All About Eve: Upstage, Downstage

Bette Davis gets the first laugh in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), and a little over two hours later, she gets the last laugh too. The film opens at the dinner for something called the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre, which is bestowed on a Broadway performer annually. Davis’s character, a forty-year-old star named Margo Channing, is not the recipient. While the critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) narrates in voice-over and an elderly thespian drones on from the dais, the camera finds Margo at her table, where, in medium close-up, she selects a cigarette from a case, taps it three times, lights it, inhales, exhales, pours herself a drink, deftly but firmly blocks an unseen companion’s attempt to add water to her libation, then lifts her heavy-lidded gaze to the goings-on at the podium, looking, somehow, both venomous and bored to the depths of her soul. None of her little bits of business is exaggerated or obviously “comic,” but in combination they’re explosively funny. Mankiewicz constructs the scene to highlight the contrast between the acrid cynicism of Addison’s commentary and the treacly speechifying of both the doddering emcee and the dewy-eyed honoree, a young woman who calls herself Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Davis’s brief, hilarious pantomime leaves Mankiewicz’s beautifully crafted verbal ironies in the dust.

And although Mankiewicz, who wrote as well as directed, was known as a man who prized words above all else, he lets his star upstage his script. He was no fool, and Davis, who’d spent much of her career laboring to bring a breath of life to deadly dialogue, was duly appreciative. In her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life, she wrote: “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.” She was not promiscuous with that sort of praise, especially for writers and directors. Then she went further: “After the picture was released, I told Joe he had ‘resurrected me from the dead.’” She even tried to persuade him to write a sequel for her. Davis hadn’t been the first choice for the part. The producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, wanted Marlene Dietrich; Mankiewicz preferred Claudette Colbert, and got his way. But Colbert threw her back out not long before the start of shooting, and Zanuck and Mankiewicz had to scramble to replace her. They considered the stage actor Gertrude Lawrence, who, they discovered to their horror, objected to the character’s vigorous smoking and drinking in the party scene that is the movie’s centerpiece, and thought that instead she might sit at the piano and sing a song. So they turned to Davis, although she wouldn’t be available until days before filming began—she was finishing up her chores on a stinker called Payment on Demand—and although more than one of the director’s colleagues did their best to warn him off. According to Mankiewicz, Edmund Goulding, who had directed Davis in four pictures, was particularly vehement: “Have you gone mad? This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away.”

As we know, Goulding’s dire prediction did not come to pass. The shooting, which began in April 1950 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, went smoothly, with Davis smoking and drinking enthusiastically (in character) and singing no songs, while Mankiewicz, unpulverized, puffed his pipe contentedly on the sidelines. “Eve was the only picture,” Davis once said, “where everybody working on it was in seventh heaven and it all came out right.” The screenplay was adapted from a short story by Mary Orr, “The Wisdom of Eve,” which was published in Cosmopolitan in 1946 and tells the simple tale of an older actor betrayed by her young protegée. Orr said the story was based on something that happened to the Austrian-British actor Elisabeth Bergner (now known to American audiences, if at all, for her lovely performance as Rosalind in Paul Czinner’s 1936 film of As You Like It, opposite Laurence Olivier). Mankiewicz, a student of theater history, liked to claim that he’d based his Margo Channing on Peg Woffington, an Irish-born leading lady of the eighteenth-century stage, famous in London both for her acting and for her long relationship with the most celebrated actor of the day, David Garrick. The suspicion at the time of the picture’s release was that the actual model for Margo was Davis’s flamboyant contemporary Tallulah Bankhead, a theory that Davis and Mankiewicz denied. (According to the director, Davis showed up for the first day of filming with a throat ailment that deepened her voice to a Tallulah-esque growl that she then had to retain for the rest of the shoot.)

“There are performers who are addicted to emotion, as if to a drug, and Margo is clearly one of them.”

Most of the story of All About Eve unfolds in flashbacks from the night of the Sarah Siddons Award, the first of which dramatizes the initial, fateful backstage meeting of Margo and the meek-seeming schemer Eve. The introductions are made by the star’s friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) after a performance of the smash-hit, critically acclaimed Broadway drama Aged in Wood—what a title!—whose author, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), is Karen’s husband. Karen takes pity on a young woman she sees hanging around forlornly in the alley outside the theater, and, when she learns that this waif has attended every single performance of the play, insists on bringing her to Margo’s dressing room, where Eve gushes shyly to her idol (and for good measure, tosses in a bit of flattery for the playwright), and tells a tale of midwestern woe that involves a lonely childhood, a dreary job in a beer factory, and a husband killed in the war. Margo’s dresser and personal assistant, an ex-vaudevillian called Birdie (Thelma Ritter), mutters an occasional “Oh, brother” to express her disapproval, both of Margo’s grande-dame manner and of Eve’s breathless dramatic monologue. But the rest of the crowd is visibly moved. The scene is superbly constructed to show the progression of Eve’s audience’s feelings, from mild annoyance to tolerance to outright sympathy. Margo, her wig off but her stage makeup still on, is of course the one to watch—both because she is Eve’s primary victim and because Davis gives her every flicker of shifting emotion a nearly miraculous complexity. She first makes a great show of magnanimity toward the poor creature who has intruded on her, enjoying her own slightly over-the-top performance, then gradually begins to feign interest—which slowly becomes real interest, a compassion it pleases her to feel. There are performers who are addicted to emotion, as if to a drug, and Margo is clearly one of them. By the time Eve is finished, this fish is hooked.

That’s why Margo doesn’t see through Eve right away, as Birdie does: the great actor is savoring her role as mentor and savior. And, Davis gives us to understand, Margo is, despite her brittle surface, genuinely kind. This scene, like so many others in All About Eve, is built like one from a well-made play, every line and every movement choreographed to generate a particular mood and to make specific dramatic points; it is up to the actors to provide crackle and depth, which can keep the audience from becoming distractingly aware of the calculation. For all the flashbacks and shifting points of view (in addition to Addison, Karen and Margo also take turns telling bits of the story in voice-over), the plot is fairly simple, and the scenes are crafted to answer a series of questions on the way to a solution to the film’s over­arching mystery: How, exactly, did Eve arrive at her Sarah Siddons moment? It’s quite a distance from that first backstage meeting with Margo to Eve’s triumph as the leading lady of Lloyd’s new play, Footsteps on the Ceiling (another brilliantly awful title). As with any successful long con, you want to see all the steps, how the trick was pulled off. And scene by scene, with patience and cunning worthy of his title character, Mankiewicz lays out the machinery for us. In memory, the movie is all set pieces: the awards dinner; the backstage meeting; the middle-of-the-night phone call between Margo and her director lover, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), during which Margo begins to suspect Eve’s true nature; a drive from upstate New York in which Margo muses to Karen about the dissatisfactions of her life; Eve’s attempt, in the ladies’ room of a posh restaurant, to blackmail Karen; Addison’s brutal revelation to Eve that he knows exactly who she is; and, of course, the famous twenty-five-minute party scene, which Margo kicks into high gear with the immortal declaration “Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“By the time Mankiewicz made All About Eve, he knew how to assemble a cast that could bring his showy scenes off.”

Mankiewicz had been working in Hollywood—as a writer, a producer, and finally a director—since the dying days of the silent era: his older brother, the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (best remembered now as the cowriter of Citizen Kane), brought little Joe into the business at the tender age of twenty. By the time he made All About Eve, he knew how to assemble a cast that could bring his showy scenes off. Sanders, whose 1960 autobiography is titled Memoirs of a Professional Cad, had been playing smooth-talking rotters for years, though rarely with such elegantly poisonous dialogue as Mankiewicz provides him with in All About Eve. Ritter was a stage veteran who had come late to movies; Mankiewicz had given her her first consequential part just a year earlier in his A Letter to Three Wives. Both Baxter and Holm had won supporting actress Oscars in the past few years: Baxter for The Razor’s Edge in 1947, Holm for Gentleman’s Agreement a year later. And for the small comic role of the sexy aspiring actor who accompanies Addison to the bumpy party, he chose a virtual unknown named Marilyn Monroe; she nails every one of her handful of lines. With the exception of Ritter—who would rack up six Oscar nominations in the next thirteen years—and of course Marilyn, everyone involved was at his or her peak in All About Eve, including Mankiewicz.

Eve was the ninth movie he’d directed since his debut, a watchable gothic called Dragonwyck, in 1946. There are some good movies in that furious spate of activity—a couple of Rex Harrison vehicles, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Escape (1948), and a terrific crime drama, House of Strangers, in 1949—but the film that made his reputation was A Letter to Three Wives, which, like All About Eve, was adapted from a relatively undistinguished piece of popular fiction and features multiple flashbacks and voice-over narrators. It earned him Academy Awards for both writing and directing. In 1950, a young French critic named Jean-Luc Godard pronounced Mankiewicz “one of the most brilliant of American directors” and, because he was even then a mite oracular, went on to say, “I have no hesitation placing him on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature.”

The American reviews of All About Eve were almost uniformly rapturous, though the critic of the Nation, Manny Farber, dissented wearily in a roundup column titled “Ugly Spotting”: “All About Eve (story of the bright lights, dim wits, and dark schemes of Broadway) hardly gets inside theater because most of the movie is coming out of somebody’s mouth.” The Academy, whose views rarely lined up with Farber’s, festooned the movie with an unprecedented fourteen nominations (since equaled by Titanic and La La Land), including five for the actors: Davis and Baxter for best actress, Holm and Ritter for supporting actress, and Sanders for supporting actor. Sanders won, Eve was named best picture, and Mankiewicz for the second year in a row took home statuettes for writing and directing.

The film’s reputation has diminished hardly at all in the nearly seventy years since its release. Mankiewicz, who had a conspicuous disaster in the following decade with his lavish Liz-and-Dick Cleopatra (1963), may no longer be considered, even by the French, “one of the most brilliant of American directors”; Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema consigns him to the dreaded “Less Than Meets the Eye” category (where he’s at least in good company, with John Huston, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, David Lean, Carol Reed, Fred Zinnemann, and William A. Wellman, among others). None of his later movies hit the sweet spot like Eve did, though I’ll admit to being very fond of the World War II espionage film 5 Fingers (1952), which has scenes between James Mason and Danielle Darrieux that play like Strindberg, and his all-star Julius Caesar (1953), in which Mason, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando learn to play together nicely.

But we’ll always have All About Eve, with its booze, its bons mots, and its sprightly backstabbing, all staged in a kind of neverland, a bygone time when New York and the Great White Way were central to the American cultural imagination. This isn’t a romantic dream of theater, like Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise; it’s a wised-up American take on showbiz. Maybe the enduring charm of All About Eve is that it’s our kind of dream still, a dream of bright-lights fame and impossible sophistication. Served neat, the way Margo Channing likes it.