It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, more than any other picture in Oscar History, until it was tied by Titanic (1997) and 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.
For me, Davis’s leading (but not title) role of Margo Channing is her greatest career performance. Yet, she wasn’t the first choice for the role; it was turned down by a series of actors, including talented Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich.
1950 proved to be quite the year for films with stories about glamorous aging female stars; Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard and its star Gloria Swanson were also Oscar nominated that year.
All About Eve has been accused by some of being a spirited defense of heterosexuality. The nurturing straight relationships of the two main couples are a marked 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 the model for her future. The pressure to assume “traditional” female roles is shown in the contrast between Channing’s mockery of her friend Karen Richards (Holm) for being a “happy little housewife” and she has a long monologue later, about the virtuousness of marriage, including how a woman is not truly a woman without having a man beside her. Yet, All About Eve remains a favorite film among gay audiences, with its campy vibe, the casting of Gay Icon Davis, and its sly 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.
There is 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 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.
Intense as her rivalries were, her real friendships were deep and long lasting. She was especially close to fellow actors Claude Rains, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Paul Henreid, Olivia de Havilland, and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Ironically, like her nemesis, Joan Crawford, Davis had a daughter who famously wrote a tell-all about her mother. In My Mother’s Keeper (1985) the unfortunately named B. D. Hyman portrayed Davis as an abusive, domineering, hateful, alcoholic mother who was largely responsible for her mistreatment by her own husbands. Davis penned her own bestseller, This ‘N’ That (1987) where she defended herself as the victim of a lying and ungrateful child. She also confessed that her estrangement from her daughter pained her greatly.
Davis bickered with her directors over the smallest details, and she had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, she is one of the few actors in history who worked until the very end of her life, making well over 100 films. Her 10 nominations for Academy Awards were the most any female actor had received until Katharine Hepburn received her 11th nomination in 1969 and Meryl Streep received her 21st in 2018, besting all the records. Davis received many other honors, including a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the Cesar Award from the French film industry. In 1987, she received the Kennedy Center Honor.
Warner Bros. treated Davis badly for many years, and they paid her far less than other stars. She sued the studio and lost, but the court case gave her much valuable publicity. She created a new persona for herself on her own terms, the strong-willed independent thinker, as strong as any male.
Once marked by the tabloids as “Box-Office Poison”, Davis had success in her campaign against Warner Bros. and still got those high-profile roles. This helped her redefine her career once more. Davis:
“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.“
Davis is most definitely an icon for gay men of a certain age. Many a brunch in the 1970s was not complete without imitations and anecdotes of Davis. She helped us learn about how to get through life by using wit, style and a sense of camp. Because of Davis, we understood that it is possible to transcend the hard, unhappy, hateful and often humiliating world that was handed to us. Here is what Davis had to say about her gay men:
“Let me say, a more artistic, appreciative group of people for the arts does not exist. They are more knowledgeable, more loving of the arts. They make the average male look stupid.“
Davis was much loved by drag queen divas in my era also. They always found her distinct mannerisms and clipped speech irresistible material for their acts.
“Oh Petah, Petah, Petah” and “What a dump!” were always available to us to use as a quip. Davis quotes were a kind of signal of our same gayness. Even amateurs could do the exaggeratedly widened eyes while puffing away on a cigarette. The memorable line that Margo Channing utters as she walks drunkenly up the stairs at her party: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night” has become part of our gay vernacular.
“You know, I’ve learned from the imitators. I really have. I was never conscious I moved my elbow like that until I saw someone doing me.“
Her fearless performances dared us to hate her, and we often did, which is why we loved her. Davis:
“Indestructible, that’s the word that’s often used to describe me. I suppose it means that I just overcame everything. But without things to overcome, you don’t become much of a person, do you? I know what I want as my epitaph: Here lies Ruth Elizabeth Davis… she did it the hard way.“
“Old age is no place for sissies.“
Davis, who cut a swath through Hollywood trailing cigarette smoke and delivering drop-dead bon-mots, was taken by breast cancer at a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1989. She was 81 years old when those final credits rolled.