Apparently Bette Davis was absolutely devastated that she didn't win a third best actress Oscar for her role as Margo Channing, the aging grand dame of the New York stage. It's one of the great ironies of movie history, because in All About Eve, Bette gives what many regard as her finest and most towering performance.
However, it's not only Davis that anchors this remarkable film, but the biting performances of all the cast. The performances, combined with the witty, acerbic dialogue, and the gorgeous production design, leave absolutely no room for doubt that All About Eve is one of the best Hollywood films ever made.
The modest plot - which is merely a framework for showcasing the characters agendas and highlighting the script's glittering dialogue - revolves around the journey of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) as she climbs from struggling Broadway actress to scintillating star. The story is told in flashback from an awards ceremony for Eve wherein various participants tell us in confidence about the guest of honor.
As the camera pans on their faces and we listen to a voice over by one of the participants, we soon learn that Eve has shrewdly and cunningly manipulated her friends and colleagues to suit her own needs while ruthlessly climbing to the top of her profession. The woman she chooses as her mentor, and whom she later double-crosses, is Margo Channing (Davis), a neurotically successful stage actress who has recently entered her forties and has become concerned about her advancing age.
Eve intially presents herself to Margo as a devoted fan who insinuates herself into the lives of the theater people she meets and soon becomes Margo's personal assistant, then her understudy. But Eve is hiding a shady past, and from the outset it's obvious that she's not all that she seems to be. Her demure, and self-effacing behaviour hides the fact that she secretly longs to take Margo's place on the stage and in her bed with Margo's boyfriend and director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill).
Unaware of the depth of Eve's deviousness and the extent of her machinations, theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and the wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Karen (Celeste Holm) unwittingly assist in the young girl's rise to the top. Eventually, everyone wises up to Eve's duplicity, but not before she's left a web of betrayal and cold-hearted deceitfulness behind her.
Although the plot revolves around Eve, the real star of the movie is Margo. Margo is insecure at turning forty in a profession where forty is considered positively ancient and where most actresses begin to lose their ability to play pretty young things. The actress is fraught with neurosis: she convinces herself that Bill is going to leave her for a younger woman, and that Lloyd is going to start offering the choice parts in his plays to younger women. It's only the kindly Karen that keeps her grounded and on track.
Margo is demanding, egotistical, and popularity obsessed, but she's also enormously talented and has devoted her life to the theater, not even having time for marriage. She's an insecure, jittery, and anxious mess, and Ms. Davis plays her to the hilt. By contrast Baxter, complete with a doll-like, almost angelic face plays Eve with a competent sweet self-confidence.
Eve's a naive young woman who starts at the bottom of the show business ladder, as a devoted, heartsick and star struck fan. She expects to be handed the world of acting on a silver plater every day the way she was on her opening night. When she doesn't get it, she schemes and manipulates, eventually alienating anyone who ever cared about her.
It's probably a bit if a stretch to call All About Eve the greatest movie ever made. However, the film is certainly one of the wittiest, most devastatingly clever, most adult, and most erudite motion pictures ever made. The film is also a very dark and cynical social satire that effectively explores, with a type of intellectual and literate grandiosoty, the insecurities of aging, and the results of unchecked ambition.The script is arguably the best-written script ever to come out of the classical Hollywood system.
But All About Eve is perhaps most memorable for the soaring, self-mocking, and fearless performance by Ms. Davis, and the almost equally memorable performances by the rest of the ensemble - including a very young and sexy looking Marilyn Monroe. All About Eve stands as a testament to screen writing of the highest caliber and quality, and the ensuing satire remains as entertaining today, and as mordantly relevant as ever. Mike Leonard July 05.