Today, I'm writing about the character of Eve Harrington as played by Anne Baxter in the classic backstage drama, All About Eve (1950).
This article is part of The 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film.
Some old Hollywood fans cringe at the sight of The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939), while others are terrified of Robert Mitchum's brutality in Cape Fear (1962) or Anthony Perkins' disturbing mother fixation in Psycho (1960). For me, the scariest old Hollywood villain is Eve Harrington as played by Anne Baxter in the classic backstage drama All About Eve (1950). Underneath Eve's demure facade, lies a cunning and devious manipulator, who will work any angle, tell any lie, and stab any back in order to become a leading actress in theater.
When All About Eve begins, Eve is a down on her luck super-fan of theatrical diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Eve attends every performance of Margo's new play, and she waits patiently each night for a glimpse of her idol at the theater's stage door. Eventually, Karen (Celeste Holm), the wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), takes pity on the young woman and invites her to meet Margo. Eve soon insinuates herself into Margo's life and slowly begins the process of taking over Margo's business affairs, her theatrical roles, and even attempting to steal her fiance, director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill).
All About Eve is based on the short story, The Wisdom of Eve, by Mary Orr. The author based her story on an incident in the life of German actress Elisabeth Bergner. The actress once employed a starstruck young fan as her personal assistant, only to find out that the young woman was undermining her behind her back. Bergner fired her version of "Eve" before any real damage was done, but Orr made the character of Eve much more ruthless in the short story.
Writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz bought the rights to The Wisdom of Eve for a long-planned backstage comedy that he wanted to make with Susan Hayward as Margo and Jeanne Crain as Eve. 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck nixed Hayward because he thought she was too young. Crain became pregnant, which forced her to abandon the part in favor of Baxter, a young actress who had earned critical raves and an Academy Award for her performance in The Razor's Edge (1946). Zanuck later reflected that Crain, who was one of Fox's most popular actresses in the postwar period, lacked the "bitch virtuosity" to play Eve. Baxter had that particular attribute in spades, as anyone who's seen her vamp her way through ancient Egypt in The Ten Commandments (1956) knows.
|The cast of All About Eve (1950): Gary Merrill (left); Bette Davis; George Sanders; Anne Baxter; Hugh Marlowe, and Celeste Holm.|
Baxter gives a masterful performance as Eve, starting out as the wide-eyed innocent pretending that she's a war widow who was saved from despair by Margo's brilliant performances (in reality, Eve is a former Milwaukee brewery worker named Gertrude Slojinski, who was run out of town when she had an affair with the very married brewery owner). Eve has a chameleon-like ability to become several different people, depending on who she is interacting with at the time. For Margo, she's the over-awed No. 1 fan who will do anything to please her idol, for Karen, she's a naive bumbler who doesn't know how she gets herself into such scrapes, and, for any man in her breathing space, she is a cunning seductress who will give them what their wives and girlfriends won't or can't.
Although Margo's diva antics tends to dominate the conversation regarding All About Eve, the movie is, in fact, all about Eve. In a story structure borrowed from Citizen Kane (1941), each character is seen through his or her interactions with Eve, whether it's the indifference of Bill -- he barely bothers to say hello when he first meets Eve, and he soundly rejects her advances -- to Karen, who in a misguided attempt to mother Eve, almost ends up losing her husband.
The two most perceptive characters in All About Eve are Margo's assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) who sees Eve's sob story for exactly what it is: a very practiced performance for an audience of one ("everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end," is Birdie's assessment), and the acid-tongued critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who uses Eve's own lies and manipulations against her until she becomes completely dependent on him (Addison's famous bon mot, "you're too short for that gesture" is more of a comment on her attempts to out manipulate him than on her stature).
In the end, like many ambitious people, Eve finds out that achieving her goals is a poisoned chalice. She is left with only her awards and a Hollywood contract to comfort her, and an ambitious young woman waiting in the wings to take her place.
All About Eve will air at 8 p.m. Tuesday (8-16) on TCM. It is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.