Is Birdie Expendable in All About Eve (1950)?

Are supporting characters interchangeable? Can the female servant in one story become a male hairdresser in a remake and not alter the narrative?
Yes and no.

In the case of All About Eve (1950), Birdie the maid’s presence is carefully crafted to work on two planes: the surface and the symbolic. All About Eve and its stage remake Applause (1970-1972) are stories about women achieving and maintaining fame in show business. Changing Birdie's gender and occupation - as happens in Applause- has no effect on the surface story, but destroys underlying symbolism.
At the center of this universe is Broadway mega star Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis in the film and Lauren Bacall onstage). Margo’s maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former Vaudevillian, is also her confidante and the first character to warn her that newcomer Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) will usurp Margo’s position as queen of the stage.

In Applause (book by Comden and Green) the role of Margo's confidante is changed to a man named Duane (Lee Roy Reams) who is Margo’s hairdresser. Does this change work? Yes, but only on the surface plane, the most obvious level of the story.  An eternally suspicious best friend is crucial to the plot and can easily be handled by someone who is neither female nor a servant.

Although Margo’s confidante can be played by anyone regardless of gender, in Eve, screenwriter-director Joseph Mankiewicz makes this person a female ex-performer for a reason: to tell a parallel story on the symbolic plane. Eve, Margo and Birdie respectively comprise the beginning, middle and end of a woman’s show business career.

Each of these ladies starts her career where Eve is at the beginning of the film -unknown. She reaches her zenith somewhere on the chart (in Margo's case, fairly high up on the graph) and after the age of forty descends back into obscurity, as Birdie has done. She has "earned [her] place out of the sun," as one anonymous aging character states about himself in the film. Fame is like a Ferris wheel and Birdie has stepped off the ride.

By making the role male instead of female in Applause,  the end of the underlying narrative arc inherent in Birdie -that of a woman on the far end of the show business chart of fame, who is cast aside after a certain age- is lost.
Since Duane is a figure who is young, still successful and has no interest in being onstage, the character is devoid of the sage acting experience that makes Birdie the Has-Been a perfect fit for sharing Margo’s troubles and warning her of the future.

Birdie is more than a confidante – a role that can easily be handled by man or woman. This maid is a symbol of forgotten, aging female performers.  Birdie’s present is Margo’s future, as well as that of Eve and Phoebe (the young lady poised to take Eve’s place).   Birdie is a cautionary figure, who is -in this symbolic narrative about aging women in show business-  irreplaceable.


  1. Mankiewicz admitted in a later interview that he was wrong to have dropped Birdie half way through the movie, as of course we see no more of her once the story moves away from Margo's duplex as Eve, Karen and Addison take centre stage.
    The change of the character to the gay hairdresser in the dreadful Applause makes no sense at all, but then that show is a dreadful trivialisation of the original script. I saw the 1973 version with Bacall in London and it was totally forgettable, seeing it again on film reminded me how awful it was.

  2. JG, I see from your profile that you call yourself a hit-and-miss commenter, so I appreciate your stopping by. :) And thanks for joining Java's Journey.

    Mr. O' Sullivan,
    You were there?! Wow! I wondered if the play's plot differed from the telemovie. I guess not.

    Why did Mankiewicz drop Birdie's narrative? I've never understood that. I understand the shift of focus from Margo to Eve, since Margo's story becomes all about Eve. But Birdie should still be there somewhere.

    Anyway, Thelma Ritter makes her brief screen time memorable.


  3. It's good to know JOSEPH Mankeiwicz regretted leaving 'Birdie' out of the second half of the film. She was an integral part of the movie and could have contributed so much more as the film went on.
    Personally I loved APPLAUSE with Lauren Bacall. I saw it several times in London. Of course it has the same plot, but it never occurred to me to compare the two. Lauren was great as Margo and the show has some great songs.


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