All About Eve lobby poster

Why Save the Cat! Analyzes Classic Films

Blake Snyder did not invent story beats. Blake studied screenplays—including ones written before he was born—and discovered how brilliant writers inherently hit the same beats film after film. And so Blake codified these similar story beats, gave those beats easily remembered names, and offered his analysis of structure to help writers (who might not be as inherently brilliant as Joseph L. Mankiewicz) create the foundations for their tales.

See how All About Eve (Oscar® winner: “Best Motion Picture,” 1951) hits Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats!

Written and directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Oscar® winner: “Best Screenplay” and “Best Directing”)

Based on a short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr

Genre: Institutionalized (3 elements: a group that is unique; a choice with the conflict between the “company man” and the “naif”; a sacrifice that must be made)

Opening Image: A close-up of the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater, as a voiceover (with the requisite theatrical British accent) wittily informs us that the Siddons is far classier than both the Pulitzer and the Oscar.

Theme Stated: An ancient actor (Walter Hampden) declares of the winner, “She has had one wish, one prayer, one dream—to belong to us.” This film will seek to convey the intensely rarefied “in-group” experience of a life in the theater and tell the tale of two women, one who discovers that she might just want out of the whole mess, and another who will do anything and everything to break in.

Set-Up: Theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, Oscar® winner: “Actor in a Supporting Role”) is the plummy-voiced narrator who lays out the players in this melodrama: Margo Channing (Bette Davis), first lady of the theater; Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), famous director and Margo’s younger lover; Lloyd & Karen Richards (Hugh Marlowe, Celeste Holm) the playwright and his non-theater wife; and of course, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the winner of the Sarah Siddons award. From the strained expression on every face, it is obvious that there are many things that need fixing in this group.

Anne Baxter faces Celeste Holm in All About Eve
Our stage-door “naif,” Eve (Anne Baxter), meets the playwright’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm).

Karen Richards picks up the narration, recalling Eve a mere nine months earlier—a mousy girl in a trench coat and funny hat who waited in the alley outside the theater after every performance of the aptly-named play Aged in Wood to catch a glimpse of her hero, Margo Channing. We are transported back to the night that Karen, captivated by Eve’s fandom, brings her backstage and Eve looks out over the empty audience seats, breathing in the magic.

It’s a mite less magical in Margo’s dressing room, however, when Margo teases Lloyd about his playwriting and Karen gets spicy, intimating that Margo is ungrateful and entitled. The fight blows over quickly between these two best friends, but not before we sense that Margo’s thesis world is not all it’s cracked up to be; there is a brittleness to Margo that, as Davis brilliantly manages to convey, covers a deep wound.

Catalyst: Karen brings Eve into the dressing room to meet Margo, not knowing that this innocent and well-intentioned action will turn their lives upside down.

Debate: What sort of connection could there possibly be between these otherworldly theater folk and this ordinary soul? When Eve tells the tragic story of her life as a widowed war bride—captivating all of the main players except for Margo’s assistant, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who mistrusts Eve immediately—an awkward alliance is forged.

And when Bill Simpson enters and Eve speaks of the theater with reverence, he launches into a diatribe, insisting that “the theater” is not that exclusive, that it extends beyond a few buildings on Broadway to include flea circuses, Bugs Bunny, and Indian tribal dances, amongst other things.

We can see that Eve doesn’t buy it, but it will take us nearly the entire film to understand why. In the meantime, what’s to be done about Eve? Now that she’s ever so gently wormed her way into their special world, they can’t just cast her back into the alley.

Break into Two: No, they’re going to invite Eve in, although not as an equal, of course. After she aids them at the airport when Bill leaves for Hollywood to direct a film, it’s decided that Eve is to be Margo’s assistant. This pronouncement moves them both into the antithesis world where the crafty Eve will make herself indispensable to the fabulously talented but perpetually late and scattered grand dame of the theater.

Gary Merrill hugs Bette Davis in the train station in All About Eve
The B Story duo: the younger Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) and his enchantress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

B Story: Margo’s relationship with Bill is troubled, but not because of love; they adore each other. Yet Bill is eight years her junior and Margo knows that for an older woman and a younger man, those years stretch as time goes on. This deep insecurity over her age and her womanliness is Margo’s inner bad guy who nearly destroys her without the external bad guy Eve’s help.

Fun & Games: Eve proceeds to become Margo’s “sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist and cop,” but when she crosses some boundaries with Bill, Margo becomes suspicious and jealous (with Birdie’s blessing, of course), and her fangs start to emerge. At Bill’s deliciously disastrous birthday party, a scene summed up by Davis’s classic line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” Margo gives in to her envy of Eve’s youth, beauty, and helpless femininity (it is the 1950s, folks), gets roaring drunk, and insults everyone in the place.

The cast of All About Eve on the staircase at Margo Channing;s apartment
The party’s over… and it was indeed “a bumpy night.” That’s Marilyn Monroe, front and center, in one of her early film roles.

Meanwhile, Eve is working that girlish vulnerability full force, imploring Karen to have Lloyd employ her as Margo’s understudy since she knows all the lines and blocking, anyway. But there’s no need for Margo to know; best that she’s kept in the dark, for her own sake. And everyone else’s.

However, when Margo comes to the theater to do a reading with Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe), she is intercepted by Addison DeWitt, who informs her that Margo’s understudy already did the reading and was an absolute “revelation.” Margo deftly pretends that she knew Eve was her understudy all along, then rages into the theater, ripping Lloyd, Bill, and Eve apart. No one comes out unscathed, least of all Margo.

Midpoint: Bill has reached his limit. He loves Margo, but he can’t convince her that he doesn’t care about her age and that Eve means nothing to him. He’s done trying. In a heartbreaking false defeat, Bill walks out and Margo bursts into tears. Lloyd is furious at this new Margo tantrum and rants to Karen that Ms. Channing needs a good “kick in the pants,” which his loyal wife decides to administer, raising the stakes.

Bad Guys Close In: The time clock starts ticking as Karen plots with Eve to enable a “surprise” understudy performance of Aged in Wood by stranding Margo in the countryside, stuck in a car that has mysteriously run out of gas. Karen is delighted with her clever and seemingly harmless plan, but then feels awful when Margo has a moment of vulnerable honesty, confessing that she’s lost all sense of who she is as a person and a woman because “Margo Channing the Star” has taken over.

George Sanders in Anne Baxter's dressing room in All About Eve
Addison and Eve begin to plan… and who needs a serpent with these vipers?

Of course, Eve’s performance is a huge hit, conveniently seen by all the theater critics in town, and her mask of sweetness begins to slip. She makes a pass at Bill, but when he rebuffs her, she decides to team up with a fellow “killer,” Addison DeWitt, to take Margo down once and for all.

All Is Lost: Addison DeWitt’s interview of the up-and-coming ingénue Eve Harrington hits the newspapers and all hell breaks loose. Karen can’t believe that Eve said those terrible things about actresses playing parts that they’re too old for, but Margo has no such illusions.

Bette Davis in All About Eve
Margo Channing erupts, the “whiff of death” whirling through her world.

She threatens legal action, but her trembling voice reveals the truth: the soft underbelly of the famously invulnerable Margo Channing has been exposed. Every fear about her age, her place in the theater, her desperate clinging to a world that is slipping from her grasp—it’s all in print for the whole world to read, the whiff of death of Margo’s entire way of life.

Dark Night of the Soul: Bill appears in the doorway and Margo immediately puts up her shield of invincibility, but his tenderness strips everything away and she collapses into sobs of shame and pain. Margo’s rock-bottom moment opens her up to finally be able to receive Bill’s love and be Margo Channing the Person, instead of Margo Channing the Star.

Margo and Bill reconcile and announce their impending marriage, celebrate joyfully with Karen and Lloyd, and all is right with the world—but Eve has one more trick up her sleeve. She threatens blackmail, saying that if Karen doesn’t convince Lloyd to let Eve play the lead in his new play, Addison DeWitt will write a column about how Margo Channing’s best friend tricked her into missing that performance.

She taunts Karen with the unthinkable: her playwright husband being mistrusted by, or possibly even ousted from, the theater community. Karen is devastated. “You’d do all that… for a part in a play?” In true form, Eve assures her, “I’d do much more for a part that good.”

Break into Three: Karen is in quite a pickle, but there’s yet another twist in this twisty tale: Margo announces that she no longer wants to play the lead in Lloyd’s new play because she’s retiring to be a “proper married woman.” Karen is saved and she bursts into hysterical, relieved laughter while Margo watches, baffled.

Finale: Margo’s journey is complete and she disappears happily into her synthesis world; meanwhile the rest of the team gathers to produce Lloyd’s new play, starring Eve Harrington. It should be a happy time for Eve, but she’s not quite satisfied and plans to secure future success by stealing Lloyd away from Karen so she’ll have her own personal playwright.

But in a truly surprising high tower surprise, Addison DeWitt has outsmarted Eve. He’s done some digging and found out that her entire tragic backstory was a lie and the truth is so sordid, he could ruin her with it. And with that, Eve’s villainous mustache-twirling days are over. She is now completely indebted to and owned by the most powerful member of the entire theater community: the critic.

Barbara Bates hold the Sarah Siddon Award and bows to multiple images in the 3-way mirror
Barbara Bates as Phoebe in the fitting Final Image, where it’s no longer all about Eve.

Final Image: Eve has won the prestigious Sarah Siddons, but it’s a hollow victory and within moments the award has passed to new hands. A young Eve Harrington fan and copycat named Phoebe stands before a three-way mirror, bowing to an imaginary audience, and as the Sarah Siddons statuette reflects and refracts over and over, we recall Karen’s outsider observation, “In the theater, nothing lasts forever.”