Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mary Orr (short story)
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe
Duration: 138 mins
BBFC Certification: 12
Occasionally, although it is often impossible to imagine them any other way, key events in both the movies and in life could often have turned out very differently indeed. Take All About Eve as a case in point. During pre-production on the latest movie from acclaimed writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, everything was all set and ready to go when Claudette Colbert, who had been cast in the main role as usurped theatre star Margo Channing, ruptured her disk. With only a few weeks to spare, a new actress had to found. Mankiewicz eventually settled on a famous Hollywood star whose career had been fading for some time. When she read the script she leapt at the chance (and who could blame her?). Her name was Bette Davis.
The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. All About Eve went on to be nominated for 14 Academy Awards (a feat only bested by Titanic 47 years later) winning eight and ensuring that Bette Davis transformed from being a just Hollywood star into an actual icon. Even now, 71 years after its premiere, All About Eve is not just routinely cited as one of the best films from Hollywood’s Golden Era, but is regularly spoken of as one of the best films ever made, full stop. It is fitting, then, that Criterion have finally decided to grace British audiences with a copy of their Blu Ray edition of this legendary film, after it was initially released in the Sates back in 2019.
What else is there to say about All About Eve? For a film so critically adored and venerated, it seems, perhaps, very little. Yet for those among you who may be unfamiliar with the film or for those who might not have seen it in years (as I hadn’t) I will do my best to fill you in.
Based on a short story entitled the Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr (who was cruelly denied a credit in the film’s opening titles) All About Eve is set in the backstage world of the theatre. Star Margo Channing, who is just finishing a run of yet another hit play, is introduced to Eve Harrington, a slight, almost insubstantial young woman who has been hanging around outside the theatre every night. Taking pity on Eve, Margo allows her into her life, unaware that Eve has ulterior motives…namely, that she has set her eyes on becoming a star every bit as famous and adored as Margo Channing herself and will happily manipulate Margo and everyone in her circle in order to achieve her dreams.
In the hands of another writer, the plot of All About Eve could quite easily become a Hitchcockian thriller or even a horror film (Mankiewicz himself described Eve as a ‘predator’). Despite this, under the famed writer/director’s guidance, the film loses much of the darkness that became inherent in later movies concerning rabid fans and their obsessions (such as that seen in Misery or The King of Comedy) and instead created a movie practically pulsating with crackling wit and razor sharp dialogue.
The theatre was Mankiewicz’s passion and obsession (although, bizarrely, he never successfully managed to write a play). In All About Eve, he mines that obsession for all it is worth, which is obviously evident in the film’s setting, yet also in its style and construction. If All About Eve can defined by two things, then that is its performances and dialogue. This is literally the kind of film they don’t make anymore; almost every line is iron tight and zings off the screen with cynical energy. The film is of course famous for quotes such as “Fasten your seatbelts, its going to be bumpy night!” but you’ll be surprised at just how many other lines make you chuckle and smile. This is not to suggest that All About Eve is some kind of theatrical romp. Mankiewicz handles the dramatic scenes just as deftly, charting Eve’s insidious rise to the top with skill, insight and flair.
A writer and director who was always far more interested in the characters and lives of woman as opposed to men, it is the female protagonists and antagonists in All About Eve who benefit most from Mankiewicz’s golden pen (with the notable exception of George Sanders’ theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who, as a mouthpiece for Mankiewicz himself, holds his own against his female co-stars). Margo, Eve and Karen (Margo’s best friend) exhibit a dimensionality that makes their stories gripping and riveting, each character exhibiting a kind of psychological depth that is usually associated more with theatre than with cinema. All About Eve’s screenplay is regarded as one of the best written of all time and, regardless of your actual like or dislike of the story, the skill and technique exhibited make it hard to disagree. It is the kind of writing that sounds effortless yet is in fact incredibly hard and rare to pull off.
For a film so fixated on the theatre, it is no surprise that the performances in the film clamour for attention almost as much as the writing itself. Or, to perhaps put it more bluntly, the performance. For, make no mistake, as good as Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter (and an early Marilyn Monroe!) are, this is Bette Davis’ movie. Delivering the star turn that would come to define her career, she unsurprisingly dominates every single scene she is in. Forceful, funny, tragic, vulnerable, angry, bitter, arrogant, sympathetic…Davis both captures and evokes moods and feelings by the dozen, tying them all together with a throaty rasp and through eyes that spit daggers. As mentioned, only George Sanders’ acerbic theatric critic matches her presence on screen (in a role that won him one of the film’s eight Oscars).
For a film as iconic as All About Eve, it is easy to continue gushing with superlatives and to not address the film’s flaws. The key one here (well, perhaps the only one, as there really aren’t that many to choose from!) is that All About Eve perhaps wears its theatrical inspiration a little too heavily…even the film’s staunchest defenders would admit that it isn’t very cinematic.
For the most part, the camera remains static and the angles that capture the action are functional and rather bland. Many directors see the camera as a dynamic storytelling tool. Mankiewicz took the opposite approach. For him, camera movement was just showing off, doing nothing more than calling attention to the director (and their ego). For him, the audience’s attention must always be focused on the actors. Anything that took away from that was to the story and the film’s detriment. This philosophy is certainly adhered to in All About Eve. Mankiewicz typically places his camera in the simplest position possible and allows his dialogue and actors to do their work over long, extended scenes. Yet is this a bad thing? In the case of All About Eve, certainly not. The film never feels static or staid, bustling as it does with its own unique, sparkling energy.
In fact, for all the accusations levelled at Mankiewicz for not being a very cinematic director (a claim based upon many of his other films, not just this one) All About Eve contains a moment of pure cinematic brilliance. An aspiring actress stands in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection, multiplied to infinity, dominating the screen as she holds an award in front of her, imagining the adulation of her peers.
Coming as it does as a final form of poetic justice, the moment concludes All About Eve on a bitter and cynical note that reveals that there has been darkness lying at the heart of the film all along. This might go some way to help to explain its enduring reputation as one of the greatest films ever made, its impact resonating beyond iconic performances, rich, fizzing dialogue and biting, bitter wit. Ending on a chilling visual metaphor that profoundly speaks to the the nature of ego and stardom, its cold deconstruction of the repetitive cycle of ambition remains as relevant today as it did more than seventy years ago.
Criterion are releasing All About Eve’s Blu Ray edition in one of their deluxe digi packs. The package contains two Blu Ray discs (one containing the film and commentary, the other the rest of the extras) and also comes with a booklet (with I didn’t receive for this review).
Criterion’s version of All About Eve comes from a new 4K digital restoration. While the picture quality looks fine for the most part, there does seem to be a certain sparkle lacking, especially compared to some other 4K restorations of films from a similar period. Maybe it was down to the available materials but the picture looked a little soft in places. It is by no means bad – just don’t expect to be floored by it. The mono audio soundtrack (liner PCM) sounds absolutely fine, with everything coming through clear and sharp.
The extras are as follows:
- Two audio commentaries from 2010, one featuring actor Celeste Holm, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s son Christopher Mankiewicz, and author Kenneth L. Geist; the other featuring 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
- New interview with costume historian Larry McQueen
- Hollywood Backstories: “All About Eve,” a 2001 documentary featuring interviews with Davis and others about the making of the film
- Documentaries from 2010 about Mankiewicz’s life and career; “The Wisdom of Eve,” the 1946 short story on which the film is based, and its real-world inspiration; 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
Commentary One: The first commentary features Christopher Mankiewicz (the director’s son) author Kenneth L. Geist and, rather miraculously, Celeste Homes. All three have been recorded separately and spliced together, with some rather long gaps appearing in-between comments. Geist puts forward a few interesting theories (such as suggesting that Eve was made by Mankiewicz as a jealous response to his brother’s screenplay for Citizen Kane) but at times he can come across as slightly fawning and meandering. Celeste Homes (very much sounding her age) contributes the least, but what she does say is of interest. The real meat of the commentary, however, comes from Christopher Mankiewicz, who offers some fascinating and candid reflections on his late father. If you only have time for one commentary, make it this one.
Commentary Two: For the author who wrote a book called All About All About Eve: The complete behind the scenes story of the bitchiest film ever made, Sam Staggs offers a disappointing lack of bitchy gossip and trivia in his commentary. He does make up for it through by providing an absolute wealth of other information, albeit delivered rather dryly and with longish gaps towards the end.
All About Mankiewicz: Arguably the jewel of the extras, this is an almost two hour long interview with Joseph Mankiewicz. Shot in the early 80s, both in Berlin (complete with wall) and at Mankiewicz’s home in upstate New York, this breaks away from a standard documentary format. In it, a bespectacled interviewer (whom Mankiewicz almost never agrees with) probes him about his life and career. The result is a long rambling conversation that feels like you have just spent two hours in the director’s company. He proves to be a great raconteur and, as well as providing thoughts and analysis on his own career, offers a treasure trove of anecdotes on everyone from Marlon Brando to W.C. Fields. There are a full dull moments here and there, and while the format and style may put a few people off, this is still an essential watch.
Costumes: Costume Historian Larry McQueen offers a history and analysis of the costumes in All About Eve, going into detail about the famous moment when Bette Davis saved the day when a dress she was meant to wear didn’t fit – the result was one of the most iconic dresses in cinema. The most fascinating element here though is McQueen’s analysis of how Margo and Eve’s costumes change throughout the film, helping to visualise the battle between them.
Betty Davis Interview: This is an incredibly short interview with Bette Davis on the set of All About Eve. Don’t get too excited however. It feels staged and rather corny and is over practically as soon as it has begun.
Director Documentaries: Mankiewicz is the subject of two further documentaries here, featuring contributions from both his sons, as well as host of other talking heads. The first documentary focuses on analysing his career and work, mentioning his faults (he never mastered the camera, his big budget work was his least successful) as well as his obvious talents. The second documentary takes a closer look at the director’s personal life. It goes into detail about his wife’s mental health, his martial infidelities (all of which culminate in tragedy) as well as a great discussion about Mankiewicz’s career almost being destroyed during the Red Scare and how it was John Ford who came to his rescue. Combined, both documentaries offer a great overview of Mankiewicz’s life and work.
Hollywood Backstories: This slightly cheesy, dated doc from the 90s has as its trump card interviews with the three main actresses from the film – and then bizarrely and frustratingly only uses Bette Davis for about 20 seconds. Despite this, the thirty minute doc offers a compact, interesting summation of the film.
The Dick Cavett Show: Criterion offer us two interviews from the Dick Cavett show, one full length interview with Gary Merrill and a twenty minute segment of another featuring Bette Davis. Of the two, it is Merrill (who walks on looking very relaxed with his collar undone, as if he had just stumbled into the studio after a three hour lunch) who provides a proper ‘interview’, discussing All About Eve and his marriage to Bette Davis, as well as digressing into a discussion about his political career and Vietnam. In contrast, the Bette Davis interview is far more informal. Davis comes across as sharp and witty and, while she doesn’t discuss All About Eve, she still has an entertaining chat with Dick Cavett, which ends on a very funny line about Joan Crawford. Worth watching for that alone!
Sarah Siddons Documentary: As many contributors across these discs will tell you, the fictional Sarah Siddons society in All About Eve actually became a real theatrical society after the film came out (they even copied the Sarah Siddons award seen in the film). This short twenty minute piece has contributions from film historians who gleefully spell out this bizarre bit of trivia, along with members of the society itself (who seem to be under the impression that their award is one of the most coveted in the theatrical world. I don’t know, maybe it is). The second most interesting fact related here is that the society actually once gave an award to Bette Davis and used Anne Baxter to present it to her. And no, in case you were wondering, Bette Davis was not impressed.
The Real Eve: This 20 minute documentary looks into the story of the real Eve, upon which Mary Orr based her short story. This is one of the best extras on the disc, as it presents a story not really covered anywhere else. The absolute highlight is a taped conversation between Orr and the woman claiming to be the real Eve, which becomes heated and bitchy very very quickly.
Radio Adaption: Criterion offer an hour long radio adaptation of All About Eve, featuring most of the main cast apart from George Sanders. Almost a quarter of the time seems to be taken up with ads (including an hilariously clunky one at the beginning) and, apart from losing a significant amount of material, sounds very familiar to the actual film, although it is interesting to hear a few different line readings here and there. Taken together with the ads though, it proves to be a fascinating audio time capsule.