All About Eve

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (based on the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr)
Stars: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merrill (Bill Simpson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Barbara Bates (Phoebe), Marilyn Monroe (Miss Casswell), Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1950
Country: U.S.
All About Eve Criterion Collection Blu-ray
All About Eve

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve is one of the great triumphs of classical Hollywood—a smart, insightful, and darkly humorous drama about the intersections of art and show business and that insatiable appetite we call ambition. It is both funny and ruthless, and it somehow manages to flaunt caricature while also digging deep into the human psyche and rooting out its characters’ various desires, insecurities, and frailties. It is also a remarkably candid depiction of the double standards by which men and women are judged in the limelight and how fleeting stardom can be, which is why it is so fitting that the film functioned as a comeback vehicle for star Bette Davis. Davis had recently ended a nearly two-decade relationship with Warner Bros. after a string of box office flops, which is why she told Mankiewicz that her being cast as Margo Channing, a great Broadway actress who finds herself being usurped by a cunning starlet, “resurrected [her] from the dead.”

The Eve of the title is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), and by the end of the film we will know quite a bit about her, if not “all” (as Citizen Kane, which was co-written by Mankiewicz’s older brother Herman, made so clear, it is impossible to know everything about anyone, inside and outside of the spotlight). The film opens with the annual gala of the fictional Sarah Siddons Society, an insular, self-important group of theatre aficionados, where Eve becomes the youngest person ever to be given its coveted annual award. We are introduced to all the major characters here, including Margo, who smokes and drinks her way through the proceedings and has enough of an aggravated air about her to let us know she is not pleased with what is transpiring; Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), an award-winning playwright and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who are two of Margo’s best friends; Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill ), a theatre director and Margo’s husband; and Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a supercilious theatre critic who is, at this point, providing the voice-over narration (at different points in the film Karen and Margo will step in as narrators, as well, giving the film a particularly complex perspective).

We then flash back to the moment when Eve first entered their lives. Karen spots her hanging around the back of the theatre and learns that she is such an avowed fan of Margo’s that she has attended every single performance of the play in which she is performing. Karen, moved by her dedication, offers to bring Eve backstage to meet Margo, an offer she reluctantly accepts. Once in Margo’s rarefied presence, she slowly works her way into everyone’s hearts with a sad story about a miserable Midwestern life and a husband killed in the war. Margo, who at first is merely tolerant of Eve’s presence, decides to give her a job as an assistant, which Eve takes to immediately. She quickly makes herself indispensable, which is initially appealing in that she makes Margo’s life run more smoothly. But, she increasingly injects herself into Margo’s personal affairs with a charming smile and a delicate lack of guile that, for a while at least, masks her growing ambitions. As Margo famously says at one point, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Eve’s ambitions cannot stay hidden forever, and soon Margo is feeling the pressure of her constant and constantly invasive presence, something about which she had been warned by Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former vaudevillian who now works as Margo’s personal assistant and voice of reason (Ritter played a similar kind of role a few years later as James Stewart’s no-nonsense nurse in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window). The conflict between the older, experienced star and the younger, possibly insidious starlet gives the film a great, twitchy, escalating tension that is heightened by both Margo’s fundamental insecurity about the reality of her aging in a business that prizes youth and beauty and the general cluelessness of the men around her—with the exception of Addison DeWitt, the calculating, erudite critic who becomes involved because, unlike most others, he sees right through Eve’s charade and recognizes her for exactly what she is. The hotel room scene in which he finally confronts her about her real identity and plans is a great moment of stark conflict, in which the two characters’ utterly ruthless sense of ambition and desire for power run headlong into each other. They’re both despicable and utterly fascinating.

As Andrew Sarris notes in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film History & Memory 1927–1949, Bette Davis had become something of a caricature within Hollywood circles by this time: “the pop-eyes with the heavily mascaraed lashes, the highly bred cackling voice, the strutting, hip-heavy walk.” There are elements of that caricature in Davis’s turn as Margo, but what makes her so interesting and ultimately memorable is the way she often sublimates those characteristics to a deep and abiding insecurity that she is constantly trying to hide. There are moments of Bette Davis greatness all throughout All About Eve, to the point that it is often easy to forget that there are other performers on the screen (including Baxter, who is quite sublime in the way she plays Eve’s seemingly innocuous surface against her much darker inner self). The party scene in which Margo, riven with jealousy about the attention Bill is paying to Eve, gets drunk and makes a spectacle of herself in various ways would seem to be another cliché of female histrionics if Davis didn’t make Margo’s conflicted interior so painfully obvious and true. We feel for Margo, even when she is in her greatest moments of power because we recognize how that power is fleeting and can so easily be stripped away by those circling beneath her; stardom, the film suggests, is essentially disposable because there are so many replacements waiting in the wings, something a smart, knowing woman like Margo would readily understand. The title of All About Eve suggests that it is primarily about Eve herself, but she is really just a symptom of a system—not just show business, but the American way of life—that is always looking for the next great thing and discarding that which came before.

All About Eve Criterion Collection 2-Disc Blu-ray Set

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by actor Celeste Holm, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s son Christopher Mankiewicz, and author Kenneth L. Geist
  • Audio commentary by biographer and author Sam Staggs
  • All About Mankiewicz, a feature-length documentary from 1983 about the director
  • Episodes of The Dick Cavett Show from 1969 and 1980 featuring actors Bette Davis and Gary Merrill
  • Video interview with costume historian Larry McQueen
  • Hollywood Backstories: “All About Eve” 2001 documentary
  • Documentaries from 2010 about Mankiewicz’s life and career; “The Wisdom of Eve,” the 1946 short story on which the film is based; and a real-life Sarah Siddons Society based on the film’s fictional organization
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1951
  • Promotion for the film featuring Davis
  • Essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and “The Wisdom of Eve”
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 26, 2019

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray came from a digital restoration undertaken by 20th Century Fox using a 35mm composite fine-grain print from the Museum of Modern Art that was scanned in 4K and then digitally restored. The results are duly impressive, with gorgeous depth, detail, and contrast. The image is clear and free of any signs of age and wear, and one must appreciate how the restoration has left the grain intact, giving it the feel of celluloid in motion. The monaural soundtrack was transferred from the same 35mm print’s optical track and digitally restored, and all that delicious dialogue and Alfred Newman’s excellent score sound fantastic. To maximize bitrate, Criterion has put the film on its own Blu-ray along with two audio commentaries that were recorded back in 2010, one by actor Celeste Holm, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s son Christopher, and Kenneth L. Geist (author of Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and one by film biographer Sam Staggs (author of All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made!). These are older commentaries that have been around for nearly a decade, but if you haven’t given them a listen, they are well worth the time. The rest of the supplements, which are quite extensive, are housed on a second Blu-ray. The only truly new supplement is a 20-minute interview with costume historian Larry McQueen, which focuses primarily on Eve’s wardrobe and how her clothing tells the story of her character’s evolution. Several of the supplements have been culled from 20th Century Fox’s 2010 Blu-ray release, including four featurettes: “Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz” and “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey,” both of which focus on the writer/director; “The Real Eve,” in which film scholar Jonathan Kuntz and theatre critic Harry Haun discuss the character’s real-life inspirations; and “The Secret of Sarah Siddons,” which is about a real-life group formed in Chicago based on the film’s fictional organization. One of the most significant additions is All About Mankiewicz, a feature-length documentary from 1983 in which film critic Michel Ciment interviews the writer/director about his career. Also from the archives is a brief 1950 promotional film featuring footage of Bette Davis on the film’s set; a 1980 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring actor Gary Merrill and an excerpt from a 1969 episode featuring Davis; and the film’s complete 1951 radio adaptation. For those looking for a quick and gossipy look at the film’s production, the disc also includes a 2001 Hollywood Backstories episode. Finally, the insert booklet (which I feel compelled to mention was torn by the awful, sticky rubber knobs used to hold the discs in place in the Digipack—something about which many have been complaining ever since the sets started shipping) contains an insightful essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the entirety of Mary Orr’s 1946 short story “The Wisdom of Eve” on which the film is based.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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