All About Eve

US (1950) Dr. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Celebrated Broadway actress Margot Channing (Bette Davis) is introduced to über obsessive fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) by close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). The group welcome poor Eve into their circle with Margot taking her on as her personal aide, much to chagrin of her long serving maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Over time the younger and ambitious Eve begins to usurp the much older Margot not just in the theatre but in her personal world and seemingly not be accident.

I doubt for any film buffs reading this will need no further introduction to this classic movie, which, until Titanic came along in 1997, held the record for the most Oscar nominations of fourteen – including being the only film to have four female acting award nominations – and has been lampooned and inspired many-a-clone over the years. It is full of snappy one-liners that have been not just quotable but part of the movie script lexicon and is also famed for an early small but prominent role for one Marilyn Monroe.  

Based on the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted this story which seems to take a few shots at the snobbery of the theatre world – one which he knew nothing about but seemingly nailed with amazing accuracy – which had a long standing propensity of looking down its nose at the movies, regarding it as an unwanted illegitimate child.

A stalwart of the motion picture, Mankiewicz seems to relish sticking the knife in, which some people clearly didn’t take kindly to, claiming many of the charters are mere stereotypes, caricatures and other typical complaints, but that hasn’t stopped this from becoming a timeless and highly praised classic.

The film opens with Eve receiving an acting award at a prestigious ceremony, narrated by influential theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who sardonically introduces us to the main players in this tale. We then jump back in time to when impoverished Eve is met in an alley way outside the theatre Margot is playing in by Karen Richards who takes her inside and introduces Eve to her idol.

Eve’s tales of hardship break Margot’s usually hard and disingenuous stance towards and takes Eve under her wing, soon finding her an invaluable factor in her life. Having met DeWitt, he recognises Eve’s determination to break out of Margot’s shadow and becomes complicit in facilitating an opportunity for Eve together shot at a role Margot was originally supposed to play.

As Eve begins to make waves in the theatre business, Margot finds herself on the outside due to her justified paranoia about Eve and a number of orchestrated incidents that force her out of the picture. Taking Margot’s stage spot was not enough as Eve made a pass at Margot’s toy boy partner, theatre director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and Lloyd Richards.

The story won’t seem that special for modern audiences since it has been cloned many times in its wake but as the original it still stands as a monumental work, thanks to Mankiewicz’s exceptionally astute and snappy writing as well as the sublime lead performances.

The character of Margot was given a slight make over once Bette Davis took the role (original choice Claudette Colbert injured her back prior to filming and second choice Joan Crawford – Davis’s rival – was busy elsewhere) from a graceful woman to a more acerbic one to fit Davis’s own legendarily caustic personality.

Here she delivers another towering performance, for once managing to elicit audience sympathy after years playing the queen bitch. Anne Baxter’s essaying of the duplicitous Eve is equally commanding, as her character slowly morphs from a shy caterpillar to a vampiric moth in the quest of her own personal validation.

The support cast are eminently sturdy with George Sanders delightfully pompous as critic DeWitt. He also gets to utter a very prophetic line when applauding Marilyn Monroe’s young Hollywood starlet Miss Caswell “I can see your career rising East like the sun” – which of course it did just a few short years after this film was made.

For today’s audiences, this witty but verbose film will probably appear tame but for the rest of us All About Eve remains a timeless classic.