“Fasten your seat belts. It's gonna be a bumpy night!”
ALL ABOUT EVE
hurt her back
- thank God!”
Bette Davis on winning the film that changed two leading ladies and its title. At ten days’ notice, she turned the three and a half weeks’ shoot into the role of her life.
Mankiewicz called her the director’s dream – a fully prepared actress. “Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable perfect. There was no fumbling for my words, they had become hers - as Margo Channing.” And she said in 1983, “Joe resurrected me from the dead.”
Although derived from an incident in the life of Polish star Elisabeth Bergner (during her 1943-1944 stage hit,The Two Mrs. Carrolls), the flamboyant Tallulah Bankhead swore that Margo was based on her. And she was furious at not being considered when Claudette Colbert ruptured a disc and cracked a vertebra during a rape scene in Three Came Home. Next time, she saw Davis, Bankhead told radio listeners, she would “tear every hair out of her moustache.”
Often referred to as the “original choice,” Gertrude Lawrence, complained Margo drank too much and sang too little. Fox topper Darryl F Zanuck preferred Marlene Dietrich. Or Old Reliables, Susan Hayward and Barbara Stanwyck. Another notion was Ingrid Bergman. Too late. She had run away with Italian director Roberto Rossellini.
Truth is, these were merely potential replacements for Mankiewicz' sole choice, Bette Davis - stalled on her Story of a Divorce. “I cried for two years,” said Colbert, who always maintained Fox had waited two months for her availability, because Margo had been written for her. “That’s why Joe had Anne Baxter look like me.”
”Tallulah herself, more than anyone else, accused me of imitating her as Margo Channing,” said Davis. ” The problem was that I had no voice at all when I started filming due to emotional stress as a result of [fighting with her husband, artist William Grant Sherry, during acrimonious divorce proceedings]....This gave me the famous husky Bankhead voice. Otherwise, I don't think the similarity to Bankhead in my performance would ever have been thought of.
“Bankhead was far more eccentric than Margo,” concluded Davis, who knew all about playing actresses. She collected her first Oscar as a thinly disguised Jeanne Eagles in Dangerous, 1935, and was later The Star, 1952, based on her fading arch-rival Joan Crawford. Now it was Bette who was fading after Beyond The Forest, 1949. She couldn’t believe Zanuck was actually calling her and certainly could not believe the high quality of the script as - “the greatest role of my career” - when it arrived by messenger at RKO where she was soon celebrating her 42nd birthday on her Payment On Demand set.
“Mankiewicz is a genius,” said Bette. “He resurrected me... The unholy mess of my own life - another divorce, my permanent need for love, my aloneness… Margo Channing was a woman I understood thoroughly. I had hard work to remember I was playing a part.”
Anne Baxter and Marilyn Monroe had completed a Fox programmer, A Ticket To Tomahawk, 1950. So, Marilyn won Miss Caswell- “graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art” - from Zsa Zsa Gabor, Angela Lansbury and Sherre North, while Baxter became the titular Eve Harrington. Zanuck wanting Jeanne Crain crashed into the Mankiewicz rule: “I never cast Jeanne Crain for anything.” Joe fell for Baxter having a better “bitch virtuosity” than Crain or Donna Reed. Baxter based the role on her own understudy during her Broadway debut as a “cute kidlet” (said Variety) in Seen But Not Heard. “She was nice to everybody but me and would always be in the wings watching me like a hawk.”
Mankiewicz wanted Gary Merrill for Bill Sampson. Zanuck insisted on John Garfield (Merrill “had only played around airplanes”).Gary won the role and, as we shall, see,the girl - or, as he called Davis, The Queen. Love at first test. “I walked around with an erection for three day.”
The casting director suggested Ronald Reagan
- plus his lover, Nancy Davis, for Karen.
But Nancy was #9 on a list of 28 potential Karens - Shirley Booth, Arlene Dahl, Ann Southern, Jessica Tandy, etc.And so the part of Davis’ pal went to Davis’ enemy, Celeste Holm. (Holm, snarled Davis, was “the one bitch on the set”).
George Sanders replaced the boss' choice of José Ferrer as the critic. They both won Oscars (Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac ) on March 29, 1951, when Mankiewicz picked up best film, director and script from the six trophies from Eve's unbeaten record of 14 nominations (one more than Gone With The Wind ).
Fox and Davis wanted Baxter nominated for supporting actress. Baxter refused - the film was all about her, after all - thereby splitting the vote and giving the Oscar for Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. (Ironically, Judy had been living Eve. Judy was the understudy who went on and became a star when Jean Arthur quit Broadway's Born Yesterday in 1946).
“Bette lost because Anne Baxter was nominated,” reasoned Mankiewicz. “Annie lost because Bette ditto. Celeste Holm lost because Thelma Ritter was nominated and she lost because Celeste ditto.”Sole winning actor was George Sanders who said he ran into Bette at an Oscar later part - “and she spat at me.” She called the bisexual actor a bitch. “He won that goddamned award at my expense!”
Instead of an Oscar, Davis got a husband - marrying co-star Gary Merrill after the filming. (Margo's raspy voice derived from Bette breaking a throat blood vessel during rows with previous spouse William Sherry). She had hopes of a sequel until running into Joe Mankiewicz some time after the Virginia Woolf-ish marriage ended. “Joe, forget the sequel. I’ve played it and it didn’t work.”
Anne Baxter lived her role for real the 1980s when Bette had a stroke and Baxter replaced her in the Hotel TV series - reporting for work inside 72 hours. Anne died from her own stroke in 1985. Davis continued working - "never below the title!" - until her 1989 death. She was the only great actress, said Colbert, who never slept with anyone for a role. True. She bedded directors during her roles.