All About Eve, 1950, 20th Century Fox, Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. B&W, 138 minutes.
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a brilliant, yet aging, Broadway diva who gives lost puppy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a fervent fan and hopeful actress, a job as her assistant. It’s Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) who initially spots Eve huddling outside the backstage door night after night and takes pity on her.
Margo’s loyal and acerbic maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) initially is the only one with doubts about the young woman. The balance of deference as a servant and dedication as a friend keeps her quiet — but she manages to let her feelings slip at opportune times.
Margo’s ever-patient boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) is directing the play she’s currently starring in, which was written by Karen’s husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Lloyd is one of the finest playwrights of his time, and he’s writing a new play specifically for Margo, as he’s done several times before.
Gradually Eve begins to clearly show her true intentions. She’s very good at carrying out ambitious plans intended to defeat others, and doesn’t have a second thought for those left behind. But these are well-matched players, and the consequences aren’t always as anticipated.
Woven into all of this is sly, sophisticated and at times unscrupulous theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He has an almost omniscient presence, is unpleasantly necessary to the theater scene and therefore reluctantly respected, or at least tolerated, by the seasoned players. He plays his cards well. Very well.
This film was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won 6, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both nominated for Best Actress, and it was a split among voters that’s believed to have cost Davis the award for what many consider to be her greatest performance. (Despite the film’s title, it’s hard to justify Baxter’s role as a “lead actress” part.)
All four women (Davis, Baxter, Holms and Ritter) were nominated for Academy Awards, and this remains the only film in Oscar history to have four female acting nominations.
Davis was a last-minute choice as Margo, and several script changes were made to accent her more caustic style. Still, the Margo she played had a vulnerable side as a woman who struggled to give up her role as the premier — yet no longer young — star on Broadway. She was being forced to step down and let another woman, for whom she had little or no respect, take the stage, literally, and perhaps outshine her — a frightening look at the future.
Davis was a master at balancing the abrasive with the unguarded parts of her character, and you never lose sympathy for Margo, as infuriating as she might be. Moreover, there is no doubt Margo truly is a star, and always will be, regardless of the roles she might play. Bette Davis created a captivating performance of a memorable character.
George Sanders gave a potentially off-putting character an element of charm and appeal that, while underhanded, is also a wee bit sexy. Sanders’ performance is rich in both expression and words, as he worked both elements with a rare expertise.
In addition to all the award-worthy work of this film’s stars and co-stars, look for Marilyn Monroe’s notable performance in one of her first major motion picture appearances.
There are some surprisingly old-school thoughts coming from feminist Margo at times regarding a woman’s role and marriage, but overall, the character remains consistent through her evolution and growth. Her parting words to Eve following the awards ceremony assure us Margo will never change. In real life, Bette Davis was well ahead of her time in women’s rights, and that quality rings most true in her performance.
The movie drags a bit in the end, in part because Davis isn’t in much of it. Still, some of the most satisfying parts of the plot are also found there.
Rated #28 in AFI’s 2007 list of the Top 100 Best Movies all Time, this is a must-watch film for classic movie fans — and all true movie fans.