All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Adapted from: “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter
Nominations: Picture, Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Actress – Anne Baxter, Actress – Bette Davis, Supporting Actor – George Sanders, Supporting Actress – Celeste Holm, Supporting Actress – Thelma Ritter, Screenplay, Cinematography (b/w), Editing, Art Direction (b/w), Costume Design (b/w), Score (drama/comedy), Sound
Wins: Picture, Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Supporting Actor – George Sanders, Screenplay, Costume Design (b/w), Sound

Heading into this project I knew I’d hit some hurdles when it came to writing about some of the films.  There are going to be films I don’t like, there are going to be films I don’t connect with, and there are going to be films of which so much has been said that I doubt I’ll be able to add anything new to the conversation.  Today’s film is in the third group.

All About Eve is an absolute masterclass in all aspects of filmmaking.  Nowhere within its 138-minute runtime does a false note ring in any craft:

  • The acting is of the highest caliber—backed up by its five acting nominations, tying it (at the time) with Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942).  It still stands as the only film to have four women nominated for acting Oscars.
  • The directing and writing are brisk, intelligent, quotable, iconic, and surprising—Joseph L. Mankiewicz remains, to this day, the only person to win back-to-back directing and screenplay Oscars (he preceded his All About Eve wins with A Letter to Three Wives the year prior.
  • The immortal Edith Head’s costuming is sublime, with Bette Davis’s “bumpy night” gown as the crowning jewel.
  • Milton R. Krasner—not especially known for a distinct style/look—lights the film with confidence: without resorting to soft focus effects, his camera captures the eternal beauty of his stars (I’m of the mind that Bette Davis and Anne Baxter have never looked as lovely in any other film).
  • The film received a record 14 Oscar nominations and was nominated in 12 of 13 possible categories (the film had no original song nor special effects, leaving Best Actor as the only missed category).

The film’s themes are just as timeless, too.  Margo Channing’s concerns over societal expectations of professional women and getting older in a business that values youth are still as topical 70 years later; trying to maintain relevance in your career while others are working on establishing their own foundation in it are both relatable for everyone of any time; discovering the steep cost of success and deciding if it’s worth paying is a universal struggle.  The phrase “all about Eve” could easily be “all about us.”  (There’s also a Biblical metaphor [what’s more timeless than the Bible?], what with one of the main characters being named Eve—the film’s inspiration, Mary Orr’s short story “The Wisdom of Eve,” is more direct with the symbolism.)

She has a gift of knowledge that lets her read people, giving her a greater ability to put on a performance that appeals to whomever is in her audience.  Life is her stage.  Some may say Eve is manipulative and deceitful—which can’t be completely denied—but she has a charm and loneliness that earns our sympathy more than if she were just callous.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into the character, but the road she ends up walking is sad and pathetic, and it’s difficult not to have pity for her.  There’s an adage in screenwriting that the best villains shouldn’t be evil for the sake of being evil but should be the heroes of their own stories; Eve Harrington is the epitome of that principle.  Although it’s nowhere near Oscar-quality, the campy cult movie Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995) flips All About Eve’s character dynamics, and it while Showgirls itself isn’t anything spectacular, it does show how an Eve character can carry a film.

At the end of the day, All About Eve is an all-around fantastic film.  It’s got laughs and tears and ups and downs and is just plain great.  Every character is well-developed and drawn so deeply that you care about each of them—even the conniving Addison DeWitt.  And that, above all, should be the testament of a classic film that any filmmaker and cinephile needs to see.  Just be sure to fasten your seat belts.