The banner for this year’s Dueling Divas blogathon is an appropriate one, as this year I am contributing with an examination of two of the fiercest divas ever to appear on the silver screen–the two main characters in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 masterpiece All About Eve.
All About Eve is the definition of a team effort. Everything in the movie runs like a well-oiled machine, and the movie wouldn’t be what it is had a single character been left out. But at the head of the machine are Bette Davis and Anne Baxter playing Margo Channing and Eve Harrington–an aging stage star grappling with the realities of fewer parts and a young fan who has her eye on more than just the adoration of her stage idol. Through these two characters, we are told a raw and brutal story of what it means to be in the theatrical profession.
Margo Channing is a star. A bona-fide, veteran star of the stage whose plays consistently sell out and who has received legendary status in a profession which often eats its own. According to columnist Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), she has been a star ever since she entered the stage quite by accident as a toddler during A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stark naked. She is selfish, egotistical, and driven, but underneath her rough exterior lies a loyal woman who treasures her friends and harbors many insecurities and an almost vulnerable naivete.
When Margo meets Eve Harrington, a stage-struck kid who had seen every performance of Margo Channing’s new play, she is drawn to her and develops a protective feeling toward her. She soon comes to live at Margo’s house, acting as a secretary and assistant. Bertie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s maid, instinctively senses something off about Eve. She observes that Eve seems to be “studying” Margo, “like a blueprint.” When Eve takes the initiative to call Bill (Gary Merrill), Margo’s director boyfriend, on his birthday, Margo begins to suspect her herself. Things come to a head at Margo’s welcome home birthday party for Bill when she approaches Bill about Eve and they have an argument. At the end of the party and after many drinks, Margo verbally attacks Eve telling her to “stop behaving as if I were the Queen Mother.” Everyone around her defends Eve against Margo, and Margo goes to bed drunk and angry.
When Margo arrives at the theater, she runs into Addison DeWitt who tells her that Eve has been made her understudy without her knowledge. Margo enters the theater and, in her panic, begins a fight with Bill, Lloyd, and producer Max Fabian over Eve’s casting as her understudy. Bill sees through her act to the vulnerability and insecurity that is driving it, and calms her. But he decides to leave for a while, to have a break from Margo. As he leaves, Margo asks if he is going to see Eve. It is now clear that Eve has intruded on Margo’s psyche and she is almost obsessed with her.
On the evening of the performance, Lloyd, and Karen drive Margo to the train station after a weekend in the country so she can get back to New York in time to perform for the play. The car mysteriously runs out of gas, and when Lloyd goes out to find gas, Karen and Margo sit in the car and talk. Margo expresses regret at the way she’s treated Eve, confides her jealousy at Eve’s youth and vibrancy. She admits to not feeling like a woman in her relationship with Bill, something on which she feels Eve holds an advantage. She moves Karen to tears, and Karen apologizes profusely for the car breaking down. Margo tells her it is not her fault, “after all, you didn’t personally train the gasoline tank yourself.” Karen slumps down in her seat, hinting to the audience that she did, in fact, drain the gasoline tank herself in order to give Eve the chance to perform.
Margo was incensed and massively hurt at Addison DeWitt’s column the next morning, in which Eve slammed Margo’s persistence in playing “younger” roles. Plans are underway for Lloyd Richards’ new production entitled Footsteps on the Ceiling, in which Margo wants to play “Cora,” the young lead. Lloyd is thinking of giving the part to Eve, but Karen essentially forbids him due to that morning’s column. Bill, Karen, and Lloyd take Margo out for drinks, and at the restaurant Karen and Lloyd learn that Bill and Margo are going to be married. They also run into Eve and Addison, who are out together at the same restaurant. In the midst of their merriment, a note arrives for Karen. It is from Eve, who implores her to meet her in the ladies’ room. When she returns, Karen is oddly silent. At this point, Margo says unexpectedly that she does not want to play Cora after all, now that she is going to be married. Karen looks shocked, and then suddenly breaks out in laughter. When questioned as to what she’s laughing about, she replies “Everything! Everything is so funny!”
Lloyd ignores Karen and casts Eve as Cora. She gives the performance of her life and wins the Sarah Siddons Award.
Eve Harrington is a devoted fan who has come to every performance of Margo Channing’s Broadway play, Aged in Wood. When Karen Richards sees her there standing at the stage door, she feels she has to bring her in to see Margo. Eve tells her story of having a husband who died in the war, and seeing plays as a means of escape. She told of seeing Margo Channing come to San Francisco in a play called Remembrance, and at the conclusion of her story reduces all in Margo’s dressing room to tears. She makes a good impression, and when Margo invites her to be her secretary, she continues to do so. Eve becomes close with Karen Richards, and Karen in turn becomes Eve’s advocate against the often difficult Margo.
At Bill’s welcome home birthday party, Eve is seen conversing with him downstairs, which prompts Margo to start an argument with Bill out of Eve’s earshot. Once the party begins, Eve approaches Karen upstairs. She asks Karen if, since she knows the part so well, she might be able to arrange it for her to play Margo’s understudy in Aged in Wood. Karen is excited at the possibility, and promises Eve that she won’t forget to ask producer Max Fabian.
Eve procures the role of understudy, much to the chagrin of Margo, who is already upset thinking that Eve is stealing Bill from her. Karen, ever Eve’s champion, drains the gasoline from the car on the way back to the train station from the country in order to give Eve a chance to play Cora. While Karen, Lloyd and Margo are stuck in the country with no gasoline in their car, Eve gives a standout performance and is visited backstage by Addison DeWitt. Addison sees her in her dressing room, seducing Margo’s boyfriend Bill. Bill rejects her, telling her that he is in love with Margo. Eve is upset, and Bill tells her not to worry, just to “score it as an incomplete forward pass.” When Bill leaves, we see another side of Eve…angry and vicious, as she tries to rip the wig of her costume in her rage. She stops immediately when Addison DeWitt, who has seen everything, comes in. Suspecting her lack of authenticity, he questions her about the story she told when she first met Margo. Eve answers vaguely, then gets out of answering when she goes into the shower.
Addison’s column the next morning was the excuse for Eve to ask Karen to see her in the ladies’ room when they were all out at the same restaurant. In the ladies’ room, Eve cried and made Karen’s heart slowly melt for her. When Karen was finally back on Eve’s side, she asked if there was anything she could do. Eve replied “There is something…”
EVE: Something most important you can do.
KAREN: You want to play Cora. You want me to tell Lloyd I think you should play it.
EVE: If you told him so, he’d give me the part. He said he would.
KAREN: After all you’ve said…don’t you know that part was written for Margo?
EVE: It might have been 15 years ago, it’s my part now.
KAREN: You talk just as Addison said you did.
EVE: Cora is MY PART. You’ve got to tell Lloyd it’s for me.
KAREN: I don’t think anything in the world would make me say that.
EVE: Addison wants me to play it.
KAREN: Over my dead body.
EVE: That won’t be necessary. Addison knows how Margo “happened” to miss that performance, and how I happened to know that she’d miss it in time to notify every paper in town. It’s quite a story. Addison could make quite a thing of it. Imagine how snide and vicious he could get and still tell nothing but the truth. I had a time persuading you….If I play Cora, Addison will never tell what happened, in or out of print. a simple exchange of favors. I’m so happy I can do something for you at long last.
Karen then returns to the table. When Margo says she no longer wanted to play Cora, Karen begins to laugh. Eve always gets what she wants.
That evening, as Karen lay mulling in bed, the phone rang. It was a roommate of Eve’s saying how sick and nervous she was about the upcoming tour of the play in New Haven, and she was asking for Lloyd. Lloyd instructed the roommate to tell her not to worry, that he would be right over. As the roommate hangs up the phone, we see Eve linking hands with her, her plot a success.
The next day, Eve is walking with Addison in New Haven. They discuss her future career and when they get back to her hotel room, she tells him that Lloyd is leaving Karen, that she is going to marry him. She dreams of the plays he would write for her and how far they could go together. She told of him banging on her door, saying that he was leaving Karen and couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Addison sees through this. He tells Eve that Lloyd may leave Karen, but he will not leave Karen for her. And he won’t do so because he, Addison, will not permit it. He proceeds to tell Eve everything he knows about her. The questionings that night after her performance in Aged in Wood confirmed his suspicions that she was a liar and a fake. Her real name is Gertrude Slozhinsky, and she has never been to San Francisco. She has no deceased husband, and everything about her story is false. She had an affair with her boss at the brewery at which she worked, and she was paid $500 to get out of town, money with which she ran straight to New York. Addison uses this information to show Eve that she cannot do anything without his approval now–because if she does, he will release this information to the public, ruining her career. It is a checkmate against her, and Eve realizes it. Addison makes her realize how much she “belongs” to him and Eve, hysterical and crying, mentions how she couldn’t go onstage in this state. “Couldn’t go on?” Addison retorts, “You’ll give the performance of your life.”
The statement about Addison “owning” Eve is very much a reflection and acknowledgment of the power of the press in the rise and fall of a theatrical or cinematic career. Addison can be seen as a sort of Louella Parsons or Dorothy Kilgallen, who literally held the power to make or break a career. If any of the columnists had something against a certain star, they could destroy that star with one swipe. This is very elegantly and astutely alluded to in the character of Addison DeWitt, and in 1950 everyone in Hollywood and beyond would have understood the significance of this character.
Eve does go on to give the performance of her life, which takes us back to the beginning of the movie, the Sarah Siddons Award ceremony. Eve thanks everybody who has made this possible (however, she noticeably leaves out Addison DeWitt) and mentions how although she is going to Hollywood to make a film, her heart will always be in the theatre. After the ceremony, Karen, Lloyd, Bill, and Margo offer her halfhearted congratulations, with Margo remarking “I wouldn’t worry about your heart, Eve. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Eve decides to skip the party in her honor, and instead go home.
When she gets home, she notices a girl in the mirror, sleeping on her chair. The girl awakens and says she is the president of the Eve Harrington fan club at Erasmus Hall High School and had sneaked in to do research for a project. She and Eve talk a little, and when the doorbell rings the girl goes to answer it. It is Addison, holding the award Eve had left in the cab. The girl introduces herself as “Phoebe” and takes the award, not telling Eve that it was Addison who had brought it. She took it back to the back room, drapes Eve’s cape around her shoulders and, standing in front of an infinitely reflecting mirror, pretends to be a star as she bows…and the movie ends.
BETTE DAVIS VS. ANNE BAXTER: THE 23RD ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
All About Eve was a smash hit. Universally acclaimed, the film went on to be nominated for 14 Oscars which beat Gone With the Wind’s previous record of 13. Among the 14 Oscars were double nominees in the Best Actress category–with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter nominated together in the same category.
The Best Actress nominees that year were:
- Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
- Anne Baxter, All About Eve
- Bette Davis, All About Eve
- Eleanor Parker, Caged
- Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
There are several theories about what happened in the Best Actress category in 1951, but it can be confidently stated that this was one of the most quality years for actresses in all of film history. Had each of these actresses been nominated in any other year without such stiff competition, each of them could have won, and could have won deservedly. However, in a year when films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard were contenders, it came as a shock that the winner that year was Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Here is one of the theories about what happened.
Bette Davis’ role as Margo Channing clearly belonged in the Best Actress category, but Anne Baxter could have been nominated in either the Best Actress or the Best Supporting Actress category. She decided to go with Best Actress, which set her up squarely against Bette Davis, who was the odds-on favorite for the award. When the Academy voted, they were given two great performances in All About Eve to choose from, and they were torn between which All About Eve actress to vote for. Hence, the votes were split between Davis and Baxter which ultimately cost Bette Davis the award.
The strange part of this theory is that the second Academy favorite that year was not, after all, Judy Holliday–it was Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. It might be said that Anne Baxter’s inclusion in the Best Actress category took votes away from Gloria Swanson as well, leaving Judy Holliday squeaking by with enough votes after the split to take home the award. It is impossible to know for sure, but we can be fairly confident that Anne Baxter’s nomination in the Best Actress category affected the awards in one way or another.
This is an entry for the Dueling Divas Blogathon, which I host every year in December. Check out the other entries here! See you next time!