Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Dir. Joseph Mankiewicz’s film All About Eve
‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,’ Margo Channing, one of the central characters, famously quips during a key scene in the film. Is it ever.
When it comes to the selection of multimedia texts, the temptation to choose contemporary films for students to study – on the very practical grounds that it is sometimes easier to engage with more familiar material – can be hard to overcome. But when it comes to classic cinema like All About Eve, hasty dismissal in favour of something more modern really would result in missed opportunities. The stylised film techniques and film language of the era provide such rich fodder for discussion and analysis, and would make particularly good learning ground for students less familiar with studying film. From the poignant, manipulative orchestral commentary underscoring Eve’s plaintive life story in the dressing room scene when she first meets Margo, to the freeze (Eve’s delicate hands outstretched to grasp the award – indeed, everything before her that she desires) as the story loops back to bookend the film with Eve’s award ceremony, the symbolism is offered in not just narrative layers but also through the characteristic contributions of the multimodal genre: soundtrack, camera angles, editing, voice-over and so on. These aspects of the film will all enhance students’ investigation of the ways in which multimodal texts create meaning. At the same time, the narrative structure and the young protagonist’s journey are also very clear and accessible, reminding students that all ‘texts’, no matter the form, can be analysed in terms of the way they develop characters, relationships and key conflicts and events.
Eve herself is a compelling character and undergoes such an extreme journey in such a short period of time. The question throughout her story is whether she is the ‘idealistic, dreamy-eyed kid’ that Bill finds so unthreatening, or whether she embodies the ‘disloyalty and ingratitude’ that Karen comes to recognise in her? Perhaps she begins as one and becomes the other? Or are the two always in simultaneous existence? Or, of course, is she really ever either of the two – this last question becomes more and more relevant as the film progresses and we see what a consummate actress ‘Eve Harrington’ really is: not just on but, frighteningly, off stage. This parallel between theatre and life is a central issue throughout the film and underlies many of the themes students might choose to explore: from the dichotomy between integrity and pretence, to the dangers of ambition.
The film also offers some valuable experience in discussing the importance of context. Some of the gender roles and relationships portrayed, for example, will seem very outdated for students studying the film today, so the challenge is to analyse these relationships without overlaying the investigation with contemporary, subjective value judgements. The setting and chronological distance from students’ realities will allow them to more carefully examine what the filmmaker was intending to communicate, and how his underlying values and beliefs are conveyed through this. At the same time, however, there is plenty of room to identify and discuss certain inalienable ideas about power, justice and consequence (with some of these related specifically to gender and gender roles) and to question how the film speaks to an audience of today: was Margo ahead of her time, for example, in her sometimes stubborn independence? Is Eve’s behaviour at all shaped by her social context? Could the same story be told today – and if so, would a modern film tell the story in a different way, or not?
- ‘What can there be to know that you don’t know?’ asks Addison DeWitt (the self-confident, sharp-eyed, cynical theatre critic whose power and influence contribute significantly to Eve’s meteoric rise and equally dramatic downfall), with reference to the audience learning ‘all about Eve’. What does the film’s title mean to you? How does this change once you have seen the whole film?
- How do the voice-overs contribute to the development of the narrative complications in the film?
- How does director Joseph Mankiewicz use film techniques to show the changes in Eve’s character (think about costume, camera angles, lighting, editing and soundtrack, as well as narrative features such as perspective, dialogue and key events)?
Need help getting to grips with All About Eve? Purchase our Insight Text Guide for All About Eve by Virginia Lee. With chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, and much more, the Insight Text Guide for All About Eve provides a clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.