With the Oscars recently wrapped up, it’s time to take a look at a movie that dominated the Academy Awards like few have before and few will again. This film was not only nominated for a record 14 Oscars (a feat that’s only been tied by the juggernaut that was Titanic). Under the guise of the New York stage, All About Eve – known by some as “the bitchiest movie ever made” – puts the backstage politics of show business on screen like no film had before.
Aging star of the stage Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is introduced to her biggest fan, a 24 year-old go getter named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve quickly becomes a great help to Margo and her entourage, but over time the increasingly paranoid Margo begins to suspect Ms. Harrington is gunning for more than Margo is willing to give. As their friendship boils into a feud over roles, men, and awards, only the vicious – like critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, who won Best Supporting Actor for the film) – dare to involve themselves in their game.
All About Eve blazed many trails at the Oscars. I already noted the record setting 14 nominations, but the film’s six wins – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Design – were the third most for any film at that time. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement was its whopping five nominations in the four acting categories, including a still unmatched four nominations for female performers (Davis and Baxter for Best Actress, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress). Hollywood legends would have us believe that the on-screen drama played out in the Best Actress voting, as voters were split between Davis and Baxter, allowing Born Yesterday‘s Judy Holliday to walk away with the statue instead. I’ve always wondered if the same fate cursed Holm and Ritter in their category too, but I can’t say if I could pick between the two actresses in either category. The six wins would be passed many times over the years, but the film’s legacy still stands as one of Oscar’s most celebrated films.
Bette Davis certainly earned her reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, but some forget that her career was at one of its lowest points just before All About Eve was made. After winning two Oscars and starring in more than 20 films between 1935 and 1942, Davis had fallen on hard times professionally and personally in the late 1940s. Released from her contract of 18 years at Warner Brothers and working on a divorce, it was only after Claudette Colbert was forced to drop out of the film that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and producer David Zanuck offered Davis the role of Margo Channing. Though the filmmakers worried that Davis would be difficult to work with, the rumored “queen bee” knew the role would help her get back on the map, and held her tongue. The result was an Oscar nomination, renewed fame, and a marriage to her on-screen husband, Gary Merrill. (This was Davis’ fourth marriage, and it lasted only 10 years.)
Davis’ early career success is still remembered, as Jezebel, Now Voyager, and Dark Victory are among some of the films from her Warner Bros. days that still hold up as classics. And her later career would provide some genre success too, including the grand guignol classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and other genre hits for Hammer studios like The Anniversary. But the impact All About Eve had on her career – and her legacy – can not be understated. Few people have braced for a bumpy night without thinking of her since.
The fact that Eve dominated 1950 like Hulk Hogan dominated the WWF of the 1980s is even more impressive when you consider the competition released that year. Among other acclaimed films released that year were Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard (whose star, Gloria Swanson, would become the third woman nominated for Best Actress that year who played an actress), Akira Kurosawa‘s groundbreaking Rashomon, and John Huston‘s crime drama The Asphalt Jungle. The year also saw Disney offer us Cinderella, offered two James Stewart classics (Winchester ’73 & Harvey), and allowed pulp noir to peak with the controversial Gun Crazy.
Alongside Eve, Sunset Boulevard, and Born Yesterday, the other Best Picture nominees were the original Father of the Bride and the grand adventure King Solomon’s Mines. All five films are excellent at what they do, but Sunset Boulevard and Eve certainly stand above the rest in the history of cinema. I have both in the Top 50 of my Flickchart, but Eve’s significance among Oscar nominated dramas certainly makes it a little more relevant, particularly at this time of year.
Since I don’t want to just talk about All About Eve and Titanic, I’m going to open up this discussion to the nine films which her nominated for 13 Oscars too. Of these 11 films, All About Eve is one of seven to win best picture. Also worth noting is the fact that six of the eleven films with 13 or more nominations – Forrest Gump, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chicago, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – have been released in the last 16 years. (Considering the number of films released increases each year, I find this trend a bit disturbing.) The other films to reach 13 nominations ranged from 1939 (Gone With the Wind) to 1966 (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and are rounded out by 1964′s Mary Poppins and 1953′s From Here to Eternity.
This list of films includes a few obvious and deserving choices – Gone With the Wind, Titanic, and The Fellowship of the Rings‘ scale and critical/audience reaction carry them – and a couple of surprises – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was that dominant over 2008′s films? – but I don’t see a film there that I’d take over All About Eve when I’m looking for the greatest dramas Hollywood has to offer. And when it’s considered that Eve was basically a stage show that wasn’t a challenger in most of the technical categories – some have pointed out that the film’s biggest action scene is Bette Davis running down some stairs – the number of nominations it received becomes even more staggering.
All About Eve is 130 minutes of snapping dialogue and feminine venom, which pretty much makes it a big screen soap opera for all-time. More importantly, it’s a perfect example of what the Oscars look for when they’re choosing the best of the best they feel cinema has to offer. Grab a copy, pop your popcorn, and fasten your seatbelt – because this is Oscar drama at its finest.