ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

  • Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr
  • Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, Gregory Ratoff, and Marilyn Monroe
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 (#26), 6 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Best Supporting Actor – George Sanders, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costumes, Best Sound), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Anne Baxter, Best Actress, Bette Davis, Best Supporting Actress – Celeste Holm, Best Supporting Actress – Thelma Ritter, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

All About Eve is ostensibly a satire set in the world of Broadway theater, among people for whom Hollywood was a dirty word. Yet it has also become a big piece of Hollywood lore in its own right. It received 14 Oscar nominations, a record at the time that has only been matched since by Titanic and La La Land. It also became a major subject of Susan Sontag’s famous essaying defining “camp,” and Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington remains perhaps the definitive example of her particular type, the scheming ingenue. But Eve is less a villain than a product of her surroundings. This is a world of arch eyebrows, raised by very intelligent people.

The story depicts the clash between a very-slightly-over-the-hill Broadway actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in one of her many iconic roles) and a young striver, Eve, who at the beginning of the movie is waiting in an alley behind the theater for Davis to come out. Eve professes to be Margo’s biggest fan, but very gradually over the course of the movie seems to set out to replace her. She becomes Margo’s live-in assistant, then understudy, then starts romancing her play director husband (Gary Merrill). The only people in the movie who see through her before it’s “too late” are the acerbic, clearly homosexual (to modern eyes) drama critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), and Margo’s first assistant, a blue-collar gal played by Thelma Ritter.

The movie is full of great lines, great shots, and great performances. There’s a party stuck in the middle with all the characters where Bette Davis announces, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” and then gets drunk. Marilyn Monroe, in her first big movie role, gets brought to that party by Addison DeWitt (he introduces her as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Drama”), and makes an impression in only a couple of scenes. The movie is told with sort of a framing device, I guess, of Eve getting a big acting award (the Sarah Siddons Award, which was made up at the time but then a real award was named after it for theater acting in Chicago that has now been given out for more than sixty years). She tries to make nice with everyone, but they all hate her. Bette Davis tells her that she can keep the award where her heart should go. 

Bette Davis spent her career chafing a Hollywood system that first didn’t think she was “sexy” enough and later tried to shunt her into old lady roles in just her mid-30s. She went through a whole court case in England to try to get out of her Warner Bros. contract at the height of her career and lost. But she has remained a Hollywood icon where many of her contemporaries have faded away. She was often criticized for acting too broadly, or too mannered, but in a lot of ways that’s what helped with the endurance of her personal oeuvre. You can’t plug anyone in instead of her and get the same thing. By contrast, Eve Harrington remains far and away Anne Baxter’s most famous role, even more so than the role she had won an Oscar for a few years earlier, in The Razor’s Edge. Baxter is pitch perfect playing a character who, except in a couple of very specific bits of the movie, is playing another character. All About Eve set a record that has remained to this day with four separate female Oscar nominations, though none of them actually won. Thelma Ritter received the first of her record six Best Supporting Actress nominations, all in the space of 12 years. She never won.

Ritter received so many juicy roles because she was a favorite of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose brainchild this movie was basically in its entirety. He tended to make movies with many strong female roles, and by winning an Oscar for All About Eve he became, after his win the previous year for A Letter to Three Wives, the first person to win back-to-back Best Director awards. He started out with a screenwriter, along with his older brother Herman. His brother is best known today for writing Citizen Kane, and will be played by Gary Oldman in an upcoming movie directed by David Fincher. Joseph had to settle for just making lots of great movies.

All About Eve is just about the perfect version of this story, so much so that you don’t really need other versions, though of course there have been several attempts to take on similar areas over the years. I am not the sort of person who would read a description of this mobir and think of it as “their thing,” but you should know that if you’re going to watch one showbiz satire, this is the one. And it pulls no punches. Eve spends the movie destroying other people’s lives to get what she wants, and she wins in the end, but we see in the final scenes that she remains miserable. There is another girl at her apartment in the last scene, who claims to be “a member of [her] school’s Eve Harrington club” (Barbara Bates). Eve lets her in, and after she passes out, exhausted, we see the girl try on Eve’s dresses and look into the mirror, the same as we saw Eve earlier in the movie trying on Margo’s dresses and imagining herself on stage. Not only does the movie lack a happy ending, it seems to argue that, at least in this cranny of the world, there are no happy endings. And if that’s true, all that’s left is to arch your eyebrows and sweep your fashionable scarf over your shoulder.

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