The other night, my partner and I watched an old favorite, All About Eve. The 1950 classic stars Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. Davis plays Margo Channing, a 40-year-old prima donna who sees her status as a glamorous movie star slipping away as she ages out of that role. Baxter plays Eve, a young, ambitious newcomer to the theater. Eve’s problem is how to get into the clique-ridden empire where the elite of the theater jealously guard their lairs. She presents herself as a waifish fan who worships Margo, her playwrite, Lloyd Richards, and Margo’s lover and co-star, Bill Sampson. For the rest, follow the link if you aren’t familiar.
All About Eve is well known to us. We’ve seen it over and over. The characters are stunning and the dialog very witty. The other night, we had fun “diagnosing” the characters with their probable personality disorders. Almost all were in Cluster B. That makes sense since Cluster B is the dramatic “disorder” and the characters were in the theater.
We found there was only one Cluster C: Max Fabian, the producer, a man suffering with enough anxiety to give him stomach trouble.
There are also a few “normals.” Karen and Lloyd Richards, Margo Channing’s best friends. No personality “disorder” I could detect. Stupidity is not a personality disorder. Birdie, Margo’s assistant, also strikes me as “normal.”
Marilyn Monroe’s premier performance was in a minor role. She played Miss Casswell, a starlet under the sponsorship of Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Miss Casswell is a naive wanna be of questionable talent. It is interesting to compare her technique (really lack of one) with that of Eve whose scheming and very real acting talent earns her a place at the top.
Now for the fun part. Cluster B
Cluster B “disorders” all merge into each other. Histrionics need to be the center of attention but so do narcissists. Histrionics are drama kings or queens. But so are borderlines. Narcissists are low in empathy, dominant charismatic. So are psychopaths.
My guess is that Bill is Histrionic. Addison De Witt, of course, is a Narcissist. Sam Vaknin described the difference in the body language of narcissists and psychopaths. A narcissist sits back as if contact might contaminate him. A psychopath leans in. Narcs talk about themselves. ‘Paths want to get you to talk about yourself. No question which of them is more charming and more potentially powerful.
What is Margo? One can easily label her a narcissist. She is certainly grandiose enough. She also shows histrionic traits. But, in the last analysis, I call her a borderline. Her insecurity about her relationship with Bill reveals a haunting fear of abandonment. She knows her days as a star are numbered and she fears Bill’s interest in her will also fade.
There is only one clear-cut case of psychopathy (or ASPD). That is Eve, of course. As a success, she is described as “the Golden Girl, the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. Time has been good to Eve. Life goes where she goes. She’s the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she’s going.” Her cunning is perfect. She starts out playing under the radar. Not only is she stunningly humble, she is practically in rags. Her trench coat is shabby and stained.
She first attracts notice of her target audience with a silent vigil, standing outside the theater before and after every performance of Aged in Wood, starring Margo Channing. Having gotten their attention, she finally approaches Karen, the playwrite’s wife, a good friend of Margo but someone who isn’t normally noticed outside their small circle. Karen, who laughingly calls herself “the lowest form of celebrity,” eats up the flattery which Eve doles out to her in just the right amount.
Karen, who is quite taken with Eve’s fanatical devotion to Margo, gets her into the dressing room, where Margo is removing her makeup and relaxing with her intimate circle. Eve, a complete unknown, manages to get everyone interested enough to start questioning her about why she has been standing outside the theater before and after every performance. They are surprised to learn she has actually seen every performance of the play. With very few words, Eve turns the strangers in that room into an audience, thereby showing her considerable acting talent. She spins a sad tale of poverty in which the theater and Margo Channing are her only sources of joy, except for a brief marriage to “Eddie,” a soldier who is killed in action. She tells it so well, Margo tears up. Birdie walks in and finds herself butting into a performance. Chastened, she sits down and listens. “What a story!” exclaims Birdie at the end. “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!” Birdie is the first one to see through her and yet even Birdie is moved by Eve’s story. Note, in the mention of the time she played summer stock, Eve tells them “I was awful.” She makes sure she is not perceived as a possible threat to Margo.
Eve’s intensity shines through her mask throughout the entire movie. She never takes her psychopathic eyes off her goal.
Margo invites Eve to move in with her where she takes on a lot of the tasks Birdie used to perform. She also does more, organizing Margo’s inventory. In time, Margo starts to see through Eve’s mask. Eve’s increasingly aggressive moves toward Bill activates Margo’s insecurity. The growing tension is laid bare at a party for Bill. Margo’s hostility towards Eve doesn’t dim Eve’s ambition. She “casually” mentions to Karen the idea of becoming Margo’s understudy. Somehow nobody tells Margo about it until Margo arrives to “read” with Miss Casswell while she auditions. Margo is hours late for the reading as is her normal habit. But Eve is on time and she “gives a performance” so powerful that it astonishes both Lloyd and Addison. When Margo shows up and finds out that not only is Eve her understudy but she gave a great performance “full of fire and music” for what was only supposed to be a reading, Margo’s paranoia grows to full bloom. She vents her rage in no uncertain terms.
Karen is so stupid that she remains oblivious to Eve’s machinations and decides that her best friend, Margo, has been such a bitch that she needs to be taught a lesson. Karen makes Margo miss a performance of her play, something she ordinarily never does. Meanwhile, Karen has informed Eve of what she was doing so Eve managed to invite a lot of critics to that performance. The reviews are full of praise for Eve’s performance. She is a talented actress. Then Eve gives an interview with Addison in which she disses Margo for playing a part she is too old for and complaining how hard it is for a newcomer to get a break in the business. She has also come on to Bill although Bill rejected her and suggested she “just score it as an incomplete forward pass.”
The war is now out in the open. But Eve has moved too aggressively and has been “told off all over town.” She remains undaunted, however. Lloyd has just written a new play in which it is assumed Margo will star. But Eve has been working on Lloyd who tells her he would let her play the lead except that Karen has her heart set on Margo playing the lead. That’s when Eve shows her true colors, blackmailing Karen with the favor she had done for her, sabotaging Margo by making her miss her performance. “A part in a play,” Karen exclaims. “You’d do all that for a part in a play!” “I’d do a lot more for a part that good,” replies Eve. It turns out Margo has already decided she doesn’t want to play the part. She has agreed to marry Bill and retire from the theater. Karen is relieved and Eve becomes a star.
Eve’s final act of treachery is to take Lloyd from Karen. Serves Karen right for the dirty trick she played on Margo. But one thing gets in the way. Addison De Witt feels entitled to win Eve’s romantic allegiance. He is not a man who will allow anyone to use him, not even a psychopath. He has done his research and he knows about every lie Eve told in the process of getting where she is. Eve withdraws from her conquest of Lloyd and admit she “belongs” to Addison (at least at this point). Since she is now moving on to Hollywood, Addison’s hold on her won’t last forever. But, for now, she is caught in his spider’s web. A touch of irony concludes the film when another ambitious ingenue moves in with much the same agenda as Eve had. Eve, puffed up with her own sense of importance, doesn’t see what the girl is up to and we are left with the possibility of Eve getting the same treatment as she has dished out to others.