Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz » Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950 » Region/Time: USA, black & white, 138 minutes.
Starring: Bette Davis as Margo Channing » Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington » George Sanders as Addison DeWitt » Gary Merrill as Bill Sampson » Celeste Holm as Karen Richards » Hugh Marlowe as Lloyd Richards » Gregory Ratoff as Max Fabian » Thelma Ritter as Birdie Coonan » Marilyn Monroe as Miss Caswell.
“Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men!” – Margo Channing
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was an acclaimed Hollywood beauty in films of the 1930s (such as Jezebel and The Marked Woman) and had even been among the choices to play Scarlett O’Hara, until it was decided to go for an unknown. In the late thirties her lawsuit against Warner Brothers led to the eventual collapse of the “star system”, by which studios owned actors and actresses and loaned them out to specific movies. Through the early 1940s, she starred in a number of successes, including The Letter and Now, Voyager, and won an Academy Award. By 1950, however, she hadn’t starred in a hit film in five years and was beginning to find it difficult to get the choice roles. Bette Davis was fading into obscurity.
Meanwhile, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had just won the Academy Award for best screenplay, was writing a new film, Best Performance, based on a magazine article. The article was a depiction of the backstabbing and betrayal that went on behind the scenes of Broadway’s finest plays. The script, however, was mostly fictional, although it was to have many reflections in real life events. Zanuck, the producer, looked over the script and became very excited, although he suggested changing the title to All About Eve. Zanuck and Mankiewicz secured their first choice for the star role of Margo Channing – major star Claudette Colberg (see my number 78 film, It Happened One Night). Unfortunately, a few weeks before filming was due to start, Colberg suffered a ruptured disc and was unable to take part. Mankiewicz asked Bette Davis is she was interested, but she and Darryl Zanuck were not on speaking terms. Nevertheless, Zanuck phoned up Davis and begged her to take the role. It is difficult now to imagine the film with anyone else as Margo Channing.
Joseph’s elder brother, Herman, had already received acclaim for his screenplay for Citizen Kane. Perhaps influenced by his brother’s fluid use of flashbacks and narration, All About Eve is narrated by both gossip columnist Addison DeWitt and Karen Richards, Margo’s best friend. Flashbacks occur frequently, often nested within each other. In addition, other characters tell stories within those flashbacks. The film cheats at the very end showing a scene with Eve that is not observed by either Addison or Karen.
All About Eve is the story of a much-beloved 40-something stage actress, Margo Channing, who is beginning to feel ludicrous playing 20-something characters on stage. She befriends a young fan, who becomes her assistant and then takes her place on the stage. The movie opens with all the main characters at an awards banquet – the then-fictional Sarah Siddons Award for excellence in a stage production. Bill Sampson has already collected his award for best director and Lloyd Richards for best writer. Also there is first lady of the stage, Margo Channing. The scene is initially narrated by Addison DeWitt and we discover that Eve Harrington is receiving the best actress award. Karen begins to narrate and we dissolve to a flashback showing how Eve was introduced to Margo.
The first hour and half of the film focuses on Margo’s mounting insecurity regarding her age, and her strained relationships with her director and lover, Bill and her author, Lloyd. Eve becomes a catalyst for Margo’s volatile temper and she begins to suspect Eve of plotting to take over her life. To the audience she is a bit overly solicitous, but doesn’t seem too conniving. The central set-piece sequence is a homecoming/birthday party for Bill, which Eve arranges in Margo’s name. By this point in time, Margo is convinced of Eve’s duplicity and, when Karen asks if her behaviour is “over or is it just beginning?”, she responds with one of film’s most enduring lines: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”
During this sequence, dialogue is barbed and flies thickly. After a particularly sharp insult to Eve, Lloyd tells Margo that she is not the Queen Bee, and shouldn’t act as such. Margo responds, spitting venom at everyone there. “You are in a beehive, pal. Didn’t you know? We are all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night. Aren’t we, Honey?” The last sentence is directed to Eve. Eve, however, is captivated by performance, seeming unaffected by Margo’s outbursts, telling her friends that “If nothing else, there’s applause… like waves of love pouring over the footlights.”
The party section also contains the handful of moments that turned Marilyn Monroe into a superstar. She has only a handful of lines, but her presence as a ditzy blonde actress, determined to make it in the movies at any cost – no matter how many producers she has to flirt with (“Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”) – would hover like a spectre over the rest of her career.
After about an hour and half, the film takes a turn where Eve is revealed as a conniving mastermind, who is plotting to take over Margo’s life. Her character turns are a bit unlikely, but actress Anne Baxter manages to make them seem almost believable. In the end, however, All About Eve is really all about Margo and the double-standard in how Broadway (and, by extension, Hollywood) treat women as they age versus men. It is obviously still applicable today.
All About Eve had a record number of Oscar nominations (tied by Titanic) and an astounding five acting nominations, four of which were for female performances—the only winner, though, was George Sanders as Addison DeWitt. The two supporting actress nominations were split between previous winner Celeste Holm as Karen and six time nominee (and one of my favourites) Thelma Ritter. The two best actress nominees were Anne Baxter and Bette Davis. As Anne Baxter has previously won a supporting actress award, she campaigned to get nominated in the best actress category. Like Eve Harrington, she got her wish, putting her in direct competition with her co-star, Bette Davis. Reportedly, she was not pleased. On awards night, votes were split between them (and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd.) and a dark-horse candidate ended up winning. Bette Davis never forgave Anne Baxter. Mankiewicz would go on to have successful career and his last film was Sleuth (1972), which has recently been remade with Jude Law and Michael Caine (absolutely dreadful). Bette Davis fell in love with her love interest Gary Merrill during the shoot of this movie and the two married a few weeks after filming was completed.
Before Margot reconciles with Bill, she outlines the hollowness she feels as a successful actress who is a failure in her private life. I think the sexism in the speech is not that it applies to women, but to imagine that it doesn’t apply equally to men. “Funny business, a woman’s career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It’s one career all females have in common – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.”
See Also: my number 99 film, All About My Mother.
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