IT’S ALL ABOUT WOMEN – AND THEIR MEN!
I have no idea if the following is true, but it fits nicely into the mythology. Celeste Holm allegedly walked onto the set on the first day of shooting and said ”Good morning” to Bette Davis. The star’s reply? ”Oh, shit, good manners”. Holm said in an interview that she never spoke to Davis again. Davis on the other hand reportedly concluded that ”the only bitch in the cast was Celeste Holm”. An entertaining story, and on the surface it might be tempting to talk about actresses who were at each other’s throats during the making of a film like this. But All About Eve isn’t all about clichés.
A wide-eyed theater fan
At the Sarah Siddons awards show, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is celebrated as the youngest and brightest star on Broadway. She’s enthusiastically applauded by everyone in the room – except the theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the legendary stage actress Margo Channing (Davis) and Karen Richards (Holm), Margo’s friend and the wife of a successful playwright (Hugh Marlowe). They all know Eve and have reason not to salute her. DeWitt’s narration takes us back one year ago, when Eve was a wide-eyed fan watching Margo in the play ”Aged in Wood” every night.
Karen discovers Eve and takes her backstage to meet the woman she’s idolized. Margo is moved by Eve’s story of how she lost her husband in the war and hires her as an assistant. The aging star quickly becomes dependent on the young woman…
Turning a declining career around
The story of this film has become a way of describing a social phenomenon – a person ingratiating herself with someone in a position of power, hoping to supplant her. Mary Orr, who wrote the original story, had talked to the actress Elisabeth Bergner who had suffered that experience with a young female fan. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was looking to make a film about an aging actress, liked the story and pictured Susan Hayward in the role of Margo Channing.
In the end, Bette Davis was cast and the performance turned her declining career around. This is undoubtedly one of her best, as the actress who’s only 41 but acts as if she’s 81 and can feel life slipping away from her. Sanders is equally great as the sardonic wit who considers the theater his life and realizes that Margo’s young understudy is one of those rare talents who will become a Broadway sensation. And then there’s also Baxter whose Eve starts out as an innocent girl, sort of a straight man to the comedy of watching cynical people like Davis, Sanders and Thelma Ritter talk to and about her; the second half of the movie reveals a much darker side of Eve that makes the character more interesting and the performance richer. The film is in love with the backstage drama of Broadway theater, but also loves stabbing it in the back over and over. Mankiewicz’s dialogue is full of sarcastic, world-weary and mean-spirited lines, delivered with gusto by Davis, Sanders and Ritter.
At the same time, the admiration for the theater runs deep because Mankiewicz takes his time telling the story, giving a lot of room for his cast and the dialogue. Even the cinematography looks like it could easily be transferred to Broadway, as Milton Krasner’s shots frame the intimacy and wonder of the stage in effective ways. Apart from its acid-laced look at that scene, the film is also memorable for how women are depicted, including the bitter realities of aging in showbiz and how everything goes wrong when women turn against each other.
Sad, funny and fascinating, the film has a final scene that is an eerie reminder of the insane ambition and egotism that lies at the heart of the story. The same year’s equally dark and mesmerizing Sunset Blvd. makes a perfect double bill with All About Eve.
All About Eve 1950-U.S. 138 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Story: Mary Orr (”The Wisdom of Eve”). Cinematography: Milton Krasner. Costume Design: Edith Head, Charles Le Maire. Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter… Marilyn Monroe.
Trivia: Claudette Colbert was first cast as Margo, but had to drop out after an injury. Later turned into a Broadway musical, ”Applause” (where Baxter at one point played Bette Davis’s role).
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Sanders), Screenplay, Costume Design, Sound. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film. Cannes: Jury Special Prize, Best Actress (Davis).
Quote: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” (Davis)
Last word: “I’m astonished by the fact that ‘All About Eve’ – which was the result of a memo I received from a fellow named James Fisher, who used to be head of the story department at Fox – was actually about winning such awards. I myself had been trying to do a film about the awards – what you go through to win and what the award means in the end. There’s a kind of post-award withdrawal; depression can set in immediately after winning. It happened to me.” (Mankiewicz on winning Oscars for Best Director two years in a row, “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Interviews”)