All About Eve (1950), is a realistic, dramatic depiction of show business and backstage life of Broadway and the New York theater. The devastating debunking of stage and theatrical characters was based on the short story and radio play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr. A cinematic masterpiece and one of the all-time classic films, this award winner has flawless acting, directing, an intelligent script and believable characters. The film is driven by Mankiewicz' witty, cynical and bitchy screenplay - through the character of Addison DeWitt, Mankiewicz represented his point of view and opinions about show business. Thematically, it provides an insightful diatribe against crafty, aspiring, glib, autonomous female thespians who seek success and ambition at any cost without regard to scruples or feelings. The acclaimed film also comments on the fear of aging and loss of power/fame.
It was nominated for fourteen awards - more than any other picture in Oscar history, until Titanic (1997) duplicated the same feat forty-seven years later. The skillful film won six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Sound Recording, and Best B/W Costume Design. Four actresses in the film were nominated (and all lost). It holds the record for the film with the most female acting nominees:
- Best Actress (two) - Bette Davis and Anne Baxter
- Best Supporting Actress (two) - Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter
Bette Davis' leading (but not title) role as Margo Channing has generally been considered her greatest career performance and her most memorable, signature role. [Other choices for the role included Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich.] Her part as an aging, 40-year old Broadway actress fit the 42-year old Davis perfectly, at a time when acting roles were drying up for her. Davis played opposite co-star Gary Merrill - with whom she had an affair during filming, and soon married (it was her fourth - and last - marriage, that lasted from 1950-1960) after waiting for each other's divorce.
The film was adapted and transformed into a Broadway play called Applause in 1970, with Lauren Bacall (later replaced by Anne Baxter!) as Margo Channing. Eddie (Ed) Fisher's sole scene was cut from the final version, although he still received screen credit as Stage Manager. The film is often noted as a "three suicide movie," for the deaths of George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe (although it may have been an accidental overdose), and Barbara Bates.The Story
The film opens with the image of an award trophy, described in voice-over by an off-camera, muted voice:
The Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement is perhaps unknown to you. It has been spared the sensational and commercial publicity that attends such questionable 'honors' as the Pulitzer Prize - and those awards presented annually by that film society.
We are informed about the setting - where we are and why. The elite of the theatrical world attend the annual presentation of the enviable Sarah Siddons Award for dramatic achievement in the theatre:
This is the dining hall of the Sarah Siddons Society. The occasion is its annual banquet and presentation of the highest honor our theater knows - the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement...The minor awards, as you can see, have already been presented. Minor awards are for such as the writer and director [playwright Lloyd Richards and director Bill Sampson are briefly viewed] since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it. And no brighter light has ever dazzled the eye than Eve Harrington. Eve. But more of Eve later, all about Eve, in fact.
The cynical, caustic, acid-tongued New York drama critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) introduces himself before going further:
To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live - it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison De Witt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater.
The narrator, De Witt introduces (in voice-over) a number of other main characters in the ceremony's audience at the same table, including Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe):
She is the wife of a playwright, therefore of the theatre by marriage. Nothing in her background or breeding should have brought her any closer to the stage than Row E, Center. However, during her senior year at Radcliffe, Lloyd Richards lectured on the drama. The following year, Karen became Mrs. Lloyd Richards.
The next individual at the table to be introduced is Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), the theatrical producer of the play which has won the award for Eve:
There are in general two types of theatrical producers. One has a great many wealthier friends who will risk a tax deductible loss. This type is interested in art. The other is one to whom each production means potential ruin or fortune. This type is out to make a buck.
Finally, there is Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis):
Margo Channing is a Star of the Theater. She made her first stage appearance, at the age of four, in Midsummer Night's Dream. She played a fairy and entered - quite unexpectedly - stark naked. She has been a Star ever since. Margo is a great Star. A true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.
Miss Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an actress who we soon learn "all about" in flashback, is being honored as the youngest recipient ever to win the Sarah Siddons Award as Best Actress - "such a young lady, young in years, but whose heart is as old as the theater. Some of us are privileged to know her. We have seen beyond the beauty and artistry that have made her name resound through the nation." From the reactions of audience members who have been introduced - false smiles, unmoving faces, cynical looks, and unapplauding hands, one senses the sham of the awards ceremony for Eve:
We know her humility, her devotion, her loyalty to her art, her love, her deep and abiding love for us, for what we are and what we do, the theater. She has had one wish, one prayer, one dream - to belong to us. Tonight, her dream has come true. And henceforth, we shall dream the same of her.
As the glamorous Eve rises in a regal manner to triumphantly accept the award, the voice-over continues - as she reaches out for the award, the shot freeze-frames:
Eve. Eve the Golden Girl, the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. Time has been good to Eve. Life goes where she goes. She's the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she's going. Eve. You all know All About Eve. What can there be to know that you don't know?
In the remainder of the film, events from early October to June which led to the award ceremony are unfolded through the thoughts and actions of each important character that is in attendance.
Karen Richards, the playwright's wife ("a lowest form of celebrity"), and Margo Channing's best friend, relates that Eve began her life in the theater as an innocent, forlorn, star-struck fan, haunting the theater where her idol appeared, watching every performance and waiting in the back alley to see her idol arrive and leave. She worships one of Broadway's mega-stars, actress Margo Channing, who is appearing in producer Max Fabian's play Aged in Wood - directed by the star's lover Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). Eve ("another tongue-tied gushing fan") is given the opportunity to meet her idol backstage following an evening performance.
Inside the theatre, the starry-eyed, stage-struck girl wanders around: "You can breathe it, can't you? Like some magic perfume." In Margo's backstage dressing room, Karen is envious of Margo's theatrical success: "You're talented, famous, wealthy, people waiting around night after night, just to see you, even in the wind and the rain." But Margo doesn't think much of her fans and audience:
Autograph fiends, they're not people. Those are little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes...They're nobody's fans. They're juvenile delinquent, they're mental defective, and nobody's audience. They never see a play or a movie even. They're never indoors long enough.
Karen begs Margo to see one of her adoring "indoors" fans: "Oh, but you can't put her out. I promised. Margo, you've got to see her. She worships you. It's like something out of a book...You're her whole life." Eve, seen in the alley's shadows as "the mousy one with the trench coat and a funny hat," is ushered into the dressing room and introduced to Margo - with unflattering cold cream on her face.
Margo's maid, friend and companion Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) reacts negatively to Margo's put-on performance in Eve's presence: "When she gets like this - all of a sudden, she's playin' Hamlet's mother"- after which Margo suggests that Birdie retreat to the bathroom. The young girl Eve responds passionately toward Margo's current and past plays: "I've seen every performance...I'd like anything Miss Channing played in...I think that part of Miss Channing's greatness lies in her ability to pick the best plays."
In a classic scene, wet-eyed Eve uses her captivating, acting abilities to tell her dressing room audience the hard-luck, melancholy tale of her life story which began in Wisconsin as an only child. "But somehow, acting and make believe began to fill up my life more and more. It got so I couldn't tell the real from the unreal. Except that the unreal seemed more real to me."
Her father was a poor farmer, so to help out, she quit school, moved to Milwaukee, and became a secretary - in a brewery. "...it's pretty hard to make believe you are anyone else. Everything is beer." There was a little theatre group there - "like a drop of rain on the desert." Purportedly, she married Eddie, a radio technician, and during the war, he flew in the Air Force in the South Pacific. She learned she was a war widow when she was in San Francisco. Stranded, she remained there, found a job, and lived off her deceased husband's insurance. She saved herself from devastation by attending Margo's performances:
And there were theatres in San Francisco. And then one night, Margo Channing came to play in Remembrance and I went to see it. Well, here I am.
She had followed her acting idol from San Francisco across the country - with theatrical aspirations of her own to become a big star on Broadway. Eve's calculated, guileless manipulation of Margo's vanity and sentiments help her maneuver her way into Margo's life. Everyone is taken by lovely Eve's shy charm, helplessness, naivete, lack of pretention and passion. But Birdie reacts sarcastically and skeptically to Eve's fabricated, ingratiating "make-believe" image and stories:
What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end.
Margo criticizes her maid for showing outspoken callousness toward Eve:
There are some human experiences, Birdie, that do not take place in a vaudeville house - and that even a fifth-rate vaudevillian should understand and respect!
Margo's fiancee-to-be, theatrical director Bill Sampson, a show business veteran and one of Margo's inner circle, is on his way to Hollywood for a month-long stay and a one-picture deal: "Zanuck is impatient. He wants me, he needs me." The earnest young woman Eve, who professes to admire Margo, quickly endears herself to the stage star, earning her a place in the star's inner circle. Margo encourages her to "stick around" for flattery's sake.
In flashback, Karen remembers that eventful evening: "And I'll never forget you, Eve." Sampson defines the word theater for Eve:
The theatuh, the theatuh - what book of rules says the theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris, or Vienna? Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band - all theater. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience - there's theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and the Lone Ranger. Sarah Bernhardt and Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex the Wild Horse, Eleanora Duse - they're all theater. You don't understand them, you don't like them all - why should you? The theater's for everybody - you included, but not exclusively - so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your theater, but it's theater for somebody, somewhere...It's just that there's so much bourgeois in this ivory greenroom they call the theater. Sometimes it gets up around my chin.
“All About Eve” is a literate, adult film of the calibre that will do big league, big town business. In addition it has all the elements for the general runs.
The whyfore of the producer’s insistence for “scheduled performances” becomes obvious as the story unfolds from its banquet scene that honors a new Broadway legit great and the flashbacks which deal with the brittle, hard-bitten and frequently bitter saga that tells us “All About Eve.”
Anne Baxter, in the title role, is the radiant newcomer who has attained the thespic heights. And as she mounts the podium to receive the supreme accolade, the intimates who figured in her breathless success story project their own vignettes on what made this hammy glammy run.
Bette Davis is the established albeit somewhat aging star. Hugh Marlowe is her author; Celeste Holm the playwright’s wife; Gary Merrill the play’s director who yields to a quick call, and some easy money, from Hollywood but soon returns to Miss Davis, his major romance. Backgrounding are Gregory Ratoff, as the producer, and George Sanders as the debonair, machiavellian dramatic critic who knows the angles–plus.
Miss Baxter plays a starry-eyed would be actress who, by extraordinary design, finally meets Bette Davis, her histrionic idol (through the kind offices of Celeste Holm). She is taken into the household, machinates an understudy chore, apparently possesses the basic talent to click resoundingly once she engineers an opportunity – and in return is ruthless in her pitch for both the beau and the husband of the two women who most befriended her.
The basic story is garnished with exceedingly well-cast performances wherein Miss Davis does not spare herself, makeup-wise, in the aging star assignment. Miss Baxter gives the proper shading to her cool and calculating approach in the process of ingratiation and ultimate opportunities; and the other principals mouth dialog which is real and convincing. The intra-trade references to Zanuck (perhaps the first time a producer permitted his own name-dropping to further the plot), the William Morris agency, 21 and the Stork (both reproduced with authentic interiors) are plausible and not dragged in for any smartalecky reasons. The snide references to picture people, the plug for San Francisco (“an oasis of civilization in the California desert”) and the like are purposeful and manifest an intelligent reflex from a group of hyper-talented people towards the picture business. In itself it was courageous to retain these segments. It is typical of the general quality of the film, both as to the screenplay and the players.
It is obvious author-director Joe Mankiewicz knew what and how he wanted his cast to say and interpret. It comes out that way, even in the bitter ending with its suggestion that still another tyro, who had latched onto Miss Baxter, might well tread the same hard path.
It is cogent that a sharp Broadway play–at least a screenplay about Broadway people–was cradled and produced in Hollywood. The characterizations are composite prototypes, of course, although some may see in Miss Davis’ role a vivid counterpart. The ruthless critic is 100% fiction; any analogy, because of his debonair typecasting, ends there.
“All About Eve” has substance in virtually every dramatic and romantic mood, which have been given proper shading and projection by producer Darryl F. Zanuck and Mankiewicz. The segue from the commentary school of cinematurgy, to bridge the flashback sequences, into the vignettes is unobtrusive but an effective technique to tie up the entire package which ends with Miss Baxter hugging the coveted trophy–and a stranger to her friends.
The Zanuck production investiture is plush in every department.
1950: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (George Sanders), Screenplay, Sound Recording, B&W Costume Design.
Nominations: Best Actress (Anne Baxter, Bette Davis), Supp. Actress (Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter), B&W Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Original Music Score