include, “Mother Wore Tights,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Footlight Serenade,” “Royal Wedding,” “Footlight Parade,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Barkleys of Broadway.”
Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his brother Herman (co-author of “Citizen Kane”) were responsible for many of the finest scripts ever produced. And that is Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest appearances, as “Miss Caswell.”
It might be fun for kids to talk about the theater, and how it differs from movies. Take them to a local production, or get a book of plays for children from the library and help them produce one.