THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘All About Eve’ (1950)

In 1951, the 23rd Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1950 and December 31, 1950 the awards were held on March 29. The awards took place at a boom-period on Broadway, and as such, many of the winners and nominees were stuck in New York City. They gathered at the La Zambra cafe to listen to the radio broadcast instead.

Setting a new Oscars record that would stand for another 41 years, All About Eve received a staggering 14 nominations including five acting nominations – only the second film in history to achieve this. It also became the first and only film to receive four female nominations, with two each for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. At the insistence of the actress herself, 20th Century Fox placed Anne Baxter in the lead category against her co-star Bette Davis. Many believe this cursed Davis’ chances to win, as the two actresses ultimately split the vote, and both lost to surprise-winner Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.

The night’s other big contender, Sunset Boulevard with 11 nominations, became only the second film in Oscars history to receive nominations in all four acting categories and walk away empty-handed. This unfortunate record would not be repeated again until American Hustle in 2014. Nominated for her infamous performance as Norma Desmond, it’s also widely believed Gloria Swanson helped split the Best Actress vote even further, contributing to Holliday’s upset victory.

The nominees:
All About Eve
Born Yesterday
Father of the Bride
King Solomon’s Mines
Sunset Boulevard

The winner:
All About Eve

Based on (but not officially credited to) Mary Orr’s 1946 short story The Wisdom of Eve, All About Eve is a biting look at the entertainment industry, and the rise of a ruthless new star. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is one of the biggest stars of Broadway. After turning 40, she begins to worry the sun may be setting on her career, as show business is cruel to women of a certain age. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is Margo’s biggest fan, attending every single performance of her latest play, Aged in Wood, and skulking around the theatre in-between performances. One evening, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), Margo’s close friend and wife of the play’s author Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlow), brings Eve to Margo’s dressing room, where she is relaxing after a performance, with her boyfriend, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and her maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter). When pressed about her deep devotion to Margo’s career, Eve reveals she first saw Margo perform in San Francisco, after losing her husband in World War II, and it was Margo’s performance that raised her spirits. Charmed by this tale, Margo befriends Eve, and soon enough, Eve is acting as an unofficial assistant to Margo. But it soon becomes clear that Eve may have ulterior motives for her newfound friendship with Margo, and the only one to see beneath Eve’s façade is theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

 

Why did it win?
Considered by many today to be one of the greatest films ever made, All About Eve was unlike any piece of cinema before it. It’s narrative provided a refreshing and unique insight into the world of celebrity and show business, highlighting the ruthless actions behind the stars we love and behold. It’s a glimpse behind the masks many actors portray on-stage or in the public eye, and we’re finally allowed to witness how they really are behind closed doors. Its screenplay is overloaded with sharp and witty dialogue, including several iconic lines, and it still stands as one of the best written screenplays Hollywood has ever produced.

The film was a raging success for 20th Century Fox, taking in $4.2 million at the US box-office, making it their 4th highest-grossing film of the year. After a lull in her career, Bette Davis came roaring back with All About Eve, and the public were clearly eager to see her shine once again. It was also met with rave reviews from critics, and was easily the best-reviewed film of 1950. The New York Times wrote that “a fine Darryl Zanuck production, excellent music and an air of ultra-class complete this superior satire,” while Variety called it “plush in every department.”

As mentioned above, All About Eve broke the record for the most Academy Award nominations received by a single film, with an incredible 14 nominations. It’s a feat that would only be repeated twice more (Titanic in 1997 and La La Land in 2016), and it marked the culmination of an incredible and overwhelming response to the film. Despite strong competition from Sunset Boulevard, which would have been an equally-deserving winner, there was simply no other choice for Best Picture this year.

Did it deserve to win?
I think I may have said this before, but, so far, All About Eve easily stands as one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of all time. It may even end up topping the final list, after all is said and done. Despite being almost 70 years-old, the film is as fresh and impressive as it was in 1950. It’s still an absolute joy to watch. It’s still enthralling, entertaining, captivating, and downright sublime. It’s a piece of cinema any film fan or aspiring actor or screenwriter needs to watch and examine, for it stands as a prime example of how to effectively craft a film. It is a true masterpiece of cinema, and one of the finest films Hollywood has ever produced.

A large part of its success and its brilliance comes down to the legendary Bette Davis, and what stands as perhaps the best screen performance of her incredible career. As Margo Channing, she is the ultimate prima donna, with a penchant for dramatic outbursts and mood-swings, and, of course, a desperate need to have everyone’s constant attention. But it’s all coming from a place of deep vulnerability and crippling fear that her time in the spotlight may be coming to a close. The obvious parallels between actor and character are hard to miss, with Davis’ fame at a low-point before this film resurrected her career. It’s a part she clearly deeply connected with, and the proof is there in her incredible and breathtaking performance. The fact she wasn’t awarded Best Actress makes my blood boil, but, it’s rather ironic, in a way. In the film, her character battles with an opportunistic and ambitious new star. In real life, that very star may have cost her an Oscar. Art imitating life.

It’s particularly frustrating because Anne Baxter’s performance, while decent, is nothing compared to what Davis gives us. Before Eve’s true motivations are unveiled, Baxter is impressive, as the shy and dutiful assistant to her beloved idol. But her performance falls on its face when she tries to convey the backstabbing opportunist Eve truly is. But, given the masterful actress she’s pitted against, it’s rather unfair to make comparisons. There was only one Bette Davis, and, try as she may, Baxter can’t quite match her. But, thankfully, she is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast of players, who more than make up for Baxter’s minor faults. Sanders is a particular highlight, as the sarcastic and dry Addison. Outside of Margo, he gets the film’s best lines, and Sanders nails every single one of them with such dripping derision and perfect execution. If Davis couldn’t take home an Oscar, Sanders winning for Best Supporting Actor is a fitting consolation prize.

But what truly sets All About Eve apart, and stamps it as a classic film, is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay, which still stands as one of the greatest ever written for the screen. His dialogue is incredibly sharp and biting, and his narrative deftly examines deep issues with the perils of fame, the fickle nature of show business, and the harsh reality for ageing women in the industry who find themselves with a target on their back. This is still as relevant for female actors today as it was for women of the time. Every actress still keeps one eye over their shoulder for the next generation of stars, coming to steal their glory. Mankiewicz taps into that fear like none had before, and none have since. His words are absolute gold, and the casting is so perfect to bring every one of his lines to life.

One could genuinely write essays about the themes and messages of All About Eve. It’s a treasure-trove of deep meanings and moral lessons, and a shining examination of a world most of us will never know. With one of the greatest performances committed to film coupled with one of the greatest screenplays ever written, it remains of the greatest films there has ever been. The word masterpiece is thrown around far too often, but none can deny it is most befitting of All About Eve. One of the best decisions the Academy has ever made, and one of their most deserving winners of Best Picture.