All About Eve came out the same year as Sunset Blvd., and that’s no coincidence—both are films about the dark underbelly of show business. Sunset Blvd. is undeniably the darker and marginally better film, but All About Eve was more acceptable to the Academy, hence why it won best picture. All About Eve is mainly about the stage and not film, so it was slightly removed enough to win over the Academy voters.
Bette Davis, whose career had taken a downhill turn through the later half of the ’40s after much success in the ’30s, needed a comeback film. Her arch-rival and future What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Joan Crawford had a similar trajectory until her comeback film, Mildred Pierce, in 1945, a role Davis had turned down. Davis also had to bow out of the film noir Possessed due to pregnancy, and guess who swooped in and got a Oscar nomination for that role? Miss Crawford. Also, Davis had finally left Warner Bros. after a 17-year contract, so she had become a free agent when the All About Eve script arrived.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz was also getting into his own as a writer/director when he made All About Eve. In the same year, Mankiewicz made the racially charged noir No Way Out. The role of Margo Channing in All About Eve plays to all of Bette Davis’ strengths as an actress, even if she was a last-minute choice after Claudette Colbert dropped out. They even rewrote the role somewhat to make Margo a little more abrasive to fit in with Bette Davis’ persona.
Anne Baxter is completely Davis’ equal as a scheming fan, the “Eve” of the title, who will do anything to get close to fame. There is undeniably a sexual angle to the relationship between Eve and Margo, although Margo is very straight while Eve is the crazy lesbian. The film was made at the height of the Lavender scare, which paralleled the red scare, where gay men and women were considered national threats and communist sympathizers. Joseph’s own politics were all over the place, much like those of his brother Herman, something the recent film Mank changed thanks to dramatic license. Joseph, who wrote the film, always denied that All About Eve was some kind of homophobic film, and he was fairly pro-gay for the time period. It is deliberately done in a high-camp style, and in one memorable scene even the very gay theatre critic played by George Sanders shows up with a beard, in the shape of Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles!
All About Eve remains a great melodrama—even at two hours and 18 minutes, it is never dull, and there are some knock-out performances, including Thelma Ritter as Margo’s maid, Birdie. It remains a stone-cold classic, and is still relevant with its tale of ageism in show business. It’s probably Bette Davis’ best performance, and 20th Century Fox’s choice to put both Baxter and Davis forward to the Academy for Lead Actress instead of Lead and Supporting probably cost her the Oscar. Judy Holliday won for Born Yesterday, a perfectly fine movie, but one that doesn’t have an ounce of the lasting power of All About Eve or Sunset Blvd. Gloria Swanson’s horrifying and brilliant turn as aging screen queen Norma Desmond also didn’t win.
The Criterion release includes two audio commentaries. The first track features actor Celeste Holm, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s son Christopher Mankiewicz, and author Kenneth L. Geist. and the second is a solo one from author Sam Staggs. The feature documentary on the director, All About Mankiewicz, is included, along with some memorable episodes of The Dick Cavett Show with actors Bette Davis and Gary Merrill, a new interview with costume historian Larry McQueen, and some short docs on Mankiewicz, the film, the short story it’s based on and the Sarah Siddons Society. The extras on the disc are rounded off by a radio adaptation and a promotion clip for the film featuring Bette Davis.