“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 the film All About Eve.”
Don’t worry—I haven’t turned into a film snob on you, I’m just having a little fun. The above is a slight variation on the film’s opening narrated by Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic who knows where all the bodies are buried.
All About Eve is one of our most celebrated and treasured films. The American Film Institute lists it as the 28th greatest American film ever made. It was the first film to garner 14 Oscar nominations, and remains one of only three films to do so.
The film is stacked with high caliber talent from the top of its head to the tip of its toes.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz had just come off winning two Oscars in 1949 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives. He would repeat that feat with All About Eve, again taking home trophies for directing and screenwriting.
(If you’re wondering, the new film Mank is about Joseph’s brother Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.)
Our Mank adapted Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” into a delicious tale about a group of theater people who are taken in by the outwardly naive but inwardly cunning Eve Harrington.
Mank stocked his story with top-tier acting talent. Ann Baxter plays Eve, the ambitious social climber. Claudette Colbert was slated to play the aging diva Margo Channing, but Colbert injured her back before shooting began and Bette Davis fell into the role of her career.
It remains the only film to receive four female acting Oscar nominations— Best Actress for Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and the wonderfully gruff Thelma Ritter.
Even an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance.
And yet it was supporting actor George Sanders who won the film’s only acting award for his pitch perfect Addison DeWitt.
To top it off, the legendary Edith Head dressed them all. She won her third of an eventual eight Oscars for costume design. There’s not a great actress from that era that Head didn’t dress, and she owns more Oscars than any other woman.
The result is a film that nails show business—the egos of the stars who have made it, the desperation of those who haven’t, and the obsessive preoccupation with a woman’s—but not a man’s—age.
It’s as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.
A few years ago, I had the chance to watch All About Eve on the big screen. My local cineplex was doing a retrospective on classic films, and I got to see Bette Davis on the big screen. It was a night I won’t soon forget.
All About Eve is the story of Margo Channing, an egotistical theater star. She takes an interest in Eve Harrington, whom she (and everyone else) believes to be a naïve (and a bit pathetic) fan. Soon Eve is insinuating herself into Margo’s life Single White Female style, attempting to take over Margo’s friends, her boyfriend Bill (Merrill), and her career.
Davis is divine as Margo, a woman distressed about her recent fortieth birthday. She’s still playing twenty-something roles, but she’s no fool. She sees Eve Harrington and every other upstart nipping at her heels.
Though the American Film Institute named Margo’s quote, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” as the ninth best movie quote of all time, I’m partial to her drunken rant about ageless men.
“Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.”
It took guts for Davis to play an actress who knew she was washing up. Davis herself was forty-two at the time, and in playing Margo Channing, she was facing her biggest fear—the death of her career. And it is undoubtedly true that despite her success in the film, good roles were few and far between for Davis after Eve.
She had her own upstarts to deal with.
But just like Margo Channing, Bette Davis wasn’t done yet.
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