A number of critics and film historians have remarked that Margo Channing was Bette Davis' role of a lifetime. Ironically, it was a role she almost didn't get. With first-choice Barbara Stanwyck unavailable, Claudette Colbert was cast to play the part of the aging actress trying to fend off a young understudy who'd do anything to get that kind of stardom for herself. But Colbert ruptured a disc while skiing, and Davis was asked to step in at the last minute.
It's hard to say what Colbert would have brought to the role, but it's even harder to imagine she could have played off of Anne Baxter's young Eve any better than Davis did. Both lead actresses in "All About Eve" received Academy Award nominations for their performances--though neither actress won. That honor went to Judy Holliday ("Born Yesterday"). But there wasn't a film in 1950 that was more applauded than "All About Eve." It received a then-unprecedented 14 Oscar nominations, winning for Best Picture, Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (Mankiewicz again), Best Costume Design (the legendary Edith Head), Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders). In fact, the only other film since then to garner 14 nominations, including Best Picture, was "Titanic" in 1997.
Mankiewicz's intelligent, witty satire of the theater and ambition still holds up today, in no small part because of the script itself. There are plenty of quotable and memorable lines, the most famous of which is Margo's snarky party quip, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." When you add sophisticated performances that perfectly underscore the tension built into all of the character relationships, it does indeed make for a bumpy ride, but an enjoyable one to watch.
The story is told in flashback, starting with Eve Harrington (Baxter) receiving a major award for her acting. The first voice to talk about her rocket-like rise is theater critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders), but then we also get internal monologue reminiscences from Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a close friend of Margo's. The two narrators shift to occasional voiceover once we're taken back to the evening when it all began: when an apparently obsessed fan--someone who'd be considered a stalker by today's standards--gets taken backstage by Karen to meet her idol. And why wouldn't she? As Margo later summarizes the position that theater has in society, "All of the world's religions, rolled into one, and we're gods and goddesses."
That night, Eve is dressed a bit like Harpo Marx in a hat and trenchcoat. It had been raining, and she'd been waiting both before and after the performance for a glimpse of Margo. What's more, she'd seen every performance Margo had given--or so she says--since she first saw the actress perform in San Francisco. And when Margo moved, she moved with her. Today, of course, that would get you a restraining order, but Margo is so flattered that she takes her on as an assistant . . . one who soon displaces her primary attendant Birdie (played to perfection by the caustic character actor Thelma Ritter).
It's not long before Eve makes herself indispensible, then gives indications that she's after something more than Margo is willing to give her. The tipping point comes when Margo's phone rings in the middle of the night and Margo finds herself talking to her boyfriend, the director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). She's confused, but soon figures out that she placed the call, and in the course of the conversation she remembers it's his birthday. When she later asks Eve if she placed the call for her, she says of course, that she knew she wouldn't want to miss Bill's birthday. "As a matter of fact," she adds, (drawing one of the best reaction shots in the film), "I sent him a telegram myself."
In no time at all, Eve manipulates people to get a job as Margo's understudy--unbeknownst to the star--and that's when the plot really starts to get interesting. I'll say no more, except to add that Eve changes the dynamic of Margo's entire circle: producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), Karen and her husband, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and the critic DeWitt and his companion, Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in an early credited role).
"All About Eve" works on multiple levels because viewers are invited (seduced?) to see things from multiple points of view. The phrase "about Eve" pops up again and again, and we're invited to look at her from yet another perspective. Then there's the level of biblical allusion, with Eve more a serpent, really, than the tempted woman. Such richness and depth is what makes the film fascinating, even 60 years later.
Kim Carnes struck Top-40 gold with her song "Bette Davis Eyes," and the actress is so iconic that she also appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2008. If you only see one film by Bette Davis, make it "All About Eve," which Davis said "resurrected" her career, and which critic Roger Ebert compared to "Sunset Boulevard," calling it "her greatest role." I haven't seen every Bette Davis film, but this one stands out for all the right reasons.
"All About Eve" was marked for preservation quite some time ago, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is a good one. I saw no artifacts, and the contrast on this black-and-white film seems much improved over the previous DVD release. Black levels are more than sufficient, edge delineation is strong, and the level of detail is also impressive. You'd have to say that this is probably the definitive print. Framed in the classic Hollywood aspect ratio, "All About Eve" is presented in 1.33:1.
The audio is the Blu-ray standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with a gazillion different audio options and even more subtitles. For the audio there's English Mono, French DTS 5.1 Surround, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, German DTS 5.1, Italian DTS 5.1, Russian Dolby Digital 5.1, Castillian DTS 5.1, and Thai Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles are in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, German, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Castillian, Swedish, Hebrew, Chinese, Icelandic, Thai, Polish, and a few I might be missing, because they're not listed in English. As for the quality of sound, there's no distortion, and the dialogue comes through as marvelously clean and clear as if it were a recent release.
Great bonus features. Up first is a commentary track by Holm, Mankiewicz's biographer, and Mankiewicz's son, all of whom were recorded individually and spliced together. Better if they had been put in a room together, but the edited version still plays well. Not surprisingly, Kenneth Geist, the biographer, does most of the talking, but Christopher Mankiewicz has the most entertaining things to say. A second commentary track offers up the author of All About 'All About Eve', Sam Staggs, who fills out the space nicely and contradicts some of what's said on the first commentary track.
People unfamiliar with "All About Eve" may wish to watch the "AMC Backstory: 'All About Eve'" first, because it gives a nice summary of the picture, with old interview clips interspersed into the narrative. The more substantial bonus features feature Mankiewicz as prominently as the film or its stars. "Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey" (26 min.) gives a full view of the director, who won an Oscar the year before "All About Eve" as well. "Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz" (26 min.), meanwhile, offers a retrospective of his work, and "The Real Eve" (19 min.) offers a bit of speculative background.
Then there are a ton of shorter features having to do with the film. "The Secret of Sarah Siddons" (7 min.) deals with that aspect of the film, while we also get five Fox Movietone News shorts, the original theatrical trailer, a vintage Anne Baxter promo, a vintage Bette Davis promo, and for those into music, the option to listen to the isolated score. Because this is a Blu-ray Digibook, there's also a 24-page book which includes a cast page, a non-credited essay on the film, bios of Davis, Baxter, Sanders, Monroe, and Mankiewicz, and a brief "Genesis of Eve." Unfortunately, the disc is tucked into the coated cardboard cover, rather than snapped onto a plastic holder, and I've yet to figure out how to extract it without putting my fingers on the playing surface.
There's a reason why films are iconic, and "All about Eve" lives up to its reputation. The acting is flawless, the script is erudite, the direction is sure-footed, and this multiple Academy Award-winner still holds up 60 years later because of it.