More fireworks than Oppenheimer: How All About Eve stormed the Oscars

Eye to eye: Ann Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve
Eye to eye: Ann Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

As the great, the good and the giddy gather for the 96th Oscar presentations this weekend, the fevered pre-ceremony speculation will be mounting. Who’ll be wearing who? Will there be envelope malfunctions? What are the chances for a bout of onstage pugilism or similar? And, finally: how many statuettes will the frontrunner eventually be weighed down with?

This year, that honour belongs to Oppenheimer, with 13 nominations, leaving it just one short of the all-time nomination record set by Titanic (11 wins) and La La Land (6 wins). This trio might look like precision-tooled Oscar bait – weighty themes, gruelling performances, stupefying production values, insider Hollywood references to tickle the Academy’s G-spot – but there’s one other member of the exclusive Fourteen Club that’s perhaps the ultimate outlier.

It’s got no thermonuclear dynamics, no looming icebergs, no song and dance showpieces: just glittering wit and a juicy seam of domestic noir. It’s even got the temerity to be set on Broadway. Yet it picked up six awards, including Best Picture, at the 1951 ceremony, and was ranked 16 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 100 Best American Films. That film, of course, was All About Eve.

“It’s all about women… and their men!” ran the tagline for the movie’s poster, on its release in 1950. But in reality All About Eve is about much more imperishable stuff: ambition, artifice, venality, and the fine art of faking it till you make it. It’s the story of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a bedraggled wannabe in a shabby trench coat who loiters outside the stage door of Broadway diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis, as imperious – but also as vulnerable – as you could wish). Once admitted she lays out what sounds like a suspiciously polished sob story – a dreary Wisconsin upbringing where “everything was beer,” the discovery of a little theatre group that was “like a drop of rain in a desert” – and proceeds to upend Margo’s life.

Along the way she also takes down Margo’s inner circle, from the playwright she elevates (Hugh Marlowe) to the director she loves (Gary Merrill), and the best friend she spars with and confides in (Celeste Holm). As she propels and connives her way up the greasy pole, from helpmeet to indispensable factotum to understudy, eventually supplanting Margo, she even ruffles the implacable feathers of the powerful critic and columnist Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders as the Ascot-ed, astrakhan-collared embodiment of the word “waspish”).

How does “Little Miss Evil” – as a belatedly wised-up Margo refer to Eve – do it? Well, as DeWitt himself puts it, at the film’s climax: “You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other.”

The potency of All About Eve’s protégé-usurps-mentor plot arc has inspired numerous homages, from the melodramatic (Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, John Cassavetes’s Opening Night) to the arthouse arch (Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite) and the camp burlesque (Magic Mike). And, lest we forget, Showgirls, in which brash newbie Nomi hisses at veteran dancer Cristal, “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you”.

What none of those efforts could boast, however, was the original’s breezy sophistication and dazzling dialogue, buffed to an immaculate sheen by writer-director Joseph L Mankiewicz. All About Eve has been lauded as the world’s most quotable film, and while it’s certainly not without its zingers – Davis’s “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” Thelma Ritter, as Margo’s assistant Birdie, drolly opining to Davis that “She (Eve) studies you like you were a set of blueprints,” and Marilyn Monroe, cameoing as hapless starlet Claudia Casswell, being introduced as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts” – it’s the heightened theatricality of the piece as a whole that sets it apart.

Bette Davis in 1950
Bette Davis in 1950 - Hulton Archive

From its opening scene, a flash-forward where the conquering Eve is receiving something called the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre to its last, where Eve goes gimlet eye to gimlet eye with her own vanquisher-in-waiting, the movie prizes the ability to simulate authenticity over, well, the real thing. No wonder it’s been hailed as a proto-feminist screed, a misogynist rant, a homophobic harangue, and a queer fantasia – sometimes in the same PhD thesis.

Wherever you’re coming from, the world of All About Eve is one to savour, and one that Mankiewicz, one of the most literate and urbane writer-directors in Hollywood knew well. He was a West Coast transplant with a lifelong Broadway crush. He’d been toiling in California since the advent of the talkies; his older brother Herman, wit, bon vivant, co-author of Citizen Kane, and alleged role model for Addison DeWitt (surely a double-edged tribute at best) had brought him into the business, and Eve would constitute his second consecutive writing-directing Oscar double-header following 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives.

In fact, so embedded was Mankiewicz in Hollywood that he’d been the one to introduce Katharine Hepburn to Spencer Tracy. He may only have been 37 when producer Darryl Zanuck gave All About Eve the green light, but he knew how to assemble a cast that could give his scenes even more brio than they had on the page – and put them at their ease. In her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life, Bette Davis wrote of Eve: “It was a great script, had a great director, and was a cast of professionals all with parts they liked. It was a charmed production from the word go.”

An original poster for All About Ever
An original poster for All About Ever - Getty

Uncharacteristically high praise from Davis, but “charmed” belies the movie’s not-entirely-un-bumpy gestation. Mankiewicz’s screenplay was adapted from a short story called The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, published in the May 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Orr’s friend, the Austrian-British actress Elisabeth Bergner, had told her about Martina Lawrence, a waif who’d stood outside her stage door for months during the run of a play called The Two Mrs Carrolls. “They brought the girl inside,” said Mankiewicz, “and she became the secretary. The play closed down, and they were recasting. Lawrence did a reading and even Bergner’s husband, Paul Czinner, said she was remarkable.”

Mankiewicz, flashing his theatre smarts, liked to claim that he’d based Margo Channing on Peg Woffington, an Irish-born grand dame of the 18th century stage and long-term lover of David Garrick, most celebrated actor of the era, but the thespian bush telegraph insisted that the actual model for Margo was Davis’s infamous contemporary Tallulah Bankhead. It was a rumour that some of Margo’s ripest aphorisms (“Peace and quiet is for libraries,” “I detest cheap sentiment”), and Davis’s deployment of a Tallulah-esque throaty rasp (which she blamed on a throat ailment) did nothing to dispel.

Davis, coming off a string of flops, would later shower Mankiewicz with gratitude: “After the picture was released, I told Joe he had resurrected me from the dead.” But the person she was really indebted to was Claudette Colbert, initially signed up as Margo Channing, who put her back out shortly before shooting started. In the ensuing scramble, Zanuck wanted Marlene Dietrich to replace Colbert, while Mankiewicz thought Gertrude Lawrence would fit the bill – at least until she made vociferous objections to the character’s avid smoking and drinking in the central party scene.

Charm: Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter and Bette Davis
Charm: Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter and Bette Davis - Haynes Archive/Popperfoto

So Davis it was, even though, according to the her, “10 directors called Joe and said he was crazy to work with me, that it would be suicide.” One of the pack, Edmund Goulding, who’d directed Davis in four films, was particularly vehement: “This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away.”

In the event, Mankiewicz was happy to sit and puff his omnipresent pipe, unpulverized, on the sidelines, while Davis did her thing. Later, he conceded that it was impossible to imagine anyone else in the role: “I asked Claudette to read the line ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,’” he said. “She did it and it was darling. When Bette spoke the same line, it was like hoisting storm warnings.”

Davis herself affected to remain nonplussed at the comparisons. “I’m so unlike Margo Channing as a person that it isn’t even funny,” she said. “She is a thorough actress on and off. I forget I’m an actress when I’m not working. There is an image of me, which is not me – not at all. If you really are a bitch, you wouldn’t play those parts.”

Bitch or not, the rest of the cast rose to meet Davis at her rarefied zenith. Sanders titled his 1960 autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad, but not before or since would he have such witheringly venomous lines to savour. “We are a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk,” he intones, further characterizing the film’s tribe as “emotional misfits,” “precocious children,” and “the original displaced personalities.”

Thelma Ritter, meanwhile, was a stage veteran who’d come late to movies; she endows Birdie with Olympian disdain and is the only one to work due diligence on Eve from the start (“What a story – everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end”). Both Baxter and Holm were recent supporting actress Oscar recipients, Baxter for 1947’s The Razor’s Edge and Holm for Gentleman’s Agreement a year later.  And Monroe’s va-va-voom ingénue – “I don’t want to make trouble. All I want is a drink” – jump-started her career.

“Forty,” laments Margo Channing at one point in the film on her imminent Big Birthday, “and I haven’t quite made up my mind to admit it.” All About Eve will turn 75 next year, and if it’s ageing as gracefully as a Chateau d’Yquem, that’s because its milieu is one where every bon mot fits beautifully.

Too close for comfort: Celeste Holm, Bette Davis, and Hugh Marlowe
Too close for comfort: Celeste Holm, Bette Davis, and Hugh Marlowe - John Springer Collection

In the end, its Oscar haul – Costume Design, Sound Recording, and Supporting Actor for Sanders, alongside Best Picture, Screenplay, and Direction – left its actresses empty-handed. In a deliciously Eve-ian twist, it’s thought that Davis and Baxter lost out because the latter insisted on being included in the Best Actress rather than Supporting Actress list, thus splitting any potential vote; further proof, if any were needed, that the film’s verities are eternal.

If you see any nominees casting nervy glances over their be-tuxed and be-gowned shoulders on the red carpet this weekend, it won’t be in fear of anything as prosaic as AI on their tail. It’ll be the knowledge that, just beyond their eyeline, the Eves (and Steves) are lurking, with a hungry eye on their main chance – something Mankiewicz anatomised peerlessly.

He ends All About Eve with a young woman, Barbara Bates’s effusive Phoebe, invading Eve’s apartment, grabbing her Sarah Siddons trophy, and parading before the mirror in her discarded cape. “She bows, and an exponential number of Eves are reflected in the mirror,” said Mankiewicz. “The world is always full of Eves.”