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Motherhood, fertility, and creativity in Mankiewitz's All About Eve.

The 1950 screen classic All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewitz, constructs mother-daughter relationships to analyze fertility, creativity, and the reproduction of art. Set against the backdrop of the theater, Mankiewitz's film explores the mentoring and the creative relationships among women in the world of art, relationships that are often more productive than the ones with the men in their lives. Mankiewitz's film chronicles the artistic rise of the child-like and manipulative Eve Harrington, a twenty-four-year-old aspiring starlet who connives her way into both the life and the career of forty-year-old established actress Margo Channing. In the film, mentoring relationships are cultivated among the leading female characters, women who grapple with identity formation and self-development while struggling to distinguish reality from art. At the end, the mentoring cycle is continued when the even younger Phoebe, a high-school student from Brooklyn, attaches herself to Eve, suggesting the cycle will continue for successive generations of artists. The mentoring relationships in Mankiewitz's film resemble the relationships between mothers and daughters, and fertility and creativity are manifested by the reproduction of art. The relationships between Karen and Eve, Margo and Eve, and Eve and Phoebe imitate and parallel the relationships of mothers and daughters. These women, with the help of their artist husbands and lovers, perpetuate creativity in the world of performing arts.

Existing scholarship focuses on the physical and emotional relationships between characters, and does not yet explore the creative and artistic aspects of fertility. The importance of the film's artistic relationships is never expressed in the original Hollywood marketing, neither is it stressed in subsequent packages made available for home viewing. The original theatrical trailer, available as a special feature on the 20th Century Fox DVD package, maintains the film is "all about women, and their men." Movie-house posters show three couples walking hand-in-hand: Margo and Bill, Karen and Lloyd, and Eve and Addison. In this way, the theatrical trailer and film advertising utilize traditional Hollywood marketing practices to support a heterosexual film structure, a structure that demands positive resolution of the male-female relationships. Mankiewitz resolves these relationships in the background by furnishing the requisite, traditional Hollywood happy ending that perfectly matches the three major movie couples. At the same time, the artistic relationships between the mentoring mothers and their surrogate daughters remain paramount throughout the film.

The film begins at a fictional awards ceremony, introducing the major characters and events before telling the balance of the story in flashback. Eve Harrington is being presented the Sara Siddons Award for distinguished achievement in the theater. The foreground commentary is shifted between the central characters recalling the recent events surrounding Eve's rise to stardom, and the aged actor who presents to Eve her award: "Some of us have been privileged to have known her. We have seen beyond the beauty and artistry that have made her name resound through the nation." He praises Eve for her "loyalty to her art" and notes, "She has had one wish, one prayer, one dream--to belong to us. Tonight her dream has come true." As Eve herself recalls, "acting and make-believe began to fill out my life more and more. It got so I couldn't tell the real from the unreal--except that the unreal seemed more real to me." In the film's theater world, the essence of life and fertility is the creation of art and the maintenance of illusion; motherhood is manifested in both the creative and the mentoring processes.

Karen Richards surfaces as the first mentoring mother for Eve, for it is Karen who first embraces Eve, deciding she should meet Margo one night back stage. In doing so, Karen initiates not only the physical events of the storyline, but also the fecund events of the creative process. As Karen recounts, it "was only last October" that she found herself looking "for someone I've never met," searching for Eve in the shadows and the wind and the rain. Karen continues: "It's June now ...," and reflects, "in the theater, a lifetime's a season and a season's a lifetime." Thus, the theatrical season of nine months mirrors the length of a typical human pregnancy. Mankiewitz in this way permits the otherwise childless Karen to introduce Eve to Margo, and like a protective mother, she becomes sensitive to Eve, constantly looking after her and checking to ensure that all is well in Eve' s life.

At the same time, Karen struggles with her own identity issues. In the film's artistic world, Karen dismisses herself as "just a playwright's wife" and "the lowest form of celebrity," a woman who has nothing more to offer than "love for her husband." Addison DeWitt, the film's theater critic and primary narrator, describes Karen as, "the theater by marriage. Nothing in her background or breeding should have brought her any closer to the stage than row 'E, Center.'" Karen is married to Lloyd Richards, who is "commercially the most successful playwright [in the fictional theater] and artistically the most promising." Lloyd is the writer of several successive, successful plays that are "vehicles for Miss Channing." Karen realizes however, "everything Lloyd loved about me he had grown used to long ago." Indeed, the only time we see Karen and Lloyd in bed, they are in beds separated by a nightstand and placed at different angles. While likely a side effect of the film censorship that dominated the 1950s, this curious placement also suggests that art is more fertile than reality, and that for this film the creative process between playwright and actress is more life giving than the copulative process between husband and wife.

In Margo's dressing room, the distinction between art and reality is blurred. Still in make-up and character from the evening's performance of Aged in Wood, Margo asks Lloyd to write a play about "a nice, normal woman who just shoots her husband." Not knowing Eve is on the other side of the dressing room door, Margo vociferates her opinion of her fans:
   [They're] autograph fiends. They're not people. Those little beasts
   that run around in packs like coyotes.... They're nobody's fans.
   They're juvenile delinquents; they're mental defectives; they're
   nobody's audience. They've never seen a play or a movie even.
   They're never indoors long enough.

At the same time, Margo realizes it is the audience she is constantly playing to and that art must be first created to be appreciated. According to Karen, Margo is "talented, famous, and wealthy" with people waiting in line night after night in the wind and the rain to see her perform. As a woman, Margo struggles to find her own identity, unable to distinguish between herself and her name "spelled out in light bulbs." But as an artist, Margo is a life-giving mother to her audience. She gives them a performance that is Art. She also gives them Life.

After hearing Eve's story about being a war widow in a Milwaukee brewery, however, Margo embraces Eve, and allows herself to become a nurturing mother-mentor offstage for the first time. The two take Bill Sampson, Margo's lover and director, to the airport for a trip to California to direct a film. After leaving the airport, Margo moves Eve, along with her "few, pitiful possessions," into her guesthouse. As Margo relates to Bill, the theater is "all the world's religions rolled into one, and we're gods and goddesses." As Mother-Goddess, Margo naturally emerges as a parental figure for Eve: "Suddenly I've developed a big protective feeling toward her," she relates to Bill at the airport. To Margo, Eve is "a little lost lamb in a jungle." Margo's protective feelings, and her resulting nurturing of Eve, evolve into a maternal relationship, one that parallels a typical mother-daughter relationship.

It naturally follows that much as daughters emulate their mothers, Eve scrutinizes Margo in order to perfect her craft both as an actress and a woman. In Margo's home Eve grows up, entering into creative adulthood. Eve worships the Mother-Goddess, shields her, protects her, and gradually takes over her life. As Birdie Coonan, Margo's housekeeper/companion/best friend notes, Eve studies Margo as though she were a "play or a book or a set of blueprints, how she walks, talks, thinks, acts, sleeps" in the hopes of one day playing Margo on stage, or perhaps even in life. Eve wears Margo's cast-off clothing offstage, and fantasizes about wearing Margo's onstage wardrobe. Judith Roof posits Birdie has good reason to be suspicious of Eve: "As Margo's old friend and factotum, Birdie has access to the inner sanctum--the safe private space of bathroom, girdles, and imperious star moodiness--but she also has the privilege of being able to speak frankly to Margo without worrying about celebrity ego" (100). By this point in the film, Eve effectively usurps Birdie's role as Margo's assistant and companion, as well as Margo's own mother figure, not forgetting even to take care of setting up a birthday call for Margo's lover Bill. Even more so, Eve replaces Birdie in much the same way that children replace their parents' own parents as Life's central figures.

At the birthday party for Bill, the distinction between reality and art is even further blurred, while the creative process is much more firmly fleshed out. Theater critic Addison Dewitt assesses Margo's behavior: "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent." Addison also suggests actors and actresses have "abnormality in common," and Bill notes the theater is "hard work, [requiring] desire, ambition, and sacrifice for so little in return."

Eve, however, suggests there is a tremendous return on the investment of hard work, a return that manifests itself artistically. There is a creative process that involves a relationship with the audience, resulting in a fertility that transcends reproduction, and whereby Art is given birth. According to Eve:
   Why, of there's nothing else, there's applause. I've listened
   backstage to people applaud. It's like, like waves of love coming
   over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine, to know every
   night that different hundreds of people love you. They smile, their
   eyes shine. You please them. They want you. You belong. Just that
   alone is worth anything.

Eve is still youthful and infatuated with the theater. Her analysis of theater audiences is in sharp contrast to that of Margo, the theater-Mother goddess who sees the fans as mere "autograph fiends." By this point, however, Margo is terrified of aging and resentful of being the mother figure, demanding of Eve to "stop acting as if I were the Queen Mother" and of Karen to "please don't play governess." At the same time, the younger and more bountiful Eve possesses a more perceptive recognition of the creative process, understanding that the resulting performance requires both talent and appreciation to reach fruition.

The courtship that exists between the actress and the playwright is an abundantly fertile relationship in the art world, one in which creativity is expressed in the form of writing and interpretation of dialogue. In the theater, dialogue is the rhetoric of linguistic persuasion. The primary purpose of dialogue, and of the theater itself, is the courtship of the audience. Dialogue is therefore evolving and subject to interpretation by both the performer and the audience. A heated exchange between Margo and Lloyd explores the evolution of the text, and the expression of fertility manifested by the performance:

Lloyd: Just when does an actress decide they're her words she's speaking and her thoughts she's expressing?

Margo: Usually at the point when she has to rewrite and rethink them to keep the audience from leaving the theater.

Lloyd: It's about time the piano realizes it has not written the concerto.

In this sense, the resulting creative process resembles the rhetorical grid of author/audience/text/world. There are a myriad of determining factors involved in the interpretation of dialogue and in the way it is processed. For Lloyd, Eve's reading of his play differs from Margo's. As a writer, Lloyd is impressed by Eve's reading, an opportunity to hear his lines read "exactly as he'd written them." Lloyd furthermore listens to his play "as if it had been written by someone else. It sounds so new and fresh, so exciting." Lloyd is also "swept away," according to Margo, by the prospect of having "a twenty-four-year-old character played by a twenty-four-year-old actress." In this sense, a creative relationship exists between the actress and the playwright, wherein the writer's words become hypertext, subject to reconfiguration and reinterpretation not only by the various actresses who express them, but also by the audience who interprets them. Again, the play is a creative process, and the art that results from the performance is an expression of fertility.

It is through the intercession of Karen Richards that Eve secures the job of replacing Margo's pregnant understudy, who is never on camera but is ironically the only theater persona in the film who is pregnant with child. By minimizing her role to mere mention, Mankiewitz maintains that physical fertility is less significant than creative fertility. The film's other mention of the word pregnant comes from Margo, who criticizes Lloyd's lack of imagination at Bill's party: "And you pose as a playwright ..., a situation pregnant with possibilities and all you can think about is 'Everybody go to bed.'" Taken in this context, physical pregnancy is less fertile than creative pregnancy, and the mother with child is not nearly as significant as the artistic mentoring mother.

As Addison DeWitt suggests to Margo, the creative process is both ongoing and infinite. Acting legends have come and gone since Thespis, and notable performers include Sara Siddons, Jean Eagles, Paula Wessley, and Helen Hayes, as well as Margo Channing and Eve Harrington. Many of the actors present at the award ceremony have "looked upon Mojesca, Ada Rea, and Minnie Fiske. Mansfield's voice has filled the room." As suggested by the film, the creative process is linear, and actors and actresses must mother and mentor their successors before retiring into the sunset of their lives offstage. Eve's success in the theater is ensured when Margo declines the leading role in Lloyd's upcoming play to pursue her new career as a married woman. As Martin Shingler notes, Mankiewitz pens this event to conform to the Hollywood tradition requiring a conservative plot resolution for career women (47). The fact that this resolution occurs near the center rather than the end of the movie confirms that the film's artistic and mentoring relationships are more significant than the relationships between "women and their men."

It is through the mentoring and the mothering of Karen Richards that Eve replaces Margo's understudy, and a result of Karen's actions that allow Eve to ultimately perform on stage. Karen arranges for Margo to miss a performance by draining the gas tank of the car on a weekend trip. In doing so, Karen allows Eve the opportunity to finally replace Margo on stage. Prior to this event, Eve merely fantasizes playing Margo, pressing the stage garments against her body while bowing to a fictitious audience. After studying Margo for weeks, Eve is finally given the opportunity to reproduce the onstage Margo, as "a carbon copy you read when you can't find the original." As a result, Eve can now court Margo in perpetual repetition. Eve's performance as an understudy allows her to emerge into the adult phase of her creative life and generates for her the opportunity to become a star, like Margo, in her own right. No longer merely holding Margo's costume, Eve finally wears the clothing on stage.

Eve naturally capitalizes on her understudy's performance and connives her way into playing the leading role of Cora in Lloyd's new play. In order to land the role of Cora, Eve blackmails Karen, her mentor, into telling Lloyd to give her the part in exchange for keeping quiet about Karen's draining of the gas-tank. If rejection of the maternal figure is seen as a symbolic step towards adulthood, Eve reaches adulthood when she achieves stardom and rejects the mother figure when she blackmails Karen. She becomes a sensation in the role of Cora, winning the fictional Sara Siddons Award. Winning the award suggests that Eve is the next generation of theater, replacing Margo Channing in the reproductive process of art creation. Eve, appropriately named after the mother of the human race, will now reproduce theatrical art for future generations.

In the film's final scene, a young high school girl from Brooklyn invades Eve's Park Avenue apartment, looking around for Eve Harrington mementos and other souvenirs to construct a picture of Eve's life, and to report to her Eve Harrington society how Eve lives, what she wears, what perfumes she uses, and other such fan club trivia. This final scene is a short, twenty-minute regurgitation of the previous two hours of the film, and suggests that the story we have just seen will repeat itself. The young girl "calls [herself] Phoebe," and like Eve (the former Gertrude), she assumes an identity that contrasts reality. Eve develops a relationship with Phoebe fanatically similar to her relationship with Margo, with Eve assuming the maternal, dominant role of goddess worshipped by an adoring fan. Phoebe, approximately seven years younger than Eve, serves symbolically in the film as future generations of manipulative fans. Her presence also implies that no matter how young one may be, there will always be someone younger to serve as a replacement. This concept is a mainstay in both the physical and the artistic creative process. In this scene, Phoebe briefly meets Addison, who suggests that if she should ever desire to win an award like Eve, she should find out how to do it from Eve, a suggestion that implies Phoebe should adopt Eve as her creative, mentoring mother.

In Mankiewitz's film, the process of artistic creation parallels the Christian story of creation, with the traditional phallocentric vision being replaced with feminine goddesses. Mentoring mothers replace creative fathers, and there are in essence three facets of Eves. In the film, Margo is "Eve the Mother," the first maternal mentor portrayed yet not absolutely at the beginning of the artistic cycle of creation. Margo embodies the characteristics of the mystical sorceress, and communicates via her own rhetoric of witchcraft, magic, and incantations; Margo "compensates underplaying on stage by overplaying reality." This communication emerges from her connection with the universe of the theater, but is in direct opposition to the phallic laws of patriarchal theater society. Eve Harrington is "Eve the Daughter," using her entire being to ensure her success as the next generation of theater, and to perpetuate the creative cycle of art. Phoebe represents "'Eve the Spirit;" her youthful vitality and naivete embody the creative spirit. Upon meeting Eve, Phoebe is impelled by the fervor and misrule that govern witchcraft. Late at night in Eve's apartment, Phoebe "won't get home until all hours," but does not care if she "ever gets home." She has found a new creative home, embracing the artistic process and transcending, like Margo and Eve, the physical limitations enforced by reality. Like Eve, Phoebe also dons the garments of her mentor, using mirrors to create an imaginary audience. Phoebe continues the cycle of fertility, perpetually replacing Eve with a younger version. In essence, Phoebe replaces Eve as Eve. According to Sam Staggs, Mankiewitz implies, "with his mirrored multiplicity of Phoebes, that the plague of Eves and Phoebes is unstoppable; cut one down and a hundred more spring up" (149). Mankiewitz also implies, moreover, that there is an artistic continuum. His closing image of Phoebe, reflected in the mirrored triptych, suggests that the maternal, creative cycle of Eves, fertility, and Art, is infinite, and will perpetually repeat itself.


All About Eve. Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewitz. Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewitz. Perf. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Celeste Holm. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1950.

Roof, Judith. All About Thelma and Eve: Sidekicks and Third Wheels. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.

Shingler, Martin. "Interpreting All About Eve: A Study in Historical Reception." Hollywood Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences. Ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby. London: BFI, 2001.

Staggs, Sam All About All About Eve. New York: St. Martin's/Griffin, 2001.




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Title Annotation:Joseph L. Mankiewitz
Author:Rotolo, Steven J.
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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