One of my favorite classic movies is “All about Eve,” whose leading lady is Bette Davis. There is nothing more entertaining than to know what happened behind the scenes in a movie. In fact, we may find what happens there a whole lot more entertaining. Talk about “drama.” But the film has a brilliant script; it’s filled with biting humor, and has a stellar cast.
The story behind “All about Eve,” is about an aging starlet Margo Channing ( Bette Davis) who takes an ingénue (Anne Baxter) under her wing. Anne plays Eve who fools everybody with her sob stories, but turns out to be the biggest two-faced backstabber and will step on anybody to get her way, including her mentor, Margo Channing. One of the curious things about the film is how it mirrored Bette’s own life
At the time Bette’s career was in a slump, she was 40, and she needed something really big to happen in order to be resurrected from the dead. And that’s when “All about Eve,” comes to the rescue.
Let’s begin with the film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz who had always dreamed of making a film about life in the theatre. His dream came true when a story was featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine, titled “The Wisdom of Eve,” by Mary Orr. The article was based on a true story about a conniving young actress who latches on to a great, but aging, and fading star. According to Mankiewicz’s son Tom, Mankiewicz always found it unfair that women north of 40 were considered no longer beautiful or unable to play romantic parts in movies. If you know anything about Mankiewiz’s films most of the strong characters in his films were women; something that was way ahead of its day.
Film Producer Darryl Zanuck read the script and loved it and decided to fly with it. Soon however there were arguments about the casting. For the duplicitous Eve, Zanuck wanted Jeanne Crain, but Mankiewiz insisted on 26-year-old Anne Baxter. Good choice! Mankiewiz felt that Anne had what it took to play Eve, something he called “Bitch virtuosity.” I don’t think Crain would’ve been a good Eve at all.To play the critical role of Anne Richards, the woman who unwillingly aids Eve on her ruthless climb to stardom, Mankiewiz chose Celeste Holm. The most difficult decision of all was who was going play Margo Channing? If you can believe it, Claudette Colbert who was 46 years old at the time was chosen to play Margo. But I think the angels came down and kissed Bette’s brow that day because it turns out that Claudette had ruptured a disk during filming on another movie, and was unable to work. Thank goodness because she too was a bad choice. She could never pull this off.
They became desperate and they turned to Bette Davis. Yay! There was one big problem, Zanuck and Bette could not stand each other. They had not spoken in years. But at this time Bette found herself no longer in demand. Anne Baxter said in an interview that Bette had told her that at that stage of her life, she thought it was all over for her. In her mind 40 was a death sentence in Hollywood.
Zanuck had to swallow his pride. The creators realized that Bette seemed to offer the only hope of saving their troubled production. Zanuck took a big gulp of pride and telephoned Bette and here’s how it went:
Zanuck:“Bette, this is Darryl.”
Bette: “Darryl who?” LMAO!
Zanuck: “Darryl Zanuck, of course”
Bette: “Come on, come on, come off it.” Bette thought it was all a big joke, but it wasn’t.
After Bette read the script, she just knew she had to play it. Bette was very clever and when she saw good work she respected it. And I’m sure the fact that she was unemployed helped her make the decision to take on the role as well. So the aging actress had agreed to play an aging actress. It’s hard to miss the parallels in the film to that of Bette’s real life. Once the cameras started to roll fiction and fact converged.
The B with an itch
Co-stars did not know what to expect from the film’s major star. Bette had a reputation of, well, being a B with an itch. She was known for taking over sets, rewriting scripts, etc. Mankiewiz was warned by many who knew her well. Even Mankiewiz did not know what to expect from her. But this time, it was different, Bette knew better than to change a flawless script. In fact, Mankiewiz said that Bette was the best actress he had ever worked with. Through fate and circumstance Mankiewiz had discovered the perfect marriage of actress and character.
Mankiewiz tells Bette what the role of Margo is all about, he said, “here’s the key to the character, Margo treats her mink coat like a poncho.” And Bette said this made all the sense in the world. She (Margo) could do whatever she wanted, she was the star. Bette could play Bette. Ha!
When shooting began, the director was astounded to watch Bette become Margo Channing before the cameras, or was she just being Bette? Sometimes it was hard to see the difference.
Margo and Bette shared something very personal, like the character, she craved a happy family away from the spotlight. Bette was going on her 3rd divorce during filming and her life was far from happy. Bette thought the reason why she couldn’t find happiness in a marriage was because the men did not like being “Mr. Davis.” “They didn’t want to share the spotlight.”
Same Taste in Men
Margo and Bette also had the same taste in men. During filming Bette fell for her co-star, 34-year-old Gary Merrill. It was a hot and heavy relationship and we see it on screen. They seemed like the perfect couple, only one problem, they were both married. Now, today this seems like nothing, but back then it could ruin the movie and the actors. But according to Mankiewiz’s son, Tom, Mankiewiz did not care what you did after hours, as long as you showed up for filming the next day.
Marilyn Monroe makes an appearance in this film; it was Marilyn Monroe’s first film, which Zanuck had fired the year before for being “unphotogenic.” Marilyn played a young starlet who planned on advancing her career by dating powerful men, offering yet another example of art imitating life.
George Sanders, plays critic Addison Dewitt, this character was the one closest to Mankiewicz‘s heart. According to Mankiewicz’s son, there is a lot of his dad in Addison.
There were rumors of catty behavior among the women in the cast, but the cast members denied this. They claimed Mankiewicz would not stand for it. But we all know the story of the icy relationship between Celeste Holm and Bette. Holm said in an interview that Bette was just terrible to her; she claimed that Bette once called her a bitch. And I also heard that she treated Marilyn awfully on the set; she ignored her, and would make snarky remarks. Bette was really struggling with aging.
By the end of filming, Bette married her leading man Gary Merrill, but unlike Margo she was not about to give up her career, not when it was just resuscitated! “All about Eve,” put Bette back in the spotlight. Well maybe Bette should’ve married her career!
The film got 14 Oscar Nominations including Best Director, and Best Screen Play. Anne Baxter wanted to be nominated for Best Actress, and not Best Supporting Actress; a move that would put her in direct competition with Bette. It was yet another example of how scenes from the film would resonate in the star’s real lives. So for the first time in history two leading ladies from the same film were on the ballot together.
Bette just knew she had given it her best and felt confident she’d win her 3rd Oscar. As the winner was announced Bette, Anne Baxter, and Sunset Blvd’s Gloria Swanson leaned forward only to lose to Judy Holiday for her performance in “Born Yesterday.” Bette was shattered. The Oscar went to the underdog. Anne always regretted not accepting the Best Supporting Actress nomination and insisting on the Best Actress. What a big dummy! She not only sabotaged Bette’s chances, but her own as well!
The film won 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Score. Despite Bette’s disappointment she made a spectacular comeback and will always be identified with the great Margo Channing. Bette’s marriage to Gary Merrill lasted 10 years. Bette told Anne Baxter that something strange had happened between them. She said that Gary married Margo Channing, and she married Bill Simpson! Talk about living in fantasyland!
No matter what happened behind the scenes of this great film for Bette, we can’t deny that this film reestablished Bette as a great star, and made Margo Channing the most memorable character in film history.