All About Eve (1950): Mankiewicz’ Witty Satire, Starring Bette Davis in her Best (but Snubbed) Performance

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 acting award from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC).

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!”

Recycling

As a story machine and dream factory, Hollywood doesn’t waste ideas, and even movies known for their fresh, “original” and savvy screenplays are often based on previous reincarnations, such as published (or unpublished) stories, plays, songs, and other films.

Five Acting Nominations

“All About Eve” opened in New York at the Roxy Theater on October 13, 1950. Joseph Mankiewicz won Best Director and Best Screenplay for his witty dialogue in “All About Eve,” which also won Best Picture. However, few people know that the source material is a short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” by Mary Orr, which was also done as a radio play.

In 1969, “All About Eve” the movie became the Broadway musical “Applause,” with Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis part. The libretto, by the reliable team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Band Wagon”), was based on Mankiewicz’s movie as well as the short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” by Mary Orr.

The title of the musical version derived from a speech given by Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington: “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.”

When “Applause” toured with Lauren Bacall, Anne Baxter, the movie’s original Eve Harrington, played Margo Channing as her replacement.

Cast

Margo Channing (Bette Davis)
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter)
Addison De Witt (George Sanders)
Karen Richards (Celeste Holme)
Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill)
Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe)
Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter)
Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe)
Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff)
Phoebe (Barbara Bates)

Running Time: 138 Minutes

Oscar Nominations: 14

Picture, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Actress: Bette Davis
Actress: Anne Baxter
Supporting Actor: George Sanders
Supporting Actress: Celeste Holme
Supporting Actress: Thelma Ritter
Cinematography (b/w): Milton Krasner
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/W): Lyle Wheeler, George Davis; Thomas little, Walter M. Scott
Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head, Charles LeMaire
Editing: Barbara McLean
Scoring of a Dramatic/Comedy Picture: Alfred Newman
Sound Recording: Thomas Moulton

Oscar Awards: 6

Picture
Director
Screenplay
Supporting Actor
Costume Design
Sound Recording

Oscar Context

“All About Eve” was the most nominated film until “Titanic” (1997), which also garnered 14 nods. Joseph Mankiewicz, winning a second Best Director Oscar in a row (after “Letter to Three Wives” in 1949) joined the company of John Ford, who also won consecutive directorial Oscars. Both Mankiewicz and Ford were recognized for films they made at Fox.

Mankiewicz’s backstage drama is one of the few Oscar-wining films, in which five actors have received nominations. Two of these were in the female lead: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, which may explain why David didn’t win the Best Actress for what’s considered to be the best performance of her career.  The other three acting nominees were in the supporting leagues: George Sanders, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter.

In 1950, “All About Eve” competed for the top award with George Cukor’s “Born Yesterday,” Vincente Minnelli’s comedy “Father of the Bride,” the action- adventure “King Solomon’s Mines,” and Billy Wilder dark satire of Hollywood “Sunset Boulevard,” which received an impressive number of nominations, 11, winning 3.

 

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