All About Eve (1950)
November 22, 2019 | by Shannon
What a classic! Nearly seventy years after its initial release, All About Eve (1950) is still included on the lists of the best films ever made. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why! And if you haven’t yet seen All About Eve, you’re in for a treat. All About Eve is Bette Davis in arguably her most iconic role. And it’s Bette at her spunky, acerbic, witty, (and at times nasty!!!), utterly classic best.
You don’t want to miss All About Eve when it plays on TCM this Tuesday. Check my site calendar for details! All About Eve will also be available to watch on tcm.com the week after it plays live. This is a movie totally worth adding to your collection, and you can purchase (or rent) the film on Amazon here [aff. link].
All About Eve is all about “the theater.” Bette plays Margo Channing, the greatest stage actress of the moment. Margo has just turned 40, a watershed year for an actress, and has some career insecurities as she continues to play ingénue roles.
Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a fan who’s been to every performance of Margo’s latest Broadway play. One night, Eve is brought to Margo’s dressing room by Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), Margo’s best friend. Karen also happens to be the wife of Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), the author of most of the plays Margo appears in. And to round out this tight-knit group, the director of most of Margo’s plays is Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), who is also Margo’s (younger) boyfriend. Through Karen’s kindness, Eve meets the whole group, and wins them all over with her apparent humility and sweetness.
“Isn’t it silly? Suddenly I’ve developed a big protective feeling toward her [Eve]. A lamb loose in our big stone jungle.”
Margo tells boyfriend Bill Sampson. And so Margo hires Eve to be her live-in assistant. To all who observe Eve’s adoration of Margo, it seems clear that Eve, as Karen puts it, “worships” Margo.
Eve's Obsessive Devotion
But is Eve’s devotion too good to be true? The first hint we get that this may be the case comes from Margo’s pre-Eve assistant, Birdie (played by the always amazing Thelma Ritter!). Birdie finds herself basically out of a job because Eve has taken over all aspects of Margo’s life. Birdie warns Margo about Eve:
“It’s like she’s studying you. Like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints.” How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep…”
Can you tell the film is about to get juicy?!!!! Birdie is right, this Eve is a conniver, and our protagonists, one by one, are about to find out!
Not What She Seems!
Margo discovers that Eve isn’t a sweet innocent after Eve mentions with a hint of malice that she sent Margo’s boyfriend Bill a telegram on his birthday. Furthermore, Eve informs Margo that she’s organized a birthday party for Bill…
Come on Margo, FIRE THE JERK!!!!
Margo’s no idiot, and, already self-conscious about the age difference between herself and Bill, worries that Eve will use the party as a way to take Bill away from her. When Karen and Lloyd arrive at the party, they can tell something’s up:
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Margo tells them. (And thus one of Bette Davis’ best lines, one of Cinema’s best lines, was delivered!)
Even after the party, Margo’s friends still don’t understand why her feelings towards Eve have soured. When Margo fires Eve, Karen, Lloyd, and Bill are convinced Margo is just being self-involved. Even after Eve manages to become Margo’s understudy in her current play, no one but Margo seems to think Eve is using them all for personal gain.
It's About Time!
Karen is the next to discover who Eve really is. Unbeknownst to Margo, Karen—still thinking Eve is a sweet young thing—helps Eve go on in Margo’s place one night in the play. After Eve wins rave reviews for her performance, she decides Karen’s husband Lloyd would be good for her career, so Eve goes after him, and tries to use her feminine wiles to take Lloyd away from Karen! Like Margo, now Karen knows Eve is not a very nice person.
Bill basically learns about Eve’s true nature at the same time Karen does. In an interview with theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) after her triumphant performance, Eve says that older actresses need to step aside, and allow younger actresses a chance to shine. In Eve’s opinion, older actresses must stop playing ingénues. WOW!!!!! A total jab at Margo! Bill is loyal and in love with Margo, so now he hates Eve too.
It’s not clear when exactly Lloyd finds out about Eve, but he is definitely the last to see through her, though he gets there eventually!
Eve Lands on Top
Eve’s scathing words in Addison’s column convince Margo and Bill that it’s time for them to get married, and Margo turns down the role Lloyd wrote for her in his new play. Well, guess who ends up playing the lead in Lloyd’s play?
Yep, despite the fact that Lloyd wrote the play and hates Eve, that Karen is his wife and hates Eve, that Bill will direct the play and hates Eve, and that the play was written for Margo—who also hates Eve—EVE ENDS UP WITH THE LEAD ROLE! That is the magic of this despicable woman’s ability to get what she wants.
The play of course turns out to be a raving success, and Eve wins the prestigious Sarah Siddons award for her work.
But at what cost? All the old friends Eve betrayed now hate her, and on her way up to the top of the theater world, Eve sold her soul to theater critic Addison DeWitt, the one character in the film who is at least as evil as Eve. Addison gives Eve a pretty accurate description of the similarities between them:
“You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent.”
Eve is basically a sociopath, so she really doesn’t much care that Margo, Karen, Bill, and Lloyd think she’s the devil. But Addison has some damning info about Eve’s real past life—you’ll just have to watch the film to find out about Eve’s seedy past!—and she hates having to cow to him.
The film closes with Eve at the top of the theater world, and primed for a little bit of history repeated when a young theater hopeful starts to insert herself into Eve’s life, just as Eve did to Margo…The End!
Bette's Role of a Lifetime
All About Eve was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. (And yes, TCM fans! Joseph Mankiewicz is related to TCM presenter Ben Mankiewicz, his great-uncle in fact.) It seems Bette Davis was destined to play Margo Channing, for even though Claudette Colbert was the first actress signed to the role, Colbert had to drop out after suffering an intense back injury. The part went to Bette, who had been Mankiewicz’s first choice to begin with. Mankiewicz was happy because he got his first choice actress after all, and Bette was happy because, after a slew of not so great movies, she recognized in All About Eve a comeback film, and potentially the greatest role of her career.
"This Woman will Destroy You"
Joseph Mankiewicz was warned about Bette and her controlling tactics on film sets by several other directors who had worked with her before. Edmund Goulding, Bette’s four-time director, had especially memorable words for Mankiewicz about the head-strong Bette Davis:
“Have you gone mad? This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. You are a writer, dear boy. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And then she, not you, will direct. Mark my words.”
OH shoot oh SHOOT!
Mankiewicz was understandably a little apprehensive when Bette arrived on set the first day of filming. But despite the warnings of others, Mankiewicz found Bette a joy to work with:
“Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable perfect. There was no fumbling for my words; they had become hers—as Margo Channing. The director’s dream: the prepared actress.”
I think there are a few reasons why Bette behaved for Joseph Mankiewicz. The biggest one is that she respected him and his talent. Bette was a smart woman, and she undoubtedly realized that the All About Eve script was perfect, as written by Mankiewicz. Margo’s dialogue literally could not be improved upon. Bette knew this, and left it alone.
The other reason Bette and Mankiewicz enjoyed a fabulous working relationship on All About Eve is that Mankiewicz was also smart, and he knew not to get in the way of Bette’s ego by directing her too much. Reportedly, the only real direction Mankiewicz gave Bette about how to portray Margo Channing was that
“Margo Channing was a woman who would treat her mink coat like a poncho.”
Bette loved it, and knew exactly what to do with her character with this piece of direction. And Mankiewicz didn’t get in Bette’s way! Mutual respect.
Bette Loses It
In fact the only thing about Bette on set that worried Mankiewicz was her voice: just prior to filming, Bette got into a screaming match with soon-to-be ex-husband number three, William Sherry. The screaming got so intense that Bette broke a blood vessel in her throat! After following a weekend-long gag order from her doctor, however, Bette got the green light to talk, and her resulting deep, throaty voice actually worked in the film’s favor. As Mankiewicz told Bette:
“It’s just the whiskey-throated voice Margo should have. If your throat improves, make sure you keep your voice deep throughout the picture.”
So even the one potential problem between Bette and Mankiewicz on set turned out to be a major positive!
Behind the Scenes Friends and Foes
Bette and Joseph Mankiewicz may have loved working together, but the rest of the cast and their feelings towards Bette was truly a mixed bag. Here’s a little taste of Bette’s working relationships on the Eve set:
Celeste Holm: Bette Hated Her!
Bette famously had a hard time getting along with her female costars, and true to form, Bette did not get along with Celeste Holm. Bette said of Celeste:
“Filming All About Eve was a very happy experience…the only b – – – – in the cast was Celeste Holm.”
And Celeste shot back about Bette:
“I walked onto the set…on the first day and said, ‘Good morning [to Bette],’ and do you know her reply? She said, ‘Oh s – – –, good manners.’ I never spoke to her again—ever.”
Wow, sounds INTENSE!!!!
Gary Merrill: Bette Loved Him! (Literally)
If you remember from my intro post on Bette, Gary Merrill was Bette’s fourth and final husband. They met on the Eve set, and the attraction was mutual, and immediate. According to Celeste Holm,
“Bette had taken one look at Gary and Gary had taken one look at Bette, and something had happened. And from then on she didn’t care whether the rest of us lived or died.”
So obviously Bette and Gary got along on the All About Eve set!
Anne Baxter: Bette (Surprisingly) Loved Her!
Anne Baxter, Eve in the film, had every reason to be Bette’s rival. For one, Anne’s and Bette’s characters in All About Eve hate each other. For another, Anne was a woman—a younger woman no less—and as we just rehashed, Bette Davis quite uniformly did not like her female costars. Despite these odds, Anne and Bette actually became friends! Anne Baxter is one of two major female costars Bette had during her career that she remained on friendly terms with, the other being Olivia de Havilland. (Interesting side note: Anne Baxter is the granddaughter of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright!)
George Sanders: Bette HATED Him!
If you know anything about George Sanders, you probably already guessed that he and Bette were perhaps too similar to get along under any circumstances in any universe. !!!!! As Sanders related,
“I matched her [Bette] snarl for snarl and bite for bite. Of course it was great for the picture, as it made for some nice confrontational conflict…Later, when she lost the Oscar and I won for Best Supporting Actor, I met her at a party and she turned her back on me without a word. I couldn’t resist the temptation to purr over her shoulder, ‘Sour grapes, Bette?’ and do you know what she did? She turned around and spit at me!’”
Oh my goodness THOSE TWO!!!!
At the 1951 Academy Awards, All About Eve earned at record 14 nominations! The film won six Oscars that year, but George Sanders was the only actor from the film who won in his category. Anne Baxter and Bette were both nominated for Best Actress, and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress. All About Eve holds a special Oscar record for having the most actresses nominated for Academy Awards from a single film! But none of them won.
In Joseph Mankiewicz’s words,
“Bette lost because Anne Baxter was nominated. Annie lost because Bette Davis ditto. Celeste Holm lost because Thelma Ritter was nominated, and she lost because Celeste ditto.”
Good point, and probably true!
A Note on Marilyn
All About Eve holds a special place in the hearts of Marilyn Monroe fans, for it was one of Marilyn’s first film roles, and perhaps the first film where audiences really got to see the actress who would soon become a timeless legend.
Joseph Mankiewicz cast Marilyn as Miss Casswell in All About Eve, an aspiring actress who is a bit of a…shall we say protégé?…of Addison DeWitt’s before he latches onto Eve. Mankiewicz had some really interesting things to say about Marilyn and his reasons for casting this unknown actress in his picture:
“I thought she was right for the role, which was of an aspiring theater actress, and Marilyn was nothing if not aspiring at the time. It was suggested that the character would do whatever she had to do to get ahead, and I sensed that in Marilyn there was a certain amount of cunning as well as innocence. I found her a fascinating mix. On one hand, she was vulnerable. But, on the other, calculating. She knew what she was doing, that one. There was never a false move with her.”
All About Eve was Marilyn’s first truly big film. But she ended up being quite costly to the production for a few reasons! One of which was that Marilyn, despite not being a star or holding any sort of power at the studio (20thCentury Fox), was always late to the set. Can you imagine being consistently late for filming on your first big movie with a huge star like Bette Davis? But that was Marilyn, and tardy or not, you gotta love her!
She was further an expense to the film because, according to Gary Merrill, Marilyn was an inexperienced actress who required multiple takes for her scenes, no matter how scant her dialogue. Merrill said that in her big scene with Bette:
“…Marilyn had only a few lines…Bette had more, but she was an experienced actress and accomplished the scene with little bother. It had to be done in ten takes, however—Marilyn kept forgetting her lines.”
Marilyn was also apparently so nervous about working with a star as great as Bette that when Bette became impatient with her after all these takes for a simple scene, Marilyn had to excuse herself to the restroom to vomit. Ok, that’s kind of sweet. Not very glamorous, but sweet.
Marilyn may have little dialogue and screen time in Eve, but her star power is obvious, and it’s really fun and fascinating to see all those qualities that she would become world famous for—the pout, the walk, the innocent yet flashing eyes, the dumb, but maybe not so dumb blonde persona—in their nascent state. You truly can’t miss her in the film!
And that’s All About Eve! Be sure to check my site calendar so you don’t miss the film when it plays on TCM on Tuesday!
Have you seen All About Eve? What are the standout lines and performances to you in the film?
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