When I consider Bette Davis, I first go directly to All About Eve (1950). To me it is a perfect film, with not a wasted piece of dialogue or an unnecessary scene. It certainly is the greatest film about the Theatre. And in my humble opinion, Margo Channing is the finest and bravest Bette Davis creation. Improbably, she lost the Academy Award that year to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
All About Eve (1950), is a devastating debunking of theatrical types. The flawlessly acted film is driven by Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s witty, cynical and bitchy screenplay, told through the character of Addison DeWitt, played with perfectly archness by George Sanders. He provides insightful diatribes against crafty, aspiring female actors who seek success at any cost without regard to scruples or other people’s vulnerabilities. All About Eve is also a riff on the fear of aging and the loss of power and fame.
It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, more than any other picture in Oscar History until it was tied by Titanic (1997) and then the musical La La Land (2016). It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Sanders, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Mankiewicz, and Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Charles LeMaire. Four female actors in the film were nominated, and all lost. It holds the record for the film with the most female acting nominees: Best Actress for Davis and Anne Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter.
Davis’ leading (but not title) role is considered by many to be her greatest career performance. Yet, she wasn’t first choice for the role. It was turned down by Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich.
1950 was quite the year for stories with an aging female star as the plot line; Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard and its star Gloria Swanson were also Oscar nominated.
The role of the 40-year-old Broadway actor fit the 42-year-old Davis perfectly. It was a time when film roles were drying up for her. Davis played opposite Gary Merrill with whom she had an affair during filming. After waiting for each other’s divorce, they married shortly after filming ended. It was her fourth, and last, marriage.
Despite being a queer favorite, All About Eve serves as a sort of defense of straightness. The straight relationships of the two main couples are a contrast with the loveless, predatory gay characters: Eve Harrington and Addison DeWitt. Harrington uses her feminine wiles as a weapon to try to break up the marriages of both couples, and DeWitt’s cynicism serves as a blueprint for her future. The pressure to assume traditional female roles is shown in the contrast between Channing’s mockery of Karen Richards (Holm) for being a “happy little housewife” and her long speech about how a woman is not truly a woman without having a man. Yet, All About Eve remains a favorite film for gay men, with its campy vibe, the casting of Gay Icon Davis, and its sense of sophistication.
Davis was a movie star, but she was also the most fearless and the least vain actor of the Hollywood Golden Age. I am a great big fan of all her six decades of work on stage, and on film including the classics: Of Human Bondage (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), Jezebel (1938), The Old Maid (1939), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), The Letter (1940), All This And Heaven Too (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Old Acquaintance (1943), Pocket Full Of Miracles (1961), and, of course, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. These are all favorites, but there is so much more.
Besides Margo Channing, my favorite Davis performance would have to be her late career work in The Whales Of August (1987), featuring an understated Vincent Price, and a rare and delicate late career performance by the great Lillian Gish, whose career stretched back to the films of D.W. Griffith.
There is also Ann Sothern in her only Academy Award nominated performance. The true enjoyment of The Whales Of August comes from seeing Davis do again what Davis always could do: Creating an indelible, complex character and commanding every scene in which she appears. Amazing that her first film was in 1931 and Davis was still getting up and going to work until the end of the 1980s.
Last year on TCM, I caught a little film that impressed me mightily: A Catered Affair (1956). A lovely, sad little tale with a decidedly unglamorous Davis as a disillusioned housewife married to a Bronx cabdriver played by Ernest Borgnine, and featuring Debbie Reynolds. It was directed by Richard Brooks from a screenplay by Gore Vidal. I was struck while watching Davis’s range and her ability to impress while being less than sympathetic.