All this month I have been highlighting badass women of cinema. Sooner or later I had to come to a character played by Better Davis. Along with Katharine Hepburn, Davis portrayed some of the most complex and strong female characters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. With so many options to choose from, I picked Margo Channing from All About Eve. The film is one of the best of the entertainment industry. While Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) may get top billing in the film’s title and the showier role, it’s Margo Channing who proves herself a force to be reckoned with.
All About Eve follows Eve Harrington as she weasels her way into Margo Channing’s inner circle. Harrington is a fan who comes to all of Channing’s performances. After Channing’s friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) arranges for Eve to meet Margo backstage, Channing decides to take Eve under her wing. Skeptical about it is Channing’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Birdie doesn’t buy Eve’s story and from the beginning suspects something is amiss. Birdie is proven right. Eve eventually usurps Margo as a young rising star after using her to get her foot in the door of show business.
But Margo Channing, in true Bette Davis fashion, doesn’t go down without a fight. All About Eve is famous for its sharp writing, Edith Head costumes, and its stellar cast. But one of the things that has always stood out to me, and the main reason I selected Margo Channing as one of my cinematic badasses, is that the film openly addresses ageism in the entertainment industry. Channing is worried that since she has just reached age 40 if she will have much of a career. She’s a Broadway star and the parts simply aren’t there for older women. We even see this in movies of today. With a few exceptions (Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, etc.), movies of today rarely have rich characters for older women to play. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
Margo Channing is a badass in the beginning because she fights for the kind of quality roles she had when she initially became a star. Channing is rightly angry when Eve becomes her understudy through some shady manipulation of the people around Margo. I also love how Margo calls out playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlow) for complaining that Margo is bossy and touting Eve who does as she’s told by director and playwright. Would he say the same of a man who spoke up during a production? I doubt it. Margo is strong because of her wit, unwillingness to let the industry cast her aside because of her age, and because she lives life on her own terms.
Even though, in the end, Margo does settle into retirement, it’s when she’s ready. Margo decides to marry Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) because she’s in love and she’s ready for the next phase of her life. Margo does not go softly into the night. You can see the decision was hard for her. Channing’s life had always revolved around the theater and her career. But she has nothing left to prove. That part of the story doesn’t feel forced. And that aspect makes it such a classic.
All About Eve is so great that I’ve made it this far without mentioning George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt, the tabloid reporter who helps Eve push Margo out of the limelight. As far as classic movie cads, they don’t get much slimier than Addison Dewitt. It’s easy to see why Sanders earned an Oscar for the performance.
Margo Channing is a badass for fighting ageism and sexism. She’s strong without ever feeling preachy. All About Eve could have been a soap opera in lesser hands. But Bette Davis (my vote for greatest actress ever), hits all the right notes. Better Davis, and her character Margo Channing, were women decades ahead of their time.