Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 backstage showbiz drama All About Eve set a record for Oscar nominations—14 in all—that has since only been matched by 1997’s Titanic, but never beaten. Even more impressive, the film is 65 years old yet remains caustically funny and eerily timeless. It seems ambition, jealousy, and vanity never go out of style in Hollywood. Fasten your seat belts for some amusing behind-the-scenes details of how Bette Davis’ comeback vehicle came to be.
1. BETTE DAVIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE CLAUDETTE COLBERT.
The winsome star of It Happened One Night suffered a back injury while filming Three Came Home, and had to drop out of All About Eve. When Davis came aboard, the screenplay was tweaked a bit to reflect her abrasive public persona. Colbert later said, “I just never had the luck to play bitches.”
2. IT’S STILL THE ONLY FILM IN HISTORY TO EARN FOUR FEMALE ACTING OSCAR NOMINATIONS.
Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated for Best Actress, making them rivals with the Academy just as they were in the film. Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were up for Best Supporting Actress. None of them won, but the movie did take home six trophies that night, including Best Picture.
3. THE WORKING TITLE WAS BEST PERFORMANCE.
All About Eve is a fine title, but it would have been fun to hear things like: “George Sanders won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Best Performance.”
4. IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
Big surprise, a story about backstabbing in Hollywood actually happened. Elisabeth Bergner, a European stage and screen actress, hired a young fan as an assistant in the early 1940s, only to have the girl try to steal her career. Bergner related the tale to actress and writer Mary Orr, who turned it into a short story called “The Wisdom of Eve,” published in Cosmopolitan in 1946. Along comes Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who’d been working on a story about an aging actress and, after reading “The Wisdom of Eve,” thought a conniving ingénue would be a welcome addition. He got producer Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to Orr’s story and turned it into All About Eve, which he both wrote and directed. Orr got no onscreen credit (though she retained the rights to any non-film adaptations; see below).
5. IT WAS TURNED INTO A BROADWAY MUSICAL.
Applause won the Tony for Best Musical in 1970, with Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis role. (When Bacall left the show, she was replaced by Anne Baxter, who had played Eve in the movie. At long last, Eve succeeded at becoming Margo!) The script was by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the duo behind Singin’ in the Rain), with songs by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse (the duo behind Bye Bye Birdie and, later, Annie). Adams and Strouse, unable to secure the rights to adapt the movie, instead got the rights from Mary Orr to adapt her original story, and brought in Comden and Green to write the script. Twentieth Century Fox eventually gave permission to use All About Eve as source material —too late for Comden and Green to incorporate much of it, though Adams and Strouse did add a song called “Fasten Your Seat Belts.”
6. BECAUSE OF A SCREAMING MATCH BETTE DAVIS HAD WITH HER HUSBAND, PEOPLE THOUGHT HER CHARACTER WAS BASED ON TALLULAH BANKHEAD.
Let us explain: The night before shooting began, Davis had a fight with her husband, William Sherry (they were in the process of divorcing), and as a consequence had a raspy voice the next day. She could speak only in a lower register, which she now had to keep up for the whole movie. The husky voice made her sound like Bankhead, a theater actress who, as it happened, had a reputation for being difficult. The rumor went around that Margo Channing was based on Bankhead—a rumor perpetuated by Bankhead herself, who helped it along by playing the role in a 1952 NBC radio adaptation. (During rehearsals for it, she asked Mary Orr point blank if the character was based on her. Orr said, “I assured her that she wasn’t, and that I had Elisabeth Bergner in mind only. This made her so angry, she never spoke to me again.”) Davis later said that without the husky voice, “I don’t think the similarity to Bankhead in my performance would ever have been thought of.”
7. BETTE DAVIS MARRIED HER MOVIE BOYFRIEND, AND LIFE CONTINUED TO IMITATE ART.
Davis and Gary Merrill (who plays her director and boyfriend Bill Sampson) were both married to other people when they met on the set of All About Eve, but they were married to each other by the time the film came out. They adopted a baby and named her Margot (with a “t”), after Davis’ character. The marriage lasted 10 years, and Davis later said it was too much of a fairytale. “I was Margo Channing and he was my director, Bill Sampson. We fell in love with each other in the film and in real life. We then got married in real life. But he thought he was marrying Margo and I thought I was marrying Bill. It wasn’t long before he found out that I wasn’t Margo, and he was certainly no Bill Sampson.”
8. LONI ANDERSON AND LINDA HAMILTON STARRED IN A COUNTRY & WESTERN VERSION.
Country Gold was a 1982 TV movie with Anderson as a Nashville star and Hamilton as the young usurper.
9. BETTE DAVIS AND HER ONSCREEN BEST FRIEND HATED EACH OTHER IN REAL LIFE, WHILE DAVIS AND HER ONSCREEN RIVAL WERE PALS OFF-CAMERA.
Davis and costar Celeste Holm got off on the wrong foot, the latter’s polite sensibilities offended by the former’s gruffness. Holm avoided Davis when they weren’t on camera together, and the feeling was apparently mutual. Meanwhile, Davis and Anne Baxter became fast friends—a surprise to observers, since Davis had a reputation for disliking her female costars, not to mention the fact that Baxter was playing her onscreen rival.
10. MARILYN MONROE WAS SO NERVOUS SHE BARFED.
The blonde bombshell was just breaking into the movie business when she got the small role of up-and-coming actress Miss Casswell in All About Eve, and she felt grossly intimidated by all the experienced, talented people in the cast. Nervous and insecure, Monroe needed 11 takes to get through the scene where her character talks to Margo after a failed audition. When it was finally done, Davis snapped at her, whereupon Monroe exited the set and vomited.
11. ZSA ZSA GABOR WAS JEALOUS OF MARILYN MONROE.
On the flight to the set at the start of production, George Sanders (who was playing snide theater critic Addison DeWitt) had a middle seat. On one side of him sat Gabor, his 33-year-old wife of one year; on the other side sat Monroe, not yet 24 and, of course, perfectly stunning. Gabor later wrote that Monroe spent the entire flight “batting her eyelashes at George,” which may well have been true. True or not, Gabor was wildly jealous, and went so far as to ask Sanders to get her a part in the movie so that she could keep an eye on the situation. He didn’t do it—he wrote in his memoirs that Gabor’s worries were unfounded, that he saw Monroe as a lost child—but his marriage to Gabor ended a few years later. (He was the third of nine husbands for her; she was second of four wives for him, and he later married her sister, Magda.)
12. IT HAS SOME GAFFES IN THE ONSCREEN CREDITS.
Margo’s director is called Bill Simpson in the credits, but he’s called Bill Sampson in the movie. The credits also list Eddie Fisher in the cast, but his scenes were cut.
13. THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT ASKED THE STUDIO NOT TO ENTER THE FILM IN A FESTIVAL FOR FEAR OF OFFENDING EVA PERÓN.
Fox was persuaded not to submit All About Eve to the International Film Festival—held in Montevideo, Uruguay, just down the road from Buenos Aires—because, as Variety explained: “The story of a young film actress who is ruthless in her ambition and willing to step on necks of benefactors to get ahead in the theatre might be construed as paralleling the career of [former actress] Eva Perón, wife of the president of Argentina.”
14. IT WAS CONDEMNED BY THE NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION.
An Indiana man who was part of a local fire prevention committee wrote to national headquarters with this complaint: “We have preached and preached not to smoke in bed, yet I viewed a movie last night where movie actors, under the influence of spirits, smoked in bed. This in my opinion encourages smoking in bed, as the public are quick to act on what they see done. I believe it is time we asked the cooperation of studios not to show actors smoking in bed. It is adult delinquency.” The letter made its way to the MPAA, where officials said that the Production Code, for all its strictness (you couldn’t show married couples sharing a bed, for example), didn’t permit them to forbid the depiction of dangerous smoking habits.