Over seventy years since its initial release, All About Eve (1950) is still included on lists of the best films ever made.
And if you’ve seen All About Eve, you know why. The film features Bette Davis in arguably her most iconic role: it’s Bette at her spunky, acerbic, witty, and at times nasty, best.
You can purchase or rent All About Eve here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot, then behind the scenes of this Bette Davis classic.
Bette is Margo Channing, the greatest stage actress of the moment. Margo has just turned 40, a watershed year for any actress, and has some career insecurities as she continues to play ingénue roles.
Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a fan who’s been to every performance of Margo’s latest Broadway play. One night, Eve is brought to Margo’s dressing room by Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), Margo’s best friend. Karen also happens to be the wife of Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), the author of most of the plays Margo appears in. And to round out this tight-knit group, the director of most of Margo’s plays is Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s younger boyfriend. Through Karen’s kindness, Eve meets the whole group, and wins them all over with her apparent humility and sweetness.
As Margo tells Bill:
“Isn’t it silly? Suddenly I’ve developed a big protective feeling toward her [Eve]. A lamb loose in our big stone jungle.”
Soon Margo hires Eve to be her live-in assistant. To all who observe Eve’s adoration of Margo, it seems clear that Eve, as Karen puts it, “worships” Margo.
Eve's Obsessive Devotion
The first hint we get that Eve’s devotion to Margo may be too good to be true comes from Margo’s pre-Eve assistant, Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Birdie finds herself basically out of a job because Eve takes over all aspects of Margo’s life. Birdie warns Margo about Eve:
“It’s like she’s studying you. Like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints.” How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep…”
Birdie is right: Eve is a conniver. And our protagonists, one by one, are about to find out.
Not What She Seems
Margo discovers that Eve isn’t a sweet innocent after Eve mentions with a hint of malice that she sent Margo’s boyfriend Bill a telegram on his birthday. Furthermore, Eve informs Margo that she’s organized a birthday party for Bill…
Margo’s no idiot, and, already self-conscious about the age difference between herself and Bill, worries that Eve will use the party as a way to take Bill away from her. When Karen and Lloyd arrive at the party, they can tell something’s up:
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Margo tells them.
Even after the party, Margo’s friends still don’t understand why her feelings towards Eve have soured. When Margo fires Eve, Karen, Lloyd, and Bill are convinced Margo is just being self-involved. Even after Eve manages to become Margo’s understudy in her current play, no one but Margo seems to think Eve is using them all for personal gain.
Karen Finds Out About Eve
Karen is the next to discover who Eve really is. Unbeknownst to Margo, Karen—still thinking Eve is a sweet young thing—helps Eve go on in Margo’s place one night in the play. After Eve wins rave reviews for her performance, she decides Karen’s husband Lloyd would be good for her career, so Eve goes after him. Like Margo, now Karen knows that Eve is not a very nice person.
Bill basically learns about Eve’s true nature at the same time Karen does. In an interview with theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) after her triumphant performance, Eve says that older actresses need to step aside, and allow younger actresses a chance to shine. In Eve’s opinion, older actresses must stop playing ingénues.
It’s an obvious jab at Margo. Bill is loyal and in love with Margo, so after the interview, he hates Eve too.
Lloyd is the last to find out about Eve, but eventually he gets there too.
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Eve Lands on Top
Eve’s scathing words in Addison’s column convince Margo and Bill that it’s time for them to get married, and Margo turns down the role Lloyd wrote for her in his new play.
Guess who gets the role.
Yep. Despite the fact that Lloyd wrote the play and hates Eve; that Karen is his wife and hates Eve; that Bill will direct the play and hates Eve; and that the play was written for Margo–who also hates Eve; somehow, Eve gets the role.
One way or another, this despicable woman always gets what she wants.
Of course, the play is a raving success. Eve wins the prestigious Sarah Siddons award for her work.
But at what cost?
All the old friends Eve betrayed now hate her. And on her way up to the top of the theater world, Eve sold her soul to theater critic Addison DeWitt, the one character in the film who’s at least as evil as Eve.
Addison gives Eve a pretty accurate description of the similarities between them:
“You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent.”
The film closes with Eve at the top of the theater world.
But with a new assistant, another young theater hopeful that seems as narcissistic and sociopathic as Eve is, we know that Eve Harrington’s time at the top won’t last long.
And that’s the end of the film.
All About Eve: Bette's Role of a Lifetime
All About Eve was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Bette Davis was Mankiewicz’s first choice for the Margo Channing role, but Claudette Colbert was initially cast. Bette got the role only after Colbert suffered a serious back injury, and dropped out.
All About Eve couldn’t have come at a better time for Bette. After a slew of dud films, Bette recognized that Eve was a comeback vehicle, and that Margo Channing was potentially the greatest role of her career thus far.
"This Woman will Destroy You"
Joseph Mankiewicz was warned about Bette and her controlling tactics on film sets by several other directors who had previously worked with her. Edmund Goulding, Bette’s four-time director, had especially memorable words for Mankiewicz about the head-strong Bette Davis:
“Have you gone mad? This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. You are a writer, dear boy. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And then she, not you, will direct. Mark my words.”
Mankiewicz was understandably a little apprehensive when Bette arrived on set the first day of filming. But despite the warnings of others, he found Bette a joy to work with:
“Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable perfect. There was no fumbling for my words; they had become hers—as Margo Channing. The director’s dream: the prepared actress.”
Bette knew that Mankiewicz’s script was perfect. The dialogue of Margo Channing could not be improved upon. It made Bette respect Mankiewicz and his talent, and probably inspired her good behavior on the Eve set.
But Mankiewicz also played his part in keeping things congenial with Bette on set: he knew it would upset Bette’s ego if he directed her too much. So he gave Bette freedom to interpret Margo Channing her own way. Reportedly, there was only one piece of concrete direction Mankiewicz gave Bette for her characterization:
“Margo Channing was a woman who would treat her mink coat like a poncho.”
Bette loved that Mankiewicz didn’t interfere with her creative process, and she loved this short but insightful piece of direction.
Bette Loses It
In fact the only thing about Bette on set that worried Mankiewicz was her voice: just prior to filming, Bette got into a screaming match with soon-to-be ex-husband number three, William Sherry. The screaming got so intense, Bette broke a blood vessel in her throat.
Luckily, after heeding a weekend-long gag order from her doctor, Bette got the green light to talk. And her resulting deep, throaty voice was actually beneficial to the film.
Mankiewicz thought it added further realism to Margo Channing, and told Bette:
“It’s just the whiskey-throated voice Margo should have. If your throat improves, make sure you keep your voice deep throughout the picture.”
So even the one potential problem between Bette and Mankiewicz on set turned out to be a positive.
All About Eve: Bette's Friends and Foes
Bette and Joseph Mankiewicz got along during filming of All About Eve. But Bette’s relationships with the rest of the cast were a mixed bag.
Celeste Holm: Bette Hated Her!
Bette famously had a hard time getting along with her female costars. And, true to form, Bette did not get along with Celeste Holm.
Bette said of Celeste:
“Filming All About Eve was a very happy experience…the only bitch in the cast was Celeste Holm.”
And Celeste shot back about Bette:
“I walked onto the set…on the first day and said, ‘Good morning [to Bette],’ and do you know her reply? She said, ‘Oh shit, good manners.’ I never spoke to her again—ever.”
Wow. Sounds intense.
Gary Merrill: Bette Loved Him (Literally)
Gary Merrill became Bette’s fourth and final husband. When they met on the Eve set, the attraction was mutual.
According to Celeste Holm:
“Bette had taken one look at Gary and Gary had taken one look at Bette, and something had happened. And from then on she didn’t care whether the rest of us lived or died.”
Obviously, things were good between Bette and Gary on the All About Eve set.
Anne Baxter: Bette (Surprisingly) Loved Her
Anne Baxter and Bette had every reason to be rivals. For one, their characters in All About Eve hate each other. For another, Anne was a woman–a younger woman, two strikes against her as far as Bette Davis was concerned.
Despite these factors, Anne and Bette not only got along during filming, they actually became friends.
Anne Baxter was ultimately one of two major female costars Bette had during her career with whom she remained on friendly terms. (The other was Olivia de Havilland.)
George Sanders: Bette HATED Him!
Not surprisingly, George Sanders and Bette absolutely hated each other on the All About Eve set. Sanders and Bette were perhaps too similar to get along under any circumstances. As Sanders related:
“I matched her [Bette] snarl for snarl and bite for bite. Of course it was great for the picture, as it made for some nice confrontational conflict…Later, when she lost the Oscar and I won for Best Supporting Actor, I met her at a party and she turned her back on me without a word. I couldn’t resist the temptation to purr over her shoulder, ‘Sour grapes, Bette?’ and do you know what she did? She turned around and spit at me!’”
THESE TWO. !!!
All About Eve at The Oscars
At the 1951 Academy Awards, All About Eve earned a record 14 nominations. The film won six Oscars that year, but its only actor to take home an award was George Sanders.
Anne Baxter and Bette were both nominated for Best Actress, while Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress. These dual nominations in each category ultimately harmed all four actresses’ chances at winning.
As Joseph Mankiewicz put it:
“Bette lost because Anne Baxter was nominated. Annie lost because Bette Davis ditto. Celeste Holm lost because Thelma Ritter was nominated, and she lost because Celeste ditto.”
Though none of Eve‘s actresses won, the film holds a unique record for having the most actresses nominated for Academy Awards from a single film.
All About Eve & Marilyn Monroe
All About Eve holds another unique distinction as one of the first films to showcase Marilyn Monroe in a role that gave audiences a taste of her future screen persona.
Joseph Mankiewicz cast Marilyn as Miss Casswell in the film, an aspiring actress and…protégé…of Addison DeWitt’s before he latches onto Eve.
Mankiewicz had some interesting things to say about Marilyn and his reasons for casting her:
“I thought she was right for the role, which was of an aspiring theater actress, and Marilyn was nothing if not aspiring at the time. It was suggested that the character would do whatever she had to do to get ahead, and I sensed that in Marilyn there was a certain amount of cunning as well as innocence. I found her a fascinating mix. On one hand, she was vulnerable. But, on the other, calculating. She knew what she was doing, that one. There was never a false move with her.”
All About Eve was Marilyn’s first great film opportunity. But that didn’t stop her from self-sabotaging and adding to production costs.
Even though Eve was a tremendous opportunity for her, Marilyn was routinely late to the set. Her inability to get there on time is even more incredible considering that Marilyn was was in no way a star yet, and here she was keeping Bette Davis, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, waiting.
When Marilyn finally did arrive on set, she seemed unprepared. According to Gary Merrill, Marilyn was an inexperienced actress who required multiple takes for her scenes, no matter how scant her dialogue. Merrill said that in her big scene with Bette:
“…Marilyn had only a few lines…Bette had more, but she was an experienced actress and accomplished the scene with little bother. It had to be done in ten takes, however—Marilyn kept forgetting her lines.”
Marilyn chalked her retakes up to her nervousness at working with Bette. Apparently Bette’s star presence was so overwhelming for Marilyn that when Bette lost her patience over all these retakes for a simple scene, Marilyn had to excuse herself to the restroom to vomit.
Which of course, further delayed filming and added to production costs.
As difficult as Marilyn’s tardiness and nerves were to the production, her star power in All About Eve is obvious. When Marilyn is onscreen, it’s near impossible to watch anyone else. It’s fascinating to see all the qualities she would soon be world famous for—the pout, the walk, the air of innocence and knowing, the dumb–but maybe not so dumb blonde–in their nascent state.
And, for any Marilyn fan, there’s something incredibly sweet and endearing about Marilyn being so excited and nervous for her first big film that a scolding from Bette Davis meant a trip to the bathroom.