Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve explores the inability of women to find fulfillment in the roles offered by the theater. For a “true star” like Margo or simply a “carbon copy” like Eve or Phoebe in the harsh world of the theater, Mankiewicz suggests that it is almost impossible for a woman to reach fulfillment. This dilemma is largely due to the transitory nature of success, and the possibility of another star constantly in the making. As a result, only the role of the self-effacing and docile female can succeed in the world of theater.
Mankiewicz suggests that women can only find fulfillment in the role of a docile and humble housewife, while the men must be the breadwinners of the family. This is exemplified by Karen, the ideal female spouse whom supports her husband’s endeavors and does not cultivate a separate image apart from that of being his wife. Moreover, whilst Karen may be the “lowest form of celebrity”, she enjoys an ostentatious and lavish lifestyle, as indicated by her array of magnificent costumes throughout the film. Unlike Margo, Karen yields no anxieties nor any “paranoiac insecurities”, but rather displays undying devotion to both her friend and husband, and is thus praised by Lloyd as his “loyal little woman”. Not only does this reflect the paternalistic values eminent in society in the 1950s, but is also an endorsement, on behalf of Mankiewicz, for those female characters who accept their subservient roles.
It is through Karen that Margo realizes her desire to play the role of a humble housewife is greater than that of a professional woman. Such two roles are constantly conflicting in Margo’s life, and are the primary cause of her deep rooted anxieties. Whilst seemingly at the height of fame and power, she expresses her discomfort in the incongruity of playing women who are half her age when revealing to Lloyd that she has reached the big “four-oh,” at Bill’s birthday party. Moreover, as Margo wearingly sits by the piano brooding, requesting for Liebestraum to be played on repeat, close ups of her face reveal her fear of becoming an ageing actress capable of being marginalized by a younger and attractive understudy. Ultimately, and despite her numerous accolades, Margo finds her professional career to be unfulfilling, as she reveals to Karen with an air of resignation that “nothing is good unless you can look up just before dinner…and there he is.” To reinforce his ideal that women must sacrifice their professional careers for a happy domestic life, Mankiewicz juxtaposes Margo’s anxieties with her genuine happiness when casting Bill adoring looks in the Cub Room, the night before their marriage.
The role of the “carbon copy” as played by both Eve and Phoebe, reveal both the exclusivity of the theater and the transitory nature of success. Eve’s introduces herself to Margo through playing the role of the wounded war widow, literally climbing the theater’s stairs in an attempt to reach the top of the professional ladder. At the height of her deceptive powers, she begins by makes herself indispensable to Margo, adopting the roles of her “sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist and cop” in an attempt to ingratiate herself to her, and ends by blackmailing Karen in the ladies’ room to obtain the role of Cora in Lloyd’s play. However, when accepting the Sarah Siddons Award, close ups of Eve’s expressions reveal her disappointment at Margo and Karen refusing to congratulate her, Margo instead prodding her with the trophy, murmuring, “Go put that where your heart ought to be.” Furthermore, Mankiewicz’s introduction of Phoebe through the reflection of Eve’s mirror, suggests to the audience that there will always be an infinite reflection of “carbon cop[ies]” willing to do “all that, just for a part in a play”. Therefore, in the viperous and competitive world of theater, Mankiewicz infers that success is transitory, and that the demise of one star will lead to the birth of another.
Therefore, despite being at the height of their fame and success, both Eve and Margo suffer in the professional world of the theater. This is a result of the infinite role of the “carbon copy” which leads to their demise, and therefore revealing the transient nature of success. It is only Karen, who vicariously lives through her husband and accepts her subservient role as a docile housewife, who is content with the role that she plays.