ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates
A young woman, Eve Harrington, idolizes a great Broadway star, Margo Channing. She continually haunts the stage door of the theatre where Margo works, until one night, Karen Richards, Margo’s best friend, brings Eve back stage to meet her idol. Eve quickly gains the trust of Margo and her inner circle and moves into Margo’s apartment, becoming her personal assistant. Over time, however, it becomes clear that Eve is not the naive fan she presents herself as, but rather a tough, scheming actress herself, determined to use whomever she can to gain the sort of fame Margo has won.
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“All About Eve” provided a career comeback for Bette Davis after a disappointing run of films in the late ‘40s. It also proved a career highlight for just about everyone else involved. The film garnered a then record shattering 14 Oscar nominations which has only since been matched by “Titanic” (1997), but never surpassed. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders), and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
So, does it hold up after nearly 60 years? Absolutely. “All About Eve” provides an example of a movie where you can feel everything going right. The script is literate and witty, well structured and beautifully paced. The director has a superb cast well in hand, which provides stellar support for and engagement with his incredibly strong leading lady. The direction has a clarity that allows the drama to unfold in such a way so that the story of these amusing and hyper-articulate characters is still psychologically believable.
The cast aside, perhaps the real star of this film is its script. Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted it from a story written by Mary Orr, which, in turn, was based on a true incident of a Broadway actress in the early 1940s taking in a young fan who told a convincing sob story. In reality, she was just an ambitious young woman who wanted to get ahead in show business. Mankiewicz took this promising foundation for a story and elaborated on it. The film is famous for its memorable lines:
“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” or “I detest cheap sentiment.”
Not to mention the arch exchanges between Margo (Bette Davis) and her entourage. She playfully teases her longtime boyfriend, director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill):
“Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck. What are you two lovers?”
“Only in some ways. You’re prettier.”
“I’m a junkyard.”
“My wonderful junkyard. The mystery and dreams you find in a junkyard.”
“Heaven help me, I love a psychotic.”
Even more amusing is Margo in full diva mode, confronting everyone from columnist Addison De Witt (George Sanders), crashing her party:
“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest list. What are you doing here?”
To imperiously ordering Eve about:
“Would you check on the hors d’oeuvres ... The caterer forgot them. The varnish wasn’t dry or something.”
The crackling dialogue is supported by a well structured script that opens with a framing situation of Eve accepting an acting award with all the principal players present. Addison, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) and Margo then, each in turn, begin to tell of their relationships with Eve via voice over. The story is carefully paced so that it only gradually reveals Eve’s true character and motives. Along the way we get to observe the equally interesting group surrounding Margo. Thelma Ritter, the great character actress, plays the unflappable Birdie, the only member of Margo’s inner circle not taken in by Eve. Celeste Holm is sympathetic and amusing as Karen, Eve’s initial sponsor in the group who comes to regret trusting her protégé. George Sanders as the acid tongued Addison De Witt is perfectly cast. Anne Baxter handles the transition from a seemingly guileless young woman to a ruthless professional well, although it’s hard to believe she is really blowing every one away as an actress and Mankiewicz is wise to never show us Eve on stage.
The crucial role of Margo would seem to have been written for Bette Davis, but she was actually last on a long list of actresses who were offered the part before her. Davis understands this woman well and it is tempting to speculate on how much of her own character and temperament she draws upon to create Margo. However, the role was conceived partially with a nod to Talullah Bankhead, as well as drawing on the stories of other Broadway stars. Davis captures all the contradictions in this woman and holds them together brilliantly. Margo is both jaded and ebullient; angry and vulnerable; vicious and kind; ragged and glamorous; defiant and insecure. As importantly, Davis’ performance works so well because she is able to spar off of a great supporting cast who give as good as they get from her.
“All About Eve” retains its place as the ultimate backstage drama even as the entertainment world has changed enormously. It owes its staying power to its strong story, literate and fun dialogue, sharply drawn characters and a cast that still commands our attention and appreciation.