“All About Eve” was a triumph forged in a crucible of rancor and suspicion. Bette Davis bludgeoned the actress who played her onscreen confidant, Celeste Holm, as the “one bitch in the cast,” before adding cattily that George Sanders was also a “bitch” (she’d learned he was bisexual through Henry Fonda), then circling back for a swipe at Marilyn Monroe: “That blonde little slut couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag.” Monroe, who sobbed and vomited after shooting both her scenes with Davis, shot back: “That woman hates every female who can walk. She’s a mean old broad.”
The cast’s distrust mirrored the dynamics of the screenplay. “All About Eve” was built on a simple premise: There’s a viper in the nest. Bereaved widow Eve Harrington emerges from the shadowy alley in a rain-soaked trench coat, worms her way into stage actress Margo Channing’s inner-circle, then schemes and backstabs her way to the apex of the theater world.
But the story of the ambitious ingénue kneecapping the aging diva also captured the political zeitgeist during the Cold War. The Red Scare injected paranoia into American culture, inducing a paralyzing dread at the prospect of Communist infiltration. When Bill Sampson pleads with Margo to contain her “paranoic outbursts” and “paranoic tantrums,” he’s channeling the sense that the American psyche is at risk of being torn apart by anxiety over covert invasion. But the scale of the Cold War was unmanageable. The solution was to convert the domestic security of the nation into the domestic security of the nuclear family. The infiltrator went from Communist pinko to lavender menace.
The blackmailing, the rampant paranoia, the botched sexual seductions, the grasping after respectability—all these pieces fall into place only with a single realization: Eve is incidentally an aspiring actress but essentially a ruthless lesbian. The film falls squarely in that stretch of years when Hollywood had fallen under the heel of the Production Code, which, starting in 1934 forbade, among other obscenities, “any inference of sex perversion.” Perversely enough, the prohibition on explicit references to homosexuality made it the perfect menace. The unspeakability of the looming danger ratchets up the sense of dread.
The idyllic home under siege was an old Hollywood trope. In the white supremacist era of Jim Crow, “Gone with the Wind” managed fears over African-American reprisal by displacing white guilt onto a host of enemies—northern aggressors, carpetbaggers, General Sherman’s army of invaders—who reduce genteel plantations to rubble. Scarlett’s triumphant restoration of Tara metaphorically restores the integrity of the southern home. In fact, the last century is littered with examples of movies that peddled a pernicious myth of purity under siege, from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” here at home or Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” abroad.
I grew up in the late 1980s and 90s, when the trope of the diabolical home invader was in full force. The mother who hires a nanny, cautioned “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” is liable to have her infant purloined, her husband seduced, and her careerist feminist friend fatally mangled by falling glass. “Fatal Attraction” warned of a high-heeled vamp breaching the home to boil the beloved pet rabbit. The invasive homewrecker drifted as a go-to Hollywood trope across the decades as a backlash against progressive social change.
But “All About Eve” undercuts its own pretensions to decency. Eve Harrington’s origins story is a humble tale of hardscrabble survival, anchored by vignettes of farm life in Wisconsin, a grueling stint as a secretary in a brewery, and an ill-starred marriage to a now-perished war-hero. But Birdie cuts in to quip, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” The vaudeville veteran sees right through this charade of benighted widowhood, peeling back the veneer to reveal the specimen of ruthless ambition beneath. On this level, Mankiewicz’s film is a masterwork of subversion, a precursor to films that savaged the American love affair with normalcy—“The Graduate,” “Blue Velvet,” “American Beauty,” and “Fight Club” among them.
That’s why “All About Eve” is essential viewing for our time. It reminds us that the call to “Make America Great Again,” buttressed by accusations of infiltration—trans people in bathrooms, nasty women in journalism, Jews replacing “us”—is built on an ugly illusion of purity in the heartland. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film guillotined the puerile myth of American innocence. It should stay dead.
Tom Joudrey writes about queer entertainment and politics. His work has appeared in Slate and The Guardian, among others.