“Improbable People:” Psychopaths in ALL ABOUT EVE
28 April 2013
Originally released in 1950, All About Eve is one of the most celebrated American films of all time, and surely is one role, as Miss Margo Channing, Bette Davis fans will never forget. However, Margo Channing is not the focal point of the film; instead; Margo serves as catalyst for the film’s title character, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), while she slowly reveals herself as one of the most memorable and terrifying psychopaths to ever hit the silver screen.
To summarize the narrative, All About Eve is the story of Eve Harrington’s rise (and fall) in the entertainment industry. Eve first appears as a meek character longing to enter New York’s theatre world. Thanks to Karen Lloyd (Celeste Holm), a playwright’s wife, she gets her big break and enters the elite world of Margo Channing, one of the theatre’s brightest stars. Although Margo is immediately distrustful of this aspiring actress, Eve weasels her way into Margo’s life, and the lives of all those closest to Margo. Karen and Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) immediately take to Eve, trying to help her any way they can. Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s boyfriend, also seems drawn to the timid Eve. Even Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a ruthless theatre critic, is smitten by Eve, but, like Margo, seems to realize there may be something darker to Eve than meets the eye. Eventually, Eve shows her true colors and turns on everyone who has been kind to her in a vain and desperate effort to achieve her dream of stardom. Along the way, she comes between relationships, damages careers, and manipulates anyone and everyone she can. But, as the film concludes, Eve meets her match, leading the audience to believe ‘the script is flipped,’ which turns Eve’s evil ways back on her.
At the start of the film, Eve is an ambiguous character. She seems so docile and sweet; yet, is she too docile? Is her excessive kindness a little curious? Maybe even a little untrustworthy? The audience does not know her…yet. It is not until she stands in for Margo in a performance of Aged Wood that the audience learns Eve is not the docile and sweet character she pretends to be. After the performance, Eve throws a tantrum in her dressing room, throwing her wig wildly, and then grabbing it violently and ripping at it. This is a very different side to Eve than she has shown before; this is aggressive, unstable, and dangerous. Mid-tantrum, Addison walks in the dressing room door. His appearance redirects her, and she gently strokes the wig and places it calmly on its stand. Eve’s breakdown clarifies what was once ambiguous; Eve is mentally unbalanced.
The term psychopath is an unofficial label in psychology; however, it typically refers to a person with an antisocial personality disorder. An individual with this disorder expresses their condition through violent, warped, unethical, and/or conscienceless behavior for which he/she has no remorse. Unquestionably, Eve Harrington is a psychopath.
Eve knowingly lies and manipulates those around her to serve her own desires, never once feeling bad for the others she hurts in the process. Eve comes between Margo and Bill, breaking the two apart for a period of the film. Moreover, she repeatedly manipulates Karen, first in the film’s opening scene when she corners her in the theatre’s back alley, all in a vain effort to meet Margo. From there, Eve continuously goes to Karen, playing the damsel in perpetual distress, to glean pity from her target in an effort to advance her acting career. Karen always helps Eve; Karen is actually a very good and loyal friend to Eve. Unfortunately for Karen, a friendship with Eve is impossible, and when Karen tricks Margo in the hopes of helping Eve, Karen finds herself blackmailed by this very person she set out to help. Never once does Eve feel remorse for hurting Karen, or Margo, Bill, and Lloyd. The only time Eve feels bad at all is when someone hurts her, and that someone happens to be a second psychopath in All About Eve…
Addison DeWitt is also a psychopath. He disassociates from people and feels no sympathy for others suffering; instead, he contributes to others pain and creates suffering, seemingly for pleasure. Yet, Addison is different than Eve; he is less secretive about his maniacal behavior, as he never pretends to be anything he is not. And, the film inevitably pairs the two because the antidote for one psychopath is either death or another psychopath. In a way, Addison has channeled is antisocial disorder (he became a theatre critic, a brilliant jab by All About Eve’s writer/director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Because of that channeling, he has more control than Eve, and he poses society less of threat than Eve. Moreover, having control allows him to control Eve; he dominates her, even owns her, as his language suggests when he tells her, “You are mine.” Although a psychopath in his own right, Addison harnesses the other psychopath, and for that becomes a vigilante.
Yet, the film cannot fully recuperate by simply allowing one psychopath to control another. Put another way, the film’s ending cannot satisfy the audience’s expectations for a just resolution until Eve is not only controlled, but also adequately punished.
To fully flush out this punishment a symbol frequently used in the film must be mentioned, and that symbol is mirrors. When the audience sees Eve in front of or near a mirror they can trust they will see a reflection of her true self, a psychopath. In that aforementioned scene, when Eve rips at the wig, she is standing in front of her mirror in Margo’s dressing room. When Eve blackmails Karen in the restaurant’s ladies room the camera pans early on to reveal large mirrors where women are fussing with their hair and make-up. Lastly, when Addison confronts Eve in her suite in New Haven, there is a large mirror in front of the bar where she fixes Addison a drink. Each of these scenes is pivotal in seeing Eve as a psychopath, and they all are symbolically linked by the placement of a mirror. According to the film, mirrors reflect truth, and in All About Eve the mirrors reflect when mental disorder is close at hand.
Returning to the film’s conclusion, mirrors play a significant role in the film’s recuperative closure. In the last scene, “Phoebe,” Eve’s self-claimed fan, and president of her fan club, breaks into Eve’s hotel room. Initially, Eve is bothered by the abrasive intrusion, but she is quickly pacified by “Phoebe’s” endless adoration. Soon, the doorbell rings and “Phoebe” rushes to answer it so Eve can rest. It is Addison, who has stopped to return the award statue Eve left in the taxi earlier that night; however, Addison quickly sees how serendipitous “Phoebe’s” arrival in Eve’s room actually is; he leaves with a Cheshire Cat grin. Taking the award, but lying to Eve about who was at the door, “Phoebe” makes her way into Eve’s bedroom. There, “Phoebe” drapes herself in Eve’s coat and takes hold of the award. Then, “Phoebe” walks over to Eve’s three-way mirror and gazes at herself. The film’s ominous final shot is through this mirror, reflecting an infinite amount of “Phoebes” who are all bowing with the award in hand.
Mirrors reveal Eve’s antisocial personality disorder, and showing “Phoebe” through Eve’s mirror reveals the same disorder is likely true about this new character. While Addison may have trapped Eve, he cannot provide the justice an audience needs. “Phoebe” is the justice. She will do to Eve what Eve has done to others, which meets viewers’ expectations and recuperates the film.