All About Eve: How It Became Cult Movie (Gay Text and Subtext, LGBTQ)

All About Eve marked a breech in America’s love affair with Broadway–and the end of Broadway’s golden era. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s unveiled a new image of a corrupt place where actresses slept their way to the top.

In the Anne Baxter and George Sanders characters, ruthless people clawing their way upwards, Broadway’s dark side was revealed. Marilyn Monroe, in an early role, calls producers “unhappy rabbits,” a dismissal that’s indicative of the film’s attitude toward the theater.

For years, Broadway had maintained the reputation of being a nobler art than cinema, but “All About Eve” ruined Broadway’s fame. As the Hays office loosened up, Hollywood began “stealing” Broadway’s adult subject matter, leaving it without its unique trademark. “All About Eve” radically redefined the orthodox view of a sacrosanct theater. Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’ lover in the film–and in real life–says:

“Want to know what the theater is A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man-band–all theater. You don’t understand them all–why should you It may not be your theater, but it’s theater for somebody, somewhere.”

“All About Eve” opened in New York at the Roxy on October 13, 1950. Twenty years later, it became the Broadway musical “Applause,” with Lauren Bacall in the Davis part. The title of the stage version came from Anne Baxter’s lines:

“Why, if 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.”

Moderately successful at the box office, the picture grossed less than $3 million, despite sweeping the Oscars that year and featuring Davis’ greatest performance. The film has remained popular, however, due to Mankiewicz’s sharp writing. Fueled by brilliant banter, the film’s quotability (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) has resulted in a cult following. Line for line, “All About Eve” has what one critic called “the highest quotient of wit of any film made before or since.”

Mankiewicz’ lines are too witty to reflect a “realistic” speech, but there’s no denying their entertainment value. “Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello.” “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke!” “Miss Caswell [Marilyn Monroe] is an actress, a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.” “Oh, did I say killer I meant champion. I get my boxing terms mixed.” “What a story! Everything but the blood-hounds snappin’ at her rear end!” However, the most memorable lines are in Margo Channing’s speech, which blatantly states how career women were seen in the 1950s–a professional woman becomes a woman only after she’s done with her career!

Funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on you way up the ladder–so you can move faster–you forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career that all females have in common whether we like it or not. Being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. “All About Eve” was one of the first film to deal with the burgeoning generation gap, which would be fully stated in the l960s. But it was in the l950s that communication breakdown and hatred between generations became apparent. Davis and Baxter represent the growing irreconcilability of different generations that profess opposing values.

“All About Eve” irritated legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead, who insisted Davis was “taking revenge” by imitating her hairdo and voice. Tallulah and Davis were having a bitter feud, but this movie made the feud explode. Davis and Mankiewicz declared the film was modeled on the relationship between actresses Elisabeth Bergner and Irene Worth, but Tallulah told Fox’s mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck: “That bitch stole my best stage roles for films (“The Little Foxes”), and now she is holding me up to public ridicule with her imitations of me!”

Cult Movie among Gay Men

Over the years, the movie has become a cult item not only among fans of Bette Davis but also among gay men.  The movie was shown repeatedly in gay bars in the 1970s (before the VCR and DVD revolutions),

Though I have not studied this phenom systematically, I can offer several hypotheses of why All About Eve is a favorite among gay men.

First and foremost, the hard-boiled wit, the memorable clever lines that almost every character is given by writer Mankiewicz.

Then there is the main plot of the backstage story, the competition between two divas (one established, the other aspiring), the clash of egos, the explosion of temper, all played out stylishly at a breakneck pacing.

There has been an ongoing debate, or rather speculation, of who inspired the character of Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis)? Was it Tallulah Bankead? Elisabeth Bergner?