#565) All About Eve (1950)

#565) All About Eve (1950)

OR “Rat Baxter”

Directed & Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Based on the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr.

Class of 1990

The Plot: In the New York theater scene of the early ’50s, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is the premier actor of her generation, each season bringing a new vehicle for her written by friend Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and directed by her boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). One night, Lloyd’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm) introduces Margo to Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a younger woman who idolizes Margo and longs for a life in the theater. Margo hires Eve as her personal assistant, and all seems well, until Eve starts muscling in on more aspects of Margo’s life. She becomes Margo’s understudy without her knowledge, makes a pass at Bill, and tries to convince Lloyd to start writing plays for her instead of Margo. Eve is clawing her way to the top, but theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to know more about Eve than anyone else.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “entertaining and quote-worthy”, despite the dialogue being “often too bitingly perfect with its sarcastic barbs and clever comebacks”. Wow, you don’t see a lot of passive-agressive digs on the early entries.

But Does It Really?: “All About Eve” started its life as a classic, and I’m happy to say has remained so 70 years later. This film earns its reputation as a great movie, possibly the greatest movie ever made about the theater (though I’ll make an argument for “Birdman“). The script succeeds not only in its memorable one-liners, but in being a fascinating character study of artists devoid of stereotypes. While the film is mainly remembered in conjunction with Bette Davis’ later-in-life camp persona, anyone willing to watch “All About Eve” on its own merits won’t be disappointed. With a top-notch script and an all-star roster of talent, “All About Eve” is a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Wow, That’s Dated: You may need a theater degree to fully comprehend the Broadway scene of “All About Eve”. Among the more obscure references: actors Paula Wessely and Minnie Fiske, writer Clyde Fitch, the play “Our American Cousin“, and theater critic George Jean Nathan (whom Addison is based off of). Plus, a bonus meta-reference to film producer Darryl F. Zanuck.

Title Track: Joseph Mankiewicz originally titled his screenplay “Best Performance”. After some major re-writing, he took the new title from one of Addison’s early lines: “But more of Eve later. All about Eve, in fact.”

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit right out of the gate, “All About Eve” received 14 Oscar nominations, a record that has been matched, but never surpassed. “Eve” won big with six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for George Sanders. Despite receiving four nominations for its female performers (still a record), Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter lost Best Supporting Actress to Josephine Hull in “Harvey”, while Anne Baxter and Bette Davis lost Best Actress to Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday“. And while I do not contest any of this film’s wins, the “All About Eve” juggernaut left little room for the film’s main Oscar rival and fellow contemplation of middle-aged actresses: “Sunset Boulevard“.

Other notes 

  • Writer/actor Mary Orr based “The Wisdom of Eve” on an experience actress Elisabeth Bergner had with a young actress she befriended. Orr based the character of Eve on “many young actresses I had met, including a great deal of myself.” “The Wisdom of Eve” was originally published in Cosmopolitan in 1946, and caught the eye of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who thought the story would be a great addition to a screenplay he was working on about an aging actress. Although Ms. Orr receives no on-screen credit for her source material, she received $5,000 for selling the film rights to Fox, and got a portion of Mankiewicz’s share of the film’s profits.
  • Bette Davis was fresh out of Warner Bros. when Margo Channing came into her life, and with this performance we see the beginning of Davis’ camp years. Her Margo is theatrical rather than over-the-top (yes, there’s a difference), and is the first of Davis’ many latter-career jaded actors.
  • Tallulah Bankhead was convinced she was the inspiration for Margo Channing, even stating that Bette Davis was emulating her trademark husky voice. The real reason behind Davis’ raspy delivery was stress caused by her divorce from husband #3 (More about husband #4 later). Even Mary Orr denied the connection when Bankhead asked about it.
  • Every movie is better with Thelma Ritter in it. As Margo’s dresser Birdie, Ritter provides the film’s non-quippy comic relief. The only downside to her performance is that she disappears halfway through the movie.
  • Anne Baxter finds the right balance of sincerity and intensity with Eve. Her opening monologue is heartbreaking, but you get a sense that something is off about her.
  • Before this movie I could not have told you the difference between Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe. Now…I still can’t. Adding insult to injury, I’ve also forgotten that I’ve already watched their other NFR entries.
  • I can’t get over how lax airport security was back in the day. Margo sees Bill off at the gate; she can practically touch the wing of the plane!
  • I strongly disagree with the NFR’s stance on the film’s dialogue. The characters are well defined enough (and the acting solid enough) that you believe everyone would come up with naturally clever repartee.
  • It wasn’t until doing research for this post that I realized the famous line “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” is a reference to airplanes. Seatbelts did not start being offered in cars until the mid-50s.
  • Ah yes, that’s an on-the-verge-of-fame Marilyn Monroe as Addison’s arm candy Miss Casswell. Her natural allure and comic timing lend themselves well to the part.
  • Quick question about Eve being Margo’s understudy: is she Equity? She doesn’t mention any previous stage experience. And while we’re on the subject, I just realized that we never see either Eve or Margo perform at any point in this movie. The closest we get is Margo’s curtain call. Interesting choice.
  • I like the rapport between Margo and Bill. Theirs is the rare film relationship that is undone not by some misunderstanding, but rather because they know each other too well. It helps that Bette Davis and Gary Merrill were starting to get romantically involved during filming, and married shortly after production wrapped.
  • Oh, that heel turn by Eve in the ladies bathroom. You know it’s coming, but man is it a sight to behold. Anne Baxter and Celeste Holm both play their sides of the scene perfectly. This scene is also further proof that the ladies’ room is always nicer than the men’s.
  • George Sanders always excelled as the sardonic intellectual, and Addison is his finest film performance. He handles the one-liners expertly, and is equally good once the character becomes more menacing. Plus, I could listen to that voice all day.
  • How old is Eve supposed to be? In real life, Anne Baxter was 27, 15 years Bette Davis’ junior, and only two years older than Barbara Bates, who plays Eve’s devoted fan Phoebe, a high school senior. Everyone in old movies look like they’re the same age. All those pre-WWII generations were built Ford tough.

Legacy 

  • As previously mentioned, Bette Davis and Gary Merrill married shortly after filming “Eve”, and adopted a baby girl whom they named Margot. Davis suggested that Mankiewicz write a sequel showing Margo and Bill’s marriage, but years later, the now-divorced Davis told Mankiewicz, “I’ve played it and it doesn’t work.”
  • Under the right circumstances, a musical version of “All About Eve” could work. “Applause” is not that musical. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ updating of “All About Eve” transplants the story to the Broadway musical scene of the early ’70s, with Margo Channing now played by (and tailored to) Lauren Bacall. When Bacall left the show she was replaced by – who else? – Anne Baxter.
  • A more faithful (and non-musical) stage adaptation played the West End in 2019, with Gillian Anderson and Lily James as Margo and Eve, respectively.
  • Many movies and TV shows have referenced “All About Eve” over the years, mainly evoking the title, the general plot, and/or some variation of “Fasten your seatbelts.” One of the more sincere allusions comes from Pedro Almodóvar’s “Todo sobre mi madre”, which translates to “All About My Mother”.
  • And finally, life imitated art one more time in the early ’80s when Bette Davis left the television show “Hotel” due to ill health. Her replacement: who else? Anne Baxter.

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