"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!"
I find it rather odd that this is the most famous line from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s renowned drama about an ambitious, conniving ingénue who infiltrates the circle surrounding a famous actress and proceeds to back-stab her way to the top. Certainly no other line is delivered with such striking panache as this one: the character of Margo Channing, an aging actress played by Bette Davis, flings it fiercely over her shoulder to her crowd of edgy friends at the famous cocktail-party scene—in an atmosphere so tense one of them describes it as “Macbeth-ish.” But the screenplay is rife with a hundred other equally memorable lines. For instance, take the following:
"The theater is all the religions of the world rolled into one," says Margo to her director and boyfriend Bill Sampson, "And we are its gods and goddesses."
That one line can be used as the key to understanding the claustrophobic world of the theater which is the focus of All About Eve. It's a film about the errors and egos of people in the theater, the behind-the-curtain politics of rising stardom; and ultimately, it is about the difference between image and identity.
Young Eve Harrington (played by Ann Baxter) is, to all appearances, as sweet and innocent as they come. But she has a near-neurotic desire to get to the top of the acting world, and gives the performance of her life to do it, by ingratiating herself with the famous but 40-year-old Margo Channing and her friends, and quietly making herself completely indispensable. Although Margo and most of her friends initially fall for the facade, one by one they begin to see through Eve's disguise, but not before she has sent irreparable earthquakes through their world on her way to the top.
The surrounding characters are unforgettable members of the theater world: they all wear a sort of mask, either with each other or with themselves. They each either do not really know themselves or are lacking in true knowledge and judgment of others. Their relationships have the passion of a religion--loyalties and devotions to the theater or to each other--but they often are confused about what or who they are loving, or what the best way to love is. Margo is the prime example; she is fiercely jealous of Eve, as she sees the younger, better actress quickly usurping her position both on and off stage. Her jealousy eventually cools when she begins to recognize her own real problem: she is uncertain of her identity. At one point, she asks her friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) in a moment of soul-searching: "Who is Margo Channing?" The result of her insecurity is border-line alcoholism, petty jealousies and bitter arguments with those she loves best.
But she's a step ahead of the other characters in that she begins to see her problem. "Funny business, a woman's career," Margo remarks to Karen, "the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. "
Margo is a "goddess" of the theater, but she is not essentially a "body with a voice" that projects human emotion, concentrated and amplified, on a stage. She is essentially a human person, and she wants to be loved for who she is, not for the image of who she is--not for what people see on the stage or what she sees in the mirror. When we first see Margo, she is busying herself in front of a mirror; if Eve's conniving did one good thing, it was to draw Margo's eyes away from the mirror long enough to see herself for who she really is, and to realize what she really wants from life.
Of all the masks worn in the film, the most convincing is Eve's. Eve has sacrificed her real identity for a made-up name and image which she can use to get the glory and fame she so desires. She never lets this mask drop unless forced to--never lets a soul see the insatiable thirst for adulation and stardom underneath. Baxter's performance is strangely intense and perhaps deliberately melodramatic: her sweetness is almost too sweet, her overtures too poetic and emotional. The effect is to make her lies and back-stabbing and heartless ambition all the more of a contrast with her external character. And when her mask is finally ripped off, it is the same effect as that given when the final piece is slipped into place in a jigsaw puzzle. It fits. It all suddenly makes sense.
It is somehow all the more fitting because the character who rips away her mask is not a righteous character. It's another villain: Addison DeWitt, a theater critic, who is just as heartless and cynical and vicious as Eve. DeWitt's presence throughout the film, as a witty and laconic side-figure who helped boost Eve to the top, also suddenly falls into its proper place when he is the one to administer justice. He has his own mask, but in exposing Eve's, he lets his drop a little, too. He has a strange Mephistophelian charm, a cruel self-confidence; so when he blackmails Eve into doing his will, it feels as though the devil has just coolly demanded the payment of his contract--one soul in exchange for the world. At the same time, DeWitt is quite aware of his own vices and has no desire to change them. "That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability," he tells Eve, "But that in itself is probably the reason: You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other."
Indeed they do; suffering with the reality of their own ugly identity is the self-imposed wages of their sins. That is why both Eve and DeWitt are present again at the ominous final scene of the film, when a young and pretty high-schooler with the pseudonym Phoebe quietly ingratiates herself with a now-apathetic Eve by offering the weary actress assistance. In a perfectly brilliant moment of cinematography, the girl sneaks into Eve's bedroom, tries on her fancy coat, and stands before Eve's tri-paneled mirror holding an acting award. The camera zooms in to see it from the girl's perspective--a thousand images of herself triple-reflected in the mirror, extending into dim infinity. This one shot encapsulates the whole point of All About Eve, and its message is clear: she too is a devotee of the religion of the theater, and to become someday one of its "goddesses," she will not think twice about sacrificing her real identity to a "graven image" of herself.