A famous actress gives in to paranoia when she realizes that her most devoted fan, who has become first her assistant and then her understudy, is actually trying to take everything she has and become her. Toss in a sharp knife and you would have a well-worn thriller plot. With only metaphorical knives, though, you have Hollywood's classic 1950 tale of ambition in the theater, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "All About Eve," screening Saturday at the Virginia Theatre as part of The News-Gazette Film Series.
Forty-year-old Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is Broadway's biggest star but frets about having to play characters in their 20s. It both flatters and worries her that her lover, director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), is eight years younger. Her only friends are playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and former vaudevillian Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who also works as her maid and dresser.
Into this tightly knit but often contentious group comes young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who has seen every performance of Margo's latest play. Her devotion and her life story lead Margo to hire her as an assistant. But Eve soon engineers another job as her understudy, and it becomes clear that Eve has been using Margo as a stepping stone to her own stardom. Success for Eve comes with a load of irony, however, as she finds herself under the thumb of cynical drama critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders), with an even younger version of herself dogging her footsteps.
Writer-director Mankiewicz, known in Hollywood as a woman's director, found women more interesting as characters than men. Here, certainly, it's the women who are complex, strong and dynamic. The men, as Celeste Holm's character declares, "do what they are told." The one exception to that is Sanders' despicable critic, who is as unscrupulous as Eve.
Mankiewicz assembled a truly impressive group of actresses for this film. Davis already was Oscar-nominated eight times and had won twice when she stepped into the production on two weeks' notice after Claudette Colbert injured her back and had to drop out.
Holm and Baxter had recently won supporting actress Oscars, for "A Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947) and "The Razor's Edge" (1946), respectively. Ritter had not been nominated previously, but "All About Eve" was the first of six Oscar nominations for her. And Marilyn Monroe shows up as an ambitious young actress who doesn't get the part she's trying out for.
Mankiewicz tells his tale largely in flashback with voice-overs shared among several characters. That's similar to the narrative strategy his older brother Herman used in his script for "Citizen Kane" a few years earlier, which won him an Oscar. Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" comes in at No. 16 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies ("Kane" of course is No. 1), but he won Oscars for both writing and directing. And that was just the year after he won both awards for "A Letter to Three Wives" — a feat no one has equaled.
"All About Eve" received 14 Oscar nominations, more than any film before and equaled only by James Cameron's 1997 "Titanic." Besides screenplay and director, it won for best picture, supporting actor (Sanders), costume design — black and white (Edith Head and Charles LeMaire) and sound recording. The other nominations were for actress in a leading role (Davis and Baxter), supporting actress (Holm and Ritter), cinematography — black and white, art direction — black and white, film editing and music.
Mankiewicz based his script on Mary Orr's 1946 short story, "The Wisdom of Eve," itself based on a true story involving stage actress Elizabeth Bergner.
In fact, the film and real life had many resonances. Davis, 42, shared many of Margot's career anxieties. Davis and Merrill fell in love during the shoot and married shortly after the film's release. They adopted a daughter whom they named Margot.
Baxter's insistence that Twentieth Century Fox put her forward in the leading actress category rather than supporting actress pretty much ensured that neither she nor Davis would win (Judy Holliday won for "Born Yesterday").
Davis was accused of basing her Margo Channing on stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead, and two of her Oscar nominations were for roles in "Dark Victory" and "The Little Foxes," which Bankhead had created on the stage. Interestingly, in one of several subsequent radio versions of "All About Eve," Bankhead played Margo.
In 1970, Mankiewicz's plot was adapted into the Broadway musical "Applause," starring Lauren Bacall as Margo. When she left the show, the part was taken over by (who else?) Baxter.
Even without winning an Oscar, "All About Eve" revived Davis' career at least in terms of the number of roles she got if not the actual quality of the productions. Her career got another boost, though in a different genre, with "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" in 1962.
"All About Eve" remains her most iconic role and provided her with her most famous line of dialogue, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." It comes in ninth on the AFI list of 100 Movie Quotes. (Her other famous line, "What a dump!" from "Beyond the Forest" comes in at 63.)
Eve turns up on the AFI's list of top 50 Villains at No. 23. That easily beats out Mrs. Danvers from last month's Film Series offering, "Rebecca," who came in at No. 31. In both cases, these villainesses were abetted by none other than Sanders in prime bounder mode.
Note: Mankiewicz made up the "Sarah Siddons Award" that Eve receives here, but in 1952, wealthy Chicago theater lovers formed the Sarah Siddons Society and began giving awards to actresses for outstanding performances in a Chicago theater productions. The award looks very much like the statuette in the film. Holm won it in 1968. In 1973, the society presented an award to Davis, even though she had not performed in a Chicago play that year. They thought it would be fun to have Baxter at the ceremony, too. Davis was not amused.
A look at the 2013-14 News-Gazette Film Series (shows are at 1 and 7 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C):
Saturday: "All About Eve" (1950)
Dec. 7: "It Happened One Night" (1934)
Jan. 18: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)
Feb. 8: "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)
March 15: "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928)
April 5: "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951)
May 24: "A Night at the Opera" (1935)
June 21: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)
July 12: "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935)
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.