All About Eve is a perfect feminist film – how did the play get it so wrong?

The barbed 1950 film about complex, ambitious women is as fresh as ever, and the model for The Favourite. But the play’s depiction of the central character is utterly flaccid

It’s the car scene that gets you in All About Eve, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s radical 1950 film about an obsessed fan, Eve Harrington, who tries to muscle in and steal the life of her favourite Broadway star.

Bette Davis plays that star, cinema’s great feminist heroine Margo Channing. She has it all: fame, talent, wealth, beauty, a devoted partner, loyal friends. But she is 40, childless and tired of playing characters who are in their 20s (“Be a playwright with guts,” she tells the most successful writer in America. “Write me one about a nice normal woman who just shoots her husband”). She should be on stage but she is stuck, in the cold and dark, in a car that has run out of petrol, acidulously contemplating what it is – and what has to be sacrificed – to be a successful woman.

“It’s a funny business, a woman’s career,” she says. “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster – you forget you need them again when you get back to being a woman. It’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.”

It is a monologue so painfully fresh it could have been written yesterday. That is perhaps why this barbed tale of female ambition that is so deft in its depiction of the inner lives and complexities of women continues to fascinate audiences and artists. It is the basis for Oscar-tipped film The Favourite, in which Emma Stone plays a young upstart, Abigail, who is deviously trying to replace Rachel Weisz as the favourite handmaid of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). And it is currently being revived, albeit limply, in the West End, with Gillian Anderson as Channing and Lily James as Eve.

Lily James as Eve and Gillian Anderson as Margo in All About Eve at the Noël Coward Theatre
Lily James as Eve and Gillian Anderson as Margo in All About Eve at the Noël Coward Theatre. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

“It’s an astonishment every time you see All About Eve,” says Deborah Davis, screenwriter of The Favourite. “The story of this young ingenue creeping into an older woman’s life and taking over is absolutely fascinating to me. I went to an all-girls school where this was going on all the time. We were all busy nicking each other’s friends and making each other’s lives a misery.”

“It was definitely a model for The Favourite,” she says, particularly the character of Eve, on whom she modelled Abigail in the absence of any real historical details. “For me, Abigail is a sociopath and so is Eve Harrington. Neither of them have any conscience. Eve goes in, she lies about her background, she ingratiates herself into Margo Channing’s life and then we gradually see her ambition unfolding. There is a fantastic scene where she’s standing in front of the mirror with Margo’s dress held up against her. You know what’s going on. It’s just a question of how she’s going to get to wear that dress herself, and when.”

That is not to say the other women in the cast are pushovers – far from it. Channing’s longstanding maid, Birdie, realises exactly what Eve is from the very first scene. “She’s studying you,” she warns. When Margo’s best friend Karen Richards catches on, her playwright husband accuses her of being a cynic. “That cynicism you refer to is something I acquired the day I realised I was different from little boys,” she hisses back.

“All the wittiest lines in the film belong to the women,” says film critic Molly Haskell. “These women are never just pathetic. Mankiewicz is so fascinated by women and sympathetic towards them: he gives them importance, he gives them idiosyncrasy, he gives them their personalities.”

This is not just reserved for the lead characters. As Haskell points out, in Karen’s sharpness against her husband, “Mankiewicz sees the plight of the wife and how she’s finally getting her own back for all the things she does but doesn’t get credit for.”

No conscience ... Emma Stone as the Eve-like, sociopathic Abigail, right, with Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. Photograph: Allstar/Film4
No conscience ... Emma Stone as the Eve-like, sociopathic Abigail, right, with Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. Photograph: Allstar/Film4 Photograph: Allstar/FILM4

So many films from that era don’t hold up, but All About Eve still feels radical. It takes the theme of women being silenced, forced to listen to men and learn from them regardless of their own talents, and turns men into the butt of the joke. When Margo throws a birthday party for her partner, the director Bill Sampson, the poison-penned theatre critic Addison DeWitt turns up with a young blonde on his arm, a Miss Caswell (played by the then little-known Marilyn Monroe). Channing suggests Eve and DeWitt should talk about their shared love of the theatre. “I’m afraid Mr DeWitt might find me boring after too long,” says Eve, saccharinely coy. “Oh you won’t bore him, honey,” says Miss Caswell. “You won’t even get the chance to talk.”

It is an extraordinary scene, says Haskell, “especially when you consider that Monroe’s character is not meant to have lines. She’s meant to be just a bimbo. Yet out of this bimbo come these words of wisdom. Everyone has dignity and authority in their own way in the movie.”

None more so than Margo Channing. There is a brittleness and defiance about her that never falters. She has worked out exactly what Eve is doing as Bill arrives for his party and spends the first 20 minutes locked in conversation with her. Margo confronts him; he calls her paranoid, insecure, says she should be ashamed of herself. She remains poised. Is her tantrum over, Karen asks? Absolutely not. “Fasten your seatbelts,” she says. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

There are so many traps that All About Eve could have fallen into: Eve could have been the victim, or the underdog we cheer for; Margo could have been a gargoyle or a caricature (like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or, indeed, so many other films with older women). And yet it is clear that while Eve may get what she wants professionally, it is Margo who gets what really matters in the end: loyalty, love, friendship and recognition. Eve ends the film as she begins it: entirely alone, and dangling.

Bette Davis’s Margo with Gary Merrill as Bill in All About Eve
Margo gets what really matters in the end: loyalty, love and friendship ... Bette Davis’s Margo with Gary Merrill as Bill in All About Eve. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20 Century Fox Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20 CENTURY FOX

Theatre director Ivo van Hove’s resurrection of the stage play falls into these traps and more. His reincarnation of Margo (played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson) is not only flaccid but insulting. We see Margo so drunk that she vomits into a toilet bowl, slurring her “buckle up” line, and collapsing into bed alone. She howls into the mirror as an animation shows her face morphing into an elderly woman’s. Of course Margo complains about ageing in the film – she has a younger boyfriend, after all – but it doesn’t destabilise her in the way it’s put forward here. Her concern about ageing is not, as van Hove would have it, about what she looks like. It is about the obvious truth that men have more freedom than women as they grow older. With Eve, he tries to garner sympathy: she weeps when Margo calls her out and men reject her. This is not Eve Harrington as we know and loathe her.

It says something about a male director that he would take one of cinema’s greatest scripts, one that puts complex, difficult, powerful and ambitious women at its centre, and reduce the main characters to wailing, reckless divas who cry about a few crow’s feet under the eyes or beg their husbands not to leave them.

“What possible thing does it add to it?” says theatre critic Natasha Tripney, who has been critical of Van Hove’s depictions of female leads before. “It undermines the possession and control Margo Channing has over her life and shows her instead as a sad drunk in her bathroom.”

Margo’s life is under threat, but she manages to negotiate that threat in the film in a way that is absent from this stage adaptation. “It’s a reduction of both of these fantastic characters” not to honour that, says Tripney. At the end of it all, Margo stays in control of her life, while Eve is at the behest of others, or at least her ability to manipulate others.

All About Eve will continue to enthral. It has done so for almost 70 years and it will do so for many more. “It is all those things - vanity, envy, jealousy – that are quite fascinating to explore in the dramatic form,” says Davis, who is up for an Oscar for The Favourite’s screenplay. And it thrills us because it makes us, as women, feel seen in all our grit and glory. It is complicated, confusing, spiteful, fiercely intelligent and, at the end of it all, entirely real.


Jenny Stevens

The GuardianTramp

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