All about all about Eve
'We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk,” says Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders) the waspish theatre critic in the acclaimed classic 1950 movie All About Eve and he’s not wrong.
Brittle and temperamental Margot Channing (Bette Davis) is the Broadway star who is just north of 40 and thinks her career is over.
When a fanatical stalker, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter, granddaughter of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) wangles her way into the star’s dressing room, helped by Margot’s gal pal Karen (Celeste Holm), a long hard-luck yarn follows…
Margot’s wise-talking dresser/maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is not taken in. Cracking that Eve’s story has “got everything except bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!”
However, Margot takes on Eve as personal assistant and Eve jumps at the chance as she’ll be close to the star and able to take her pick of Margot’s cast-off dresses. And then everyone’s troubles really start.
It’s a story that is equally relevant today, through the likes of celebrity ‘stans’ - a subgenre of Twitter - involving the mad pursuit of fame encouraged by reality TV shows, and the likes of K-Pop the X Factor.
Back in the 1950s, this most famous of movie bitch-fests was a huge hit thanks partly to its witty, literary script. Nominated for an unprecedented 14 Oscars, it won six, including the best picture award.
Not surprising, as it’s a very Hollywood take on the spit ‘n’ sawdust theatre world. It does, however, capture the toxic ambition that bedevils workplaces where bullies rule the roost and the devious, snide and manipulative always seem to rise to the top.
It was said that the original short story by Mary Orr was based on well-known theatre gossip. Stage actress Tallulah Bankhead was in the middle of a long Broadway run and her stand in Lizabeth Scott was peeved that the star never missed a performance.
Scott, like one of the All About Eve characters, was spirited off to Hollywood where she became a cut-price Lauren Bacall in film noirs of the late 1940s. Her other claim to fame came in 1952 when she sued Confidential Magazine - the havoc the fan rag caused in its heyday is captured by James Ellroy in his new novel Widespread Panic - for hinting that she was lesbian.
Another of Mary Orr’s All About Eve inspirations was the story of then star Elizabeth Bergner and her understudy Martina Lawrence. In the new Blu-ray extras there’s audio of an afternoon tea at the famed theatrical restaurant Sardi’s where Orr and Lawrence start off civilly enough before descending into a hilarious slagging match.
The film has a lasting legacy, attracting dedicated new fans over many decades. In 1970, twenty years after the film was premiered, a musical version, Applause, opened on Broadway running for 896 performances. It won Tony awards for best musical, and best actress for its star Lauren Bacall.
LGBT and feminist audiences loved All About Eve’s depiction of strong women who were not prepared to take things lying down - the character of Eve is often perceived as a lesbian. It remains a cautionary tale for our own celebrity-obsessed era. Indeed, Sam Staggs captured the making of the film in relentless detail in his book All About All About Eve.
In a neat turn, the film eventually became a stage play, produced on the West End in 2019 with Gillian Anderson in the role of Margot.
In 2018, the film The Favourite with Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, also took inspiration from the All About Eve story.
The pivot of the film is a birthday party that Margot is hosting for her boyfriend. Not in the best moods to begin with she falls into her cups after too many cocktails.
When Addison DeWitt, described by one of the characters as “that venomous fishwife”, turns up with a Miss Caswell, the original short story author’s middle name (played by a little known Marilyn Monroe), Margot’s insecurities cause a classic tantrum.
Warning her guests to prepare for lift off, she swishes upstairs uttering the deathless warning, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Just one of many crackling one-liners…
When Miss Caswell asks DeWitt: “Do they have auditions in television?” He replies witheringly that, “all television is nothing but auditions!” And Margo’s friend Karen, answers her playwright husband with this zinger: “That cynicism you refer to is something I acquired the day I realised I was different from little boys!”
‘So many films from that era don’t hold up, but All About Eve still feels as fresh as it does radical. It takes the theme of women being silenced, forced to listen to men and learn from them regardless of their own talents, and turns men into the butt of the joke’, wrote Jenny Stevens in the Guardian in 2019.
‘All About Eve will continue to enthral. It has done so for 70 years and it will do so for many more. And it thrills us because it makes us, as women; feel seen in all our grit and glory. It is complicated, confusing, spiteful, fiercely intelligent and, at the end of it all, entirely real’.
Info: All About Eve is available on Blu-ray from criterion.com