All About Eve
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20th Century-Fox set a record for Oscar® nominations that has been matched (by Titanic in 1997) but never beaten with All About Eve , the witty 1950 comedy set in the New York theatre scene. Greeted with almost universal acclaim on its initial release, the film has become a classic whose lines, characters and story elements are now firmly entrenched in popular culture.
It all started with Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner. She was appearing on Broadway in the hit melodrama The Two Mrs. Carrolls in 1942 when she noticed a fan waiting outside her dressing room door after every performance. When Bergner finally approached the young woman, she was so moved by her tale of misfortune and her apparent devotion that she gave her a place in her apartment and her life, only to discover that the stories were lies. The young woman was really trying to advance her own career. Bergner confided all this to her director's fiancee, actress Mary Orr, who fictionalized the account in the story "The Wisdom of Eve," which she sold to Cosmopolitan magazine in 1946. Although her agent shopped the story around Hollywood there was little interest until three years later, when Orr wrote and co-starred (as Karen Richards) in a radio adaptation that caught the attention of someone at 20th Century-Fox. She sold the studio the rights for $5,000.
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had been mulling over an idea for a film about the theatre and the ease with which people can use each other to advance their careers. When he read the studio synopsis of Orr's story, it fit his own ideas so well that he proposed it to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck as his next film. With Mankiewicz coming off a triumph with A Letter to Three Wives (1949), which would bring him Oscars® for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, he was in a very favorable position at the studio, and he had no trouble getting the story approved. Moreover, he pitched it as a possible vehicle for Susan Hayward, then under contract at Fox, who would have played Margalo, the actress taken advantage of in the original story.
As Zanuck read his treatment for what was originally titled Best Performance, he realized that Mankiewicz's emphasis on how the theatre star, now named Margo, adjusted to the aging process made the character inappropriate for Hayward who was much younger. Among the actresses he considered for the role were Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn before he concluded that the script's comic possibilities would make the role perfect for Claudette Colbert. Other actors considered for the film included Jeanne Crain and Elizabeth Taylor for Eve, William Holden and John Garfield for Margo's director fiancé, Jose Ferrer and Clifton Webb as critic Addison De Witt and Angela Lansbury as aspiring actress Miss Caswell. Eventually Crain, Gary Merrill, George Sanders and Marilyn Monroe were signed for those roles, respectively. Only Hugh Marlowe as playwright Lloyd Richards, Celeste Holm as his wife and Thelma Ritter as Margo's dresser, Birdie, were the original choices for their roles. Shortly before production began, Crain became pregnant, forcing the hurried substitution of Anne Baxter.
Production on All About Eve was due to begin principal photography in San Francisco in April 1950, the only time the studio could book the Curran Theater for location scenes actually set in a classic Broadway theater. Colbert was finishing work on Three Came Home (1950), the story of a woman confined to a Japanese POW camp during World War II. While performing a fight scene, she fell and broke her back. Suddenly All About Eve needed a new leading lady.
Zanuck's first choice was Marlene Dietrich, but Mankiewicz though her too artificial to being Margo to life. His choice was stage star Gertrude Lawrence, but her agent made several unrealistic demands, including the cutting of any shots of Margo smoking and drinking (even though Lawrence did both herself) and the insertion of a song in the party scene. In truth, Lawrence was heavily involved in turning another Fox film, Anna and the King of Siam (1946), into the musical The King and I and didn't want to put that project on hold. In desperation Zanuck placed a call to Bette Davis, then considered box-office poison after a string of flops. The two had not spoken in years, the result of a feud when she resigned as president of the Motion Picture Academy® in 1942. In fact, when he called her on the set of her current film, Payment on Demand (1951), she thought it was a prank. After convincing her he really was Zanuck and was offering her a role, he told her that she would have to have her costumes fitted and be ready to shoot on location in ten days. Once she read the script, she was more than happy to oblige.
As soon as word of her casting got out, Mankiewicz got calls from directors who had worked with Davis warning him that she would try to take over the picture. The one exception was William Wyler -- who had directed her in Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941). He congratulated Mankiewicz on his good fortune and assured him that he'd enjoy working with her, a prediction that proved correct.
Davis was a model of professional behavior on the set although in the early stages of filming she seemed ready to quarrel when she brought out a cigarette while running a scene and expected her co-star, Merrill, to light it. Both the actor and Mankiewicz suggested that his character wouldn't do that, and Mankiewicz added that Margo wouldn't expect that kind of treatment either. Although that might have triggered a major blow up with some stars, Davis readily agreed. When Mankiewicz finally told her about the warnings he had gotten about her, she conceded that she could be difficult -- if she had no confidence in the script or the director. With All About Eve , however, she knew she had one of the best scripts of her career, and she also had full confidence in Mankiewicz.
It may have helped that during the first days of filming, she and Merrill fell in love. He started out entertaining her young daughter Barbara between scenes and quickly became Davis' confidante during a messy divorce. By the time production was finished they were lovers. By the time All About Eve opened, they were married.
Davis' marital break-up brought the film an unexpected boon, though it would help lead to confusion about the story's source. Before leaving for San Francisco she had a screaming battle with her husband, William Grant Sherry. The morning she was to shoot her first scene, she woke up with no voice. After hot oil treatments, she could speak in her lowest register, which made her sound like stage star Tallulah Bankhead. She had to keep that voice throughout filming, leading gossips to say that the whole film was modeled on the tempestuous stage star's life. Some even went so far as to suggest that the understudy who had tried to take over her life was Lizabeth Scott, who had moved on to Hollywood stardom after understudying Bankhead on Broadway in The Skin of Our Teeth. Bankhead perpetuated the rumors, referring to All About Eve as All About Me on her weekly radio show and even playing Margo in a radio version of the film. She had long considered Davis a rival, particularly since the film star had enjoyed box office triumphs in film versions of two Bankhead plays, Dark Victory (1939) and The Little Foxes. In truth, Mankiewicz had modeled Margo's character on Peg Woffington, a tempestuous Irish-born star of the British stage in the 18th century. The only intentional reference to Bankhead was in the costuming. Edith Head, who had been hired to create Davis' costumes on short notice, based many of her designs on Bankhead's personal style.
One gown acquired the Bankhead look only by accident. Although Head had designed and fitted all of Davis' costumes before location filming started, the costumes she needed for scenes shot in Hollywood weren't finished until later. The day shooting began in Hollywood for the cocktail party, Head arrived on set to discover that the square necked cocktail gown she had designed for Davis had been made incorrectly. Although the skirt and waistline were right, the bodice was too large. Head was on her way to report the mistake to Mankiewicz and take responsibility for delaying production when Davis called her back. By pulling the bodice down so the neckline rode low on her shoulders, she made the gown look even better than the original design -- and exactly like the type of gown Bankhead would have favored.
There were relatively few sour notes during the production. Davis and Holm did not get along. Holm claimed that she stopped speaking to her co-star when Davis mocked her politeness the first morning of shooting. She would also state that many in the cast felt shut out by the closeness that developed between Davis and Merrill. Monroe, then an insecure actress who had only won the part because of heavy campaigning by her agent, Johnny Hyde, was completely intimidated by the acclaimed star. It took her 11 takes to get through the scene in the theatre lobby after Miss Caswell's failed audition, and when Davis snapped at her, she ran off to throw up.
Zanuck was so pleased with All About Eve that he decided not to conduct any previews. The only advanced screening was for the Hollywood press, a group of hardened entertainment journalists who gave the film an enthusiastic standing ovation and began spreading the word about Davis' amazing comeback. The film opened to glowing reviews and fared very well in the end-of-year awards, with Davis capturing the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress and the film taking Best Picture. When the Oscar® nominations were announced All About Eve had set a record with 14 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Sanders), Best Supporting Actress (Holm and Ritter) and, for the first time in Academy® history, two nominations for Best Actress. The latter, however, would prove a disadvantage.
Zanuck had originally intended to run Baxter in the supporting category, even though she played the title character. Feeling it was time to acknowledge her rise to stardom, Baxter convinced him to put her up for Best Actress. Many in the industry felt that the decision hurt both Baxter's and Davis' chances in that category. On Oscar® night All About Eve captured seven awards, including Best Picture, Supporting Actor and Costume Design. Mankiewicz won for both directing and writing, making him the only person in Academy® history to win both awards in two consecutive years. Best Supporting Actress, which could have easily gone to Baxter, went to Josephine Hull in Harvey. And though Davis had hoped to win a third Oscar® for the film, the award went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
In later years, Baxter would concede that she had probably pulled votes from her co-star, though in fairness, it should be conceded that Davis' temperamental behavior during her final years at Warner Bros. probably cost her votes too. In addition, she had to face stiff competition from Gloria Swanson, who had scored a comeback of her own in Sunset Boulevard. In fact, a national critics poll named Holliday best actress, with Davis and Swanson close enough behind to suggest that they had split the majority of the votes.
The legend of All About Eve didn't end with the Oscars®. Not only did it remain popular in theatrical re-issues and later on television, but it eventually became a cult film, particularly among gay fans who identified with Margo Channing's larger-than-life personality. Her warning "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" became the most quoted of the film's many famous lines. The story of an understudy scheming to replace the star has been referenced in everything from the hilariously excessive Showgirls (1995) to Pedro Almodovar's Oscar®-winner All About My Mother (1999), while the entire plot was recycled, with an all-male cast, for the 1995 gay porn video All About Steve. The script itself was set to music for the hit 1970 Broadway musical Applause, starring Lauren Bacall as Margo Channing. Eve finally got to take over for Margo when Anne Baxter stepped into the leading role after Bacall left the show.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director-Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Based on the story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, George W. Davis
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison De Witt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merrill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan), Marilyn Monroe (Miss Caswell), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Barbara Bates (Phoebe), Walter Hampden (Aged Actor).
by Frank Miller