During the time of the Hays Code, the set of moral guidelines which all Hollywood films produced from 1930 to 1968 were required to abide by, didn’t make it easy to represent “taboo” subjects like homosexuality. Although homosexuality wasn’t specifically addressed by the code (it merely stated “sexual perversion or any reference to it is forbidden"), it was one of many subjects avoided by mainstream pictures which instead resorted to discussion via subtext and inference.
Some scholars studying All About Eve (1950), Joseph Mankiewicz’s classic film about an aging theatrical star and her nefarious apprentice, have concluded that the film’s titular character Eve (Anne Baxter) was coded as a lesbian through a number of scenic and dialogue cues. Makiewicz, despite his legendary aptitude for writing intriguing female characters, has oft been cited as a womanizer and staunchly heterosexual to the point of homophobic, which could indicate why Eve, an implied lesbian, is the villain of the piece. (The other villainous character of Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders, shares homosexual cues, furthering the association with malice.)
The Lavender Scare in America was a parallel to McCarthyism, though a less-discussed component of the practice. It kicked off the same year All About Eve was released and was a belief that homosexuals often sympathized with communist views which led to social outcasting and scapegoating of homosexuals during the time. McCarthy hunted gays along the same lines as communists, resulting in a pathological repression of homosexuality in the social presence of those in the community.
Robert J. Corber, a professor and novelist about The Cold War and homosexuality, states the fundamental theme in All About Eve centers around defending heterosexuality, upholding traditional patriarchal marriage, and depicting the homosexual as a bereft predator. The film’s two heterosexual couples of Bill (Gary Merrill) and Margo (Bette Davis), and Karen (Celeste Holm) and Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) are contrasted against the empty and loveless life of Eve (and Addison). Eve attempts to break up both couples during the course of the film to no success.
In his book “American Cold War Culture,” author Douglas Field speaks at length about Eve’s lesbianism going beyond a Hays-era representation of malice and speaking to Cold War insecurities and fears. He writes, “Starting with Vito Russo in his classic study 'The Celluloid Closet,' scholars of images of gays and lesbians in classical Hollywood cinema have argued that Eve belongs to a long line of predatory celluloid lesbians in the Production Code era of Hollywood films… Eve’s villainy differs from that of other lesbians of the Code era in one crucial respect. She has an ability to impersonate normative femininity that they do not, and thus she resembles the lesbian of the discourses of national security.”
The message in the film come to fruition by its ending with Margo and Bill announcing their marriage. Early in the film, Margo scolds Karen for being a “happy little housewife" but by the end finds herself monologuing about the virtues of marriage and the way a true woman is defined by the association with her husband. The final award scene depicts the married couples offering condescending words to Eve, who heads home to solitude, amplifying the era's value of traditionalism over the devious pursuit of homosexuality.
The coded scenes in the film are infrequent but identifiable. The character of Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is one who is capable of seeing through Eve’s facade from the start. After Eve resides with Margo for a while, Margo and Birdie engage in a conversation as Margo rests in bed:
Margo: She thinks only of me, doesn’t she?
Birdie: Well, let’s say she thinks only about you.
There’s a sapphic undertone in Birdie’s delivery that installs our first sense that Eve’s infatuation with Margo goes beyond professional respect. (And, of course, the different preposition also makes the distinction that Eve may not have Margo's best interests at heart.) Later, on the staircase during Bill’s coming home/birthday party, another conversation takes place:
Margo: Eve would take my clothes off… tuck me in, wouldn’t you Eve?
Eve: If you’d like.
Margo: I wouldn’t like.
In the film’s final scene, when Eve leaves the Sarah Siddons award party and returns home alone, she finds Phoebe (Barbara Bates) asleep in her apartment. After the initial shock wears off, Phoebe mentions the time and says she should head home. In a breathy, seductive manner while relaxed on her couch, smoking a cigarette for the first time in the film (as her transition into Margo is complete), Eve replies, “You won’t get home til all hours.”
Douglas Field continues in his book, “All About Eve needs to be understood as a Cold War movie. Since Michael Rogin first defined this category of Hollywood film in 1987, cultural studies scholars have expanded it to include movies that, unlike those examined by Rogin, do not deal directly with the Cold War but that nevertheless underwrite or legitimate Cold War ideologies, especially those regulating the construction of gender and sexuality. As we shall see, Eve’s queerness, which consists of a combination of femininity and lesbianism that unsettles homophobic stereotypes, indirectly ratified the form of heterosexual femininity that become normative in the Cold War era. Mankiewicz, who wrote as well as directed All About Eve, claimed that he conceived of Eve as a lesbian and that he coached Baxter in how to play her as one.”
The first time we see Eve she’s dressed in a trench coat and hat, looking very masculine. Symbolically, the image establishes that any femininity we see in Eve in the following scenes is a performance; Eve’s true self is the one who meets Karen in the alley dressed in male clothes.
As with most great works of literature or film, various interpretations are possible with Eve’s sexual affiliation -- and to that point, Addison’s. Both characters often appear prominently asexual, aligning any sexuality they do exude to power over gender. Both characters seek to control the lives of others. This is what Addison finds so appealing and intriguing about Eve. Specifically labeling Eve or Addison as homosexuals may be superficial, as both, particularly Eve, seems capable of slipping through whatever sexuality will reap the most gain, since she doesn’t operate based on sexual desire but the need for people to love and applaud for her. She does, at one point in the film, speak to the power of applause. She lies to Addison about being in love with Lloyd -- but only so much as he can write great plays for her. Being beloved by an audience is the pinnacle of desire for Eve, something that exists outside the boundaries of sexual pursuit.
Still, as Mankiewicz may have intended Eve as a lesbian character, there is credibility to the academic assessment of her character representing 1950s (and Cold War) fearful sentiments about homosexuality.
Fortunately, as society has progressed from the McCarthy era and 1950s Hays Code censorship, All About Eve’s legacy is preserved by the film’s wonderful writing, campy overtones, and multiple Academy Award-nominated performances, more than its darkly homophobic subtext. As Bette Davis developed a large homosexual fan base in her later years and became a supporter of gay rights in the 1970s, the implications of homophobia coloring the movie are overshadowed. There’s humorous irony in the fact that All About Eve, now colloquially referred to as “the bitchiest film ever made,” was written by a staunch man’s man.