There are several ways you could measure the success of All About Eve (1950). You could measure it in terms of critical reviews, which were positive. You could measure it in terms of how many Oscars it won — 6, including Best Picture. But you can also measure its success in terms of its impact on cultural works to come.
One way to measure this impact is in the works that are direct adaptations of this film for other mediums. The most recent example was a production of a stage play of the same name that also tells the story of sneaky upstart Eve Harrington trying to steal the career of veteran stage actress Margo Channing. That stage play ran in London and starred Gillian Anderson and Lily James. But there are just as many parodies and homages in television, such as episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons.
But the most fascinating ways to look at All About Eve’s impact are in the works that it influenced in a less direct way. These works aren’t parodies, but reworkings of its core narrative tropes and themes to create something new. One of the best of these works is The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), which is a great film in its own right but is even better if you “put it in conversation,” as my professor John Schilb used to say, with All About Eve.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, written and directed by the powerhouse German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is about a cruel fashion designer named Petra Von Kant. Von Kant mostly spends her days working and berating her servant/lover Marlene. Von Kant becomes infatuated with the beautiful model Karin, and enters into a relationship with her. But Karin has her own ideas about her future.
There are many similarities between All About Eve and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The central conflict of both films is roughly the same: a younger woman’s career moves forward through her efforts to manipulate an older woman; Von Kant is analogous to Channing; Karin occupies a similar role in the story as Harrington. There is even a moment where Von Kant dictates a letter to “Joseph Mankiewicz,” a reference to the writer-director of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
But the differences between these two films are just as fascinating as the similarities, if not more so. For example, one of the most memorable characters in All About Eve is Channing’s maid Birdie, who is a supporting character and has some of the film’s most quotable lines. Von Kant has a maid named Marlene, but unlike Birdie she never says a word and is arguably the most important character in the film.
The biggest deviation that Fassbinder makes from his “source material” is making the relationship between his two main female characters not just professional, but romantic. A similar relationship between Channing and Harrington would have been very hard to depict in a major 1950s American film, even as some film scholars argue that Harrington is coded as gay. But Fassbinder, working in a time and place with less censorship, was able to openly explore themes relating to a lesbian relationship. But instead of presenting a utopian vision of this type of relationship, the bisexual Fassbinder, in this film and in many others, views gay relationships the same way he regards straight relationships: with a sense of cynicism and fatalism.
One of my favorite depictions of the idea of legacy is the last shot of All About Eve. Harrington has acquired her own protégé, Phoebe, who wants to use her to get to the top. Phoebe poses in a mirror with Harrington’s Sarah Siddons Award, and the reflections of her imply that this cycle — actresses using each other for success — will continue as long as there are people. But from a more positive standpoint, I like to imagine The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant taking some type of award or baton from All About Eve to signify that it is worthy of being compared to it. Then another film will take that award, and another, as the legacy of All About Eve continues to influence some of the films that come after it.
The original 1950 All About Eve previously screened at the Cinema in December 2018 as part of the Sunday Matinee Classics series, while The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was shown in January of this year in conjunction with the series 5X Rainer Werner Fassbinder: New German Cinema’s Subversive Social Critic.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.