To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ ambitious Eve for overthrowing Gillian Anderson’s Margo Channing, this “live cinema” staging reserves its real ire for the men around them both: those that script, shape and critique the way women appear. “Funny business, a woman’s career,” Margo mused in 1950; 70 years on, it’s funnier still.
The silvery walls of designer Jan Versweyveld’s stage are studded with portraits of Anderson’s Margo: lips pouted, hair tussled, hand grazing a cheek. They’re the sort of shots that sell make-up or clothes, and sit in glossy magazines on glossier coffee tables. This is the visual lexicon of femininity and stardom today, the currency of fame that gives female celebrities their value. Over the course of “All About Eve,” almost without anyone initially noticing, Anderson’s photos are swapped for almost identical shots of James’ Eve. This “All About Eve” is all about image.
Mankiewicz’s original film starts as showbiz satire and mutates into horror. Bit by bit, the butter-wouldn’t-melt Eve homes in on her heroine, the great Broadway star, and primes herself for a well-timed pounce. She is a perfect parasite: a fawning young fan who, gradually, gears up to oust her host. Eve’s not just an understudy who usurps the star, but an imposter who appropriates her idol’s entire identity. She studies Margo’s mannerisms, what makes her tick, then steps into her shoes, her spotlight, even her skin. By the time you clock on, it’s already too late. The young woman has consumed her elder entirely.
Here, from the moment James’ eager Eve scoops up Margo’s costume and tries it on for size, sliding an arm into each sleeve, her intentions are obvious. When she bows, dreamily, into thin air, Anderson’s stood right behind her, looking on like a ghost. It’s creepy, but if it pre-empts the plot, giving the game away from the start, van Hove has another target in mind: not the act of replacement, but the image being refreshed — a version of womanhood shaped by the male gaze.
Because both Margo and Eve are surrounded by men: Stanley Townsend’s urbane and authoritative critic Addison DeWitt, who guides the onstage camera through this backstage world and so frames what we see; Rhashan Stone’s nervy dramatist Lloyd Richards, who writes these women their roles; Julian Ovenden’s charmed director, who pulls them into shape; Ian Drysdale’s obnoxious producer, who puts up the cash. Between them, these men shape the way women are seen: who gets the spotlight, in what roles and how. Actresses themselves are reduced to mere pawns. As the playwright snaps, “It’s about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto.”
Van Hove, cleverly, uses the camera to split the public and the private, on from off. As cameras snake through the action, one shows Margo’s party guests cavorting, while another finds the hostess drinking alone, vomiting up her champagne then fixing her face, wiping her chin and rejoining the fray. Another spies Eve, flustered, fending off an intrusive interview behind the bedroom door, before popping outside wearing nothing but a towel and a smile. Throughout we’re privy to public faces and private moments, and van Hove suggests that women are constantly expected to perform.
His central motifs are makeup and mirrors. Again and again, we see Margo and Eve fixing their faces and staring back at their reflections, sometimes holding their features aghast. A mini-camera catches them in close up and, with a little technical wizardry, their faces age before their very eyes: Anderson’s cracks into wrinkles, her hair thins; James’ mutates to meet Anderson’s outline. Those portraits exert a pressure of their own, too perfect to be true. “It got so I couldn’t tell the real from the unreal,” Eve frets. “Except that the unreal seemed more real to me.”
If it’s a typically incisive understanding of a story’s substance, too often “All About Eve” feels like auto van Hove — a selection of the Flemish director’s old familiar tricks. It’s meaningful, but mechanical; cleverly calculated, artfully calibrated but ultimately uninspired. That the production never finds a way to subvert or distort its own gaze — casting two beautiful screen stars without entirely disrupting their image (or its own marketing campaign) — only adds to the irony of having a male director at the helm and a female lead who used opening night to tweet a promotional code for her own clothing line. It all adds to the impression of superficiality.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart,” says Margo, icily, right at the end. “You can always put that award where your heart used to be.” Well, quite.