Truly great cinema is timeless. With its sophisticated script and a brilliant performance by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, All About Eve is a movie as timeless as they come. And an immensely entertaining one as well. Released in 1950, it still holds the record for most Academy Award nominations received by a single film (tied with Titanic). ‘All About Eve’ is a masterful character study pared with a sardonic, behind-the-scenes look at the backstabbing world of show business. A true Hollywood classic.
Out of the 14 nominations All About Eve won 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders) and Best Director. This was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ second consecutive win at the Academy Awards for both Screenplay and Direction. He adapted the script from the 1946 Cosmopolitan short story ‘The Wisdom Of Eve’ written by Mary Orr. Orr was inspired by an anecdote from the life of actress Elisabeth Bergner, who took in and employed a besotted young fan after being moved by her unfortunate life story, only to find out she was an actress/con artist trying to advance her own career.
The heart and soul of All About Eve are the two wonderful performances by actresses who, initially, were not even supposed to be a part of it. In the late 1930s Bette Davis was a two time Oscar winner (in 1935 for ‘Dangerous’ and 1938 for ‘Jezebel’) and one of Hollywood’s most profitable female leads, but by 1949 her career was as good as over. Claudette Colbert was originally cast in the role of the ageing diva Margo Channing, but dropped out after an injury shortly before filming began. Mankiewicz briefly considered Ingrid Bergman for the role, before giving it to Bette Davis, essentially resurrecting her career. Anne Baxter had a long, successful career playing supporting roles (winner of the 1946 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), but was only offered the part of the ingénue understudy after Jeanne Crain, the first choice for Eve, became pregnant.
The movie begins with Eve Harrington receiving an award for her breakout performance as the crowd consisting of fellow actors and playwrights observe the proceedings. One of the guests, theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) who is also the film’s narrator, sarcastically muses over Eve’s quick rise to stardom, instantly setting the film’s tone. We then jump a year back, meeting Margo Channing for the first time.
On stage, Margo is a Broadway star at the peak of her career, but off-stage, she is a woman struggling with the notion that, at 40, her glory days in the limelight will someday, perhaps soon, end. At this point Eve is just an unknown girl, obsessed with Margo (she claims to have seen her every performance of her current play). Thanks to Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (played by Celeste Holm), Eve gets to meet her idol. Being moved by her life story, or perhaps using Eve’s reverence as a patch for low self-esteem, Margo hires the girl as her assistant and takes her into her home. As the story unfolds, we see young Eve growing in ambition, scheming to become Margo’s understudy, trying to get everything the ageing star has, including her man.
“Margo Channing is a star of the theatre. 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.” - Addison DeWitt
Bette Davis is captivating as Margo, she fully embraces the part of the vulnerable, ageing actress. Whether she’s callous, vulnerable, bitchy or as harmless as a pussy cat, Margo comes across as a real person we can sympathise with. After all, this was a role Bette Davis could certainly relate to, having hit rock bottom professionally. Equally great, if not underrated, is Baxter’s portrayal of Eve Harrington. She keeps us guessing at first while she gradually reveals Eve’s true colours. By the end her character, unlike what it represents, becomes unimportant. Quoting Roger Ebert here: “Eve is a universal type, Mankiewicz wisely never shows us her performance; better to imagine it, and focus on the girl whose look is a little too intense, whose eyes a little too focused, whose modesty is somehow suspect.” Even though she succeeds in replacing Margo in the limelight, the director hints at her fate in the final moments of the film when Eve meets Phoebe (Barbara Bates), a young fan, confessing her adoration towards Eve…
The timelessness of the movie lies in its universal theme. In today’s celebrity obsessed world, All About Eve provides an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the backstabbing nature of show business. ‘Certified Fresh’ with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is rightly considered one of the best films ever made. In fact, it is one of only four movies I rated with a 10 on IMDBb.