Twentieth Century Fox’s All About Eve (1950), set in that apex of the theatre world, Broadway, first graced the screens at the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s dying decade. It would go on to be the co- (along with 1997’s Titanic) most Oscar-nominated film in the history of the Academy Awards – with fourteen nominations, resulting in six wins, including Best Picture. There’s so much to love about this magnificent film, and here are a few of the reasons I adore it:
1. PEDIGREE DIRECTOR
All About Eve’s wonderful director Joseph L. Mankiewicz certainly came to the film in top form. He had just won Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars for 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives, and would end up winning two of All About Eve’s above-mentioned Oscars for the same two categories. He also pulled off something no director has done before or since: directing four women in the same film to Oscar nominations (two for Best Actress and two for Best Supporting Actress). This is even more impressive considering that in 1950, Mankiewicz was only four years into his twenty-five-plus year directing career. He’d then go on to direct other famous and infamous films including The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955) – with a singing Marlon Brando! …. and Cleopatra (1963) – one of most troubled films shoots of all time, and one of the most expensive (adjusted for inflation).
[SIDE NOTE: Joseph wasn’t the only Mankiewicz to win a screenplay Oscar. His elder brother (by eleven years) Herman J. shared that honour with Orson Welles, for their work co-writing Citizen Kane (1941).]
Special mention must also be made of the other man at the helm of All About Eve: Producer Darryl F. Zanuck. This Hollywood Heavyweight extraordinaire produced well over two hundred films during his his fifty-plus year career, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Razor’s Edge (1946).
2. BRILLIANT CASTING
Seriously, with such a terrific cast, how could this film go wrong? Central to All About Eve is the powerhouse Bette Davis as an ‘aging’ (at only 40!) Broadway star Margo Channing. Davis is sublime in this role. She’s a grand and commanding presence, and Channing is justifiably remembered as one of her most iconic roles. Going head-to-head with Channing is the young (and at first seemingly ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’) performer Eve Harrington, played to perfection by Anne Baxter. Davis and Baxter are supported by a number of outstanding supporting actors.
Popularly considered the greatest of the supporting roles in All About Eve is that of Machiavellian theatre critic Addison De Witt, played by the extraordinary George Sanders – who, of the five actors from this film nominated for an Academy Award, was the only to win.
[SIDE NOTE: A bit of Old Hollywood history: Sanders was at the time married to Zsa Zha Gabor, and twenty years later would go on to marry his once sister-in-law Magda (Zha Zha’s sister).]
In addition to Sanders and the two leading women, the other outstanding Academy Award nominees from All About Eve were Celeste Holm (as Margo’s best friend Karen, and Thelma Ritter as her maid and companion Birdie).
Also featured in a small role was Marilyn Monroe, as aspiring performer Miss Casswell. 1950 was the year Monroe made the attention of the general public. Prior to All About Eve’s release in October, Monroe had had a number of small roles in lesser-known films, along with her portrayal as Angela in The Asphalt Jungle (which was released four months earlier, in June). Though Miss Casswell was a relatively small role, Monroe absolutely shined. She was luminous, and still stood out in group scenes, even when surrounded by such seasoned performers.
3. THE BITCHERY
The bitchery in All About Eve is just delicious. From the caustic and sardonic Addison to the opportunistic and back-stabbing Eve, the film is full of dramatic nastiness. Under the control of a lesser director/screenwriter and with less accomplished actors, the story and its underlying bitchiness could just come across as over-dramatic and without substance. But with such superb artists involved, All About Eve is flawless: wonderfully pitched perfect storm of drama, campness and intrigue.
Margo sums up the film perfectly with her most famous line: ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night’.
4. HOLLYWOOD REFERENCES
Adding another layer to the film (and one of particular interest to fill buffs) is its constant references to Hollywood figures. At the time of the film, the people referenced were contemporaries of the cast and crew – but today they resonate with modern-day film-lovers as much-honoured icons of Golden Age Hollywood history.
A few examples of these references include:
* ‘Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello’ (from Karen, in reference to Eve’s opportunistic greed)
* ‘Everybody can’t be Gregory Peck’ (Margo’s lover Bill, when Margo puts him down)
[SIDE NOTE: For more on the outstanding Gregory Peck, see this.
* ‘Zanuck, Zanuck! What are you two: lovers? (again, Margo to Bill)
This line was an extra in-joke for the production, given that (as mentioned earlier) Zanuck was All About Eve’s producer. A clever example of life imitating art, and one showing good humour on Zanuck’s part for approving it.
* ‘Lots of actresses come from Brooklyn. Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward – of course, they’re just movie stars’ (Phoebe, as young aspiring actress, and potential Eve-to-be)
* ‘Either one’ (Miss Casswell, in answer to which whether a girl would make sacrifices for [the fur] sable or [the star Clark] Gable. This line is particularly poignant in hindsight, as at the time of shooting All About Eve, Monroe was a just-emerging star, and Gable was Hollywood royalty – as a decade later, the two would co-star in The Misfits (released in February 1961), which would sadly be both Monroe Gable’s final completed films – as Gable died in November 1960, and Monroe in August 1962.
5. DAVIS’ GOWNS BY EDITH HEAD
Bette Davis’ stunning gowns in All About Eve were designed by 8-time Academy Award winner Edith Head. These creations were the epitome of glamour, helped David create embody her character of Margo Channing.
Head’s exquisite work in the areas of wardrobe and costume design over a period of almost sixty years cemented her place as the most celebrated film costume designer in history. Her beautiful work can also be seen in other Five Star Film picks Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Roman Holiday (1953) and Vertigo (1958).
It’s been such a joy revisiting this superb mid-century classic, and like all the best films, there’s more to enjoy with each re-watch.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf