“Fasten your seat belts.  It’s gonna be a bumpy night!




“Miss Colbert

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.”  

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. “I cried for days,” she said. “Days? I cried for years!” 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. Colbert  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. (


Davis on Marilyn: “That little blonde slut

can’t act her way out of a paper bag.”


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.