All About Eve (1950)
Cast | Crew
| Awards | Review
| Articles | Bibliography
| News | Downloads
| Links | Image Credits
'Eve' exploits Davis' talent as mature actress
by Roger Ebert
The Denver Post, June 11,
2000 page K-05
Growing older was a smart career move for Bette
Davis, whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing. Never
entirely comfortable as an ingenue, she was glorious as a professional woman, a survivor, or a bitchy predator. Her veteran
actress Margo Channing in 'All About Eve' (1950) was her greatest role; it seems to show her defeated by the wiles of a
younger actress, but in fact marks a victory: the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty. She never
played a more autobiographical role.
Davis' performance as a star growing older is always paired with another famous 1950 performance - Gloria Swanson's
aging silent star in 'Sunset Boulevard.' Both were nominated for best actress, but neither won; the Oscar went to
for 'Born Yesterday,' although Davis' fans claimed she would have won if her vote hadn't been split, ironically, by
Anne Baxter, who plays her rival in the film and was also nominated for best actress.
When you compare the performances by Davis and Swanson, you see different approaches to similar material. Both play
great stars, now aging. Davis plays Margo Channing realistically; Swanson plays Norma Desmond as a Gothic waxwork.
'Sunset Boulevard' seems like the better film today, maybe because it fits our age of irony, maybe because
Billy Wilder was a
better director than Joseph Mankiewicz. But
Davis' performance is stronger than Swanson's, because it's less mad and more
touching. Davis was a character, an icon with a grand style, so even her excesses are realistic.
The movie, written by Mankiewicz, begins like 'Sunset Boulevard' with a narration by a writer - the theater critic Addison
DeWitt (George Sanders), bemused, cynical, manipulative. He surveys the room at a theatrical awards dinner, notes
the trophy reserved for Eve Harrington (Baxter), and describes the survivors of Eve's savage climb to the top: her director
Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife, Karen
(Celeste Holm), who was her
greatest supporter. And the idol she cannibalized, Margo. As the fatuous old emcee praises Eve's greatness, the faces of these
people reflect a different story.
The movie creates Margo Channing as a particular person, and Eve Harrington as a type. Eve is a breathless fan, eyes
brimming with phony sincerity. She worms her way into Margo's inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy,
then her rival. Faking humility and pathos is her greatest role, and at first only one person sees through it: crusty old Birdie
(Thelma Ritter), Margo's wardrobe woman. 'What a story!' she snaps. 'Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear
Margo believes Eve's story of hard luck and adoration; no actor has much trouble believing others would want to devote
their lives to them. Good, sweet Karen also sympathizes with the girl, and arranges to strand Margo in the country one
weekend so that Eve can go on as her understudy. Karen is repaid when Eve tries to steal her playwright husband, after an
earlier, unsuccessful attempt to steal Margo's fiance, Bill. He is played by Gary Merrill
(Davis' real-life husband), who turns her
away with a merciless put-down. 'What I go after, I want to go after. I don't want it to come after me.'
Eve Harrington is a universal type. Margo Channing plays at having an ego but is in love with her work - a professional, not an
exhibitionist. She's the real thing. But the sardonic tone of the film is set by
George Sanders, as the critic DeWitt. He's
the principal narrator, and with his cigarette holder, his slicked-down hair and his flawless evening dress, he sees everything
with deep cynicism.
He has his own agenda; while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, DeWitt calmly
schemes to keep Eve as his own possession. Sanders, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, lashes her in one of the
movie's most savage speeches: 'Is it possible, even conceivable, that you've confused me with that gang of backward children
you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?' And: 'I am nobody's fool. Least of all,
Glittering in the center of 'All About Eve' is a brief supporting appearance by
Marilyn Monroe. This film, and
'The Asphalt Jungle' earlier the same year, put her on the map; she was already
'Marilyn Monroe,' in every detail. She appears
at Margo's party as DeWitt's date, and he steers her toward the ugly but powerful producer Max Fabian (Gregory
Ratoff), advising her, 'Now go and do yourself some good.' Monroe sighs, 'Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?'
It has been observed that no matter how a scene was lighted, Monroe had the quality of drawing all the light to herself. In her
brief scenes here, surrounded by actors much more experienced, she is all we can look at. Do we see her through the prism of
her legend? Perhaps not; those who saw the movie in 1950, when she was unknown, also singled her out.
helped create her screen persona when he wrote this exchange after the Monroe character sees Margo's fur coat.
'Now there's something a girl could make sacrifices for,' Monroe says.
'And probably has,' says the director.
'Sable,' Monroe explains.
'Sable?' asks the producer. 'Did she say sable or Gable?'
Monroe replies: 'Either one.'
If Monroe steals her own scenes, the party sequence contains Davis' best work in the movie, beginning with her famous
line 'Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.' Drinking too much, disillusioned by Eve's betrayal, depressed by
her 40th birthday, she says admitting her age makes her 'feel as if I've taken all my clothes off.' She looks at Bill, her fiance,
and bitterly says: 'Bill's 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He'll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.'
It was believed at the time that Davis' performance as Margo was inspired by
understandably enough, did little to dispel the assumption,' Mankiewicz tells Gary Carey in the book 'More About 'All About
Eve.'' 'On the contrary, she exploited it to the hilt with great skill and gusto.' Press agents manufactured a
feud, but Mankiewicz says neither he nor
Davis was thinking of Bankhead when the movie was made.
Davis could have
found all the necessary inspiration from her own life.
The movie's strength and weakness is Anne
Baxter, whose Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo Channing,
but is convincing as the scheming fan. When Eve understudies for Margo and gets great reviews,
Mankiewicz wisely never
shows us her performance; better to imagine it, and focus on the girl whose look is a little too intense, whose eyes a little too
focused, whose modesty is somehow suspect.
Mankiewicz (1909-1993) came from a family of writers; his brother Herman wrote 'Citizen Kane.' He won back-to-back
twin Oscars for writing and directing 'A Letter to Three Wives' in 1949 and 'All About Eve' in 1950, and is also remembered
for 'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir' (1947), 'The Barefoot Contessa' (1954) and 'Guys and Dolls' (1955).
© 2000 The Denver Post Corporation