With 14 Oscar nominations (a feat unmatched until Titanic in 1997), this Bette Davis classic won six: Best Picture, Best Support (Sanders), Costume (Edith Head), Best Director & Best Adapted Screenplay (both Joseph Mankiewicz) and best Sound Mixing. In addition it won three New York Film Critics Circle awards (Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress), a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and two awards from Cannes (for Davis and the Special Jury Prize). Enough already? No: in 1990the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Not bad going eh? But there is more! There is even an homage episode of The Simpsons titled “All About Lisa” (2008), in which Krusty the Clown’s new assistant gradually takes his place on television and receives an entertainment award. But if you think that suggests this film is childish or has no class, then take note that, of all the films he was in, this was George Sanders’ favourite. “The critics and the trades loved it,” he said. “It was a film of distinction: witty, sophisticated, and brilliantly written and directed.”
PLOT: Adapted from his own play, Joseph Mankiewicz’s script opens at an awards dinner where Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is presented with a Sarah Siddons Award. In flashback we learn how, only a year ago, Broadway star, Margo Channing (Davis) had been visited one evening while looking old and tired backstage (see right) after a performance, by a young theatre fan (Eve) who wanted to become her assistant. Margo takes her under her wing and allows Eve to become her understudy. It soon becomes clear, however, that Eve is no lost lamb and a web of intrigue gradually emerges, that ends with the understudy repacing the star. But whether this is really the end is thrown into question in the final scene.
THEMES: Some have pointed to how this film explores a rivalry between Broadway and Hollywood at the time and certainly the character of Eve may be seen as a universal theatre type. Still others discuss the film’s articulation of “the darker corners of show business, exposing its inherent ageism, especially when it comes to female stars.” (Marc Lee in The Daily Telegraph, 2006). It is also possible to see in the film a challenge to heterosexuality (Margo and Bill; Karen and Lloyd) by a predatory homosexual agency in characters like Eve and Addison (Sanders). Only in retrospect can we see the irony of Sanders arriving at a party with a young and then unknown Marlyn Munro as his ‘beard’ (left). This may also cast a comic eye on censorship at this time that restricted depiction of homosexuals in the media. Indeed in the years after the War, homosexuality in America was often linked to Communism, leading some critics to write about this film’s subtle, yet central, Cold War narrative. Despite homophobia being quite pervasive in the movie, All About Eve has long been popular among gay audiences, because of its general air of sophistication and camp overtones brought by the casting of Davis, who had a strong gay fan base and expressed long-standing support for gay men in a 1972 interview.
Another important theme of the film concerns the pressure on women at this time to resume “traditional” female roles after WWII – as illustrated initially in Margo’s mockery of Karen Richards for being a “happy little housewife” – then later, as a reformed character, Margo delivers a lengthy monologue on the virtuousness of marriage and how a woman is not truly a woman without having a man beside her. Now submissive and effeminate, Margo has abandoned the combative egotism of the career woman. Nevertheless Margo/Davis has all the best lines – as in the exchange on the right, for example, or this in which the playwright complains about actors:
Lloyd Richards: I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind. Just when exactly does an actress decide they’re HER words she’s speaking and HER thoughts she’s expressing?
Margo Channing: Usually at the point where she has to rewrite and rethink them, to keep the audience from leaving the theatre!
TRIVIA: Celeste Holm, who we last saw in our screening of Gentleman’s Agreement, back in July, did not get on with Bette Davis (the can be seen together in the still, below). “I walked onto the set,” said Holm, “on the first day and said, ‘Good morning,’ and do you know her reply? She said, ‘Oh shit, good manners.’ I never spoke to her again – ever.” In an interview years later Davis said “filming All About Eve was a very happy experience….the only bitch in the cast was Celeste Holm.”
During the shoot the marriage of Davis to William Grant Sherry was in bad shape and her raspy voice was due to a burst a blood vessel in her throat from screaming at her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz liked the croaky quality, however, so didn’t have Davis change it.
Meanwhile Davis was falling in love with Gary Merrill (who played Bill Simpson, her director, seen between Davis Left and Anne Baxter, who Davis holds at arm’s length below) during the shoot. They married a few weeks after completing the film (and later adopted a baby girl, whom they named Margot).
As if this wasn’t enough tension on the set, Zsa Zsa Gabor, then married to George Sanders (right, above), kept arriving to check that his scenes with Marilyn Monroe were not carrying on ‘beyond the script’.
Contrary to popular belief, Margo Channing is not based on Tallulah Bankhead. The film was adapted from an original story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr (uncredited in this film). However, the story about it being based on Bankhead persisted and she reportedly told a live radio audience that the next time she saw Bette Davis, she would “tear every hair out of her mustache”.
Anne Baxter (1923 -1985) was cast largely because of her resemblance to Claudette Colbert, who was originally set to star but became unavailable and was replaced by Bette Davis. The idea was to have Baxter literally mirror the star and virtually become Colbert in the course of the story. Baxter, who had been in films for 10 years and was the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, is remembered for playing the Egyptian princess, Nefertiti, opposite Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956) and for Lucy in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). She also co-starred with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney in The Razor’s Edge (1946), for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In the 1970’s she returned to Broadway in Applause, a musical stage version of All About Eve – this time taking the Margo Channing role.