All About Eve (1950): Starring Bette Davis in her Best (but Snubbed) Performance

Fox

all_about_eve_posterIn 1950, two major films dealt in a poignantly satirical way with the world of showbiz: “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Never before had Broadway in “All About Eve” and Hollywood in “Sunset Boulevard” suffered such scathing indictments from their own members.

“All About Eve” marked a breech in America’s love affair with Broadway–and the end of Broadway’s golden era. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s unveiled a new image of a corrupt place where actresses slept their way to the top. In the Anne Baxter and George Sanders characters, ruthless people clawing their way upwards, Broadway’s dark side was revealed. Marilyn Monroe, in an early role, calls producers “unhappy rabbits,” a dismissal that’s indicative of the film’s attitude toward the theater.

For years, Broadway had maintained the reputation of being a nobler art than cinema, but “All About Eve” ruined Broadway’s fame. As the Hays office loosened up, Hollywood began “stealing” Broadway’s adult subject matter, leaving it without its unique trademark.

“All About Eve” radically redefined the orthodox view of a sacrosanct theater. Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’ lover in the film–and in real life–says: “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. You don’t understand them all–why should you It may not be your theater, but it’s theater for somebody, somewhere.”

all_about_eve_2_sandersAside from attacking Broadway, the film defended Hollywood against the encroachment of television. In one of the great one-liners, Sanders tells Monroe: “That’s all television is, my dear. Nothing but auditions.” “All About Eve” while ostensibly about Broadway, was in actuality an elaborate editorial praising the Hollywood system. The Broadway context, however, pervades every aspect of the film, which is based on Mary Orr’s story and radio play, The Wisdom of Eve. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) has just turned 40 and is insecure about her position as a star. She’s in love with a younger man, a director (Gary Merrill), and is feeling their age difference where it hurts. Margo is introduced to a wide-eyed, stage-struck, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who warms her way into her life, becoming a surrogate sister, mother, friend, shrink–and eventually understudy. A schemer, Eve’s eyes are set on taking Margo’s place–and lover. In the end, Margo retires from the stage to married life, and Eve takes on a young girl, who’s just as ambitious as she was. Eve is doomed to suffer retribution from the next generation of ingénues.

“All About Eve” opened in New York at the Roxy on October 13, 1950. Twenty years later, it became the Broadway musical “Applause,” with Lauren Bacall in the Davis part. The title of the stage version came from Anne Baxter’s lines:

“Why, if there’s nothing else–there’s applause. I’ve listened, backstage, to people applaud. It’s like–like waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up.”

all_about_eve_davis_1Moderately successful at the box office, the picture grossed less than $3 million, despite sweeping the Oscars that year and featuring Davis’ greatest performance. The film has remained popular, however, due to Mankiewicz’s sharp writing. Fueled by brilliant banter, the film’s quotability (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) has resulted in a cult following. Line for line, “All About Eve” has what one critic called “the highest quotient of wit of any film made before or since.”

Mankiewicz’ lines are too witty to reflect a “realistic” speech, but there’s no denying their entertainment value. “Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello.” “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke!” “Miss Caswell [Marilyn Monroe] is an actress, a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.” “Oh, did I say killer I meant champion. I get my boxing terms mixed.” “What a story! Everything but the blood-hounds snappin’ at her rear end!” However, the most memorable lines are in Margo Channing’s speech, which blatantly states how career women were seen in the 1950s–a professional woman becomes a woman only after she’s done with her career!

Funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on you way up the ladder–so you can move faster–you forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career that all females have in common whether we like it or not. Being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. In “All About Eve” there are two images of career women: Davis and Baxter. Davis is the good career woman in traditional Hollywood thinking, she acknowledges the importance of men by eventually getting married and giving up her passionate work. “I’ve finally got a life to live,” she later says, “I have things to do with my nights.” Baxter is the bad career woman, willing to do everything and anything to make it. The film’s sexual politics extend into innuendoes, some ahead of their time. Eve’s lesbianism, which seems clear today, was missed at the time. Baxter’s mannishly cropped hairstyle is a lesbian stereotype, and she’s overly friendly with a pajama-clad roommate. Eve suggests that Phoebe, her younger counterpart, stay the night rather than make the long subway trip home.

“All About Eve” was one of the first films to deal with the burgeoning generation gap, which would be fully stated in the l960s. But it was in the l950s that communication breakdown and hatred between generations became apparent. Davis and Baxter represent the growing irreconcilability of different generations that profess opposing values.

The record for Oscar nominations, 14, was held by “All About Eve” until James Cameron’s “Titanic,” which also received 14. The film won 6 Oscars, including Best Picture. Mankiewicz won 2 Oscars, as writer (original screenplay) and director, and Sanders won Supporting Oscar as the acerbic drama critic. Its two leading ladies, Davis and Baxter, didn’t win; they probably canceled each other out. Davis did win the N.Y. Film Critics Award.

Yet the film itself slyly made fun of the awards system. The acerbic critic (Sanders) takes a jab at the Academy (Oscar) Awards: 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 Nobel Prize–and those awards presented annually by that film society. In another scene, Davis tells Baxter, “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be!”

“All About Eve” irritated legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead, who insisted that Davis was “taking revenge” by imitating her hairdo and voice. Tallulah and Davis were having a bitter feud, but this movie made the feud explode. Davis and Mankiewicz declared the film was modeled on the relationship between actresses Elisabeth Bergner and Irene Worth, but Tallulah told Fox’s mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck: “That bitch stole my best stage roles for films (“The Little Foxes”), and now she is holding me up to public ridicule with her imitations of me!”

 

 

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