All About Eve, Academy Award-winning Best Picture (1951) is based on the short story, “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr. The 9-page short story first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in May 1946. Orr later expanded her short story, in collaboration with Reginald Denham, into a successful play. 20th Century Fox later paid Mary Orr $5,000 for all rights to “The Wisdom of Eve.” What resulted is one of the all-time great motion pictures.
The play – “The Wisdom of Eve” is phenomenal – the kind of play I wish I could write – if I wrote plays. An engrossing and revealing “inside” story of life in New York’s theatre world, told in terms of an unscrupulous ingénue’s rise to Broadway stardom. It’s interesting from the onset. Concise, humorous and yet its story is told with depth and intrigue. The story it depicts is timeless as are the characters and situations they find themselves in. Similarly, I enjoy the film All About Eve. Actually, I love it. It is clear to me why this film appears on so many great movie lists – unforgettable story with rich characters, fantastic writing and the acting, superb. In this instance, the screen adaptation of the written version misses no marks. Following is a comparison…and spoilers.
As mentioned, the transition from page to screen in Eve’s case is successful and true. There are differences, of course, in characters, settings and other details for one reason or another – some are subtle and not worthy of note for time’s sake, so let’s start with the main characters. First – Karen. Karen goes by the last name Richards in the film (played by Celeste Holm who received a Best Supporting Actress nod for this role) and Roberts in the play. The initial thing that occurred to me as different about Karen is as the film barely opens when we hear DeWitt describe her as having nothing “in her breeding or background that should have brought her any closer to the stage than row E, center,” thus making her a part of the theater world only through her marriage to Lloyd, the playwright. This differs from the play in that in “The Wisdom of Eve” she is an ex-actress and is well versed in the pitfalls and experiences of this most ancient of careers. Her past experiences as an actress in the play, therefore, make her more aware of the dog eat dog world the theater really is and what competition can lead people to do. Although in both the play and the film Karen conspires with Eve against Margo on that fateful Monday and in both versions we see that she regrets her actions, I believe the film version shows her more an innocent, or naïve, as to the outcome, perhaps because she is unfamiliar through her lack of personal experience, the extent to which Eve will go for fame and fortune. The film version has Karen infinitely more inadequate a player in the theater world. She states as much.
Now, about Eve. Both “The Wisdom of Eve” and All About Eve depict the title character as a manipulative, scheming, blackmailing witch with an “inability to love and be loved, an insatiable ambition and talent and contempt for humanity,” according to Addison DeWitt in the film, and if anyone should know, it would be him! In the play Eve grew up as one of six children versus the film version where she grew up an only child. Most of her lies are similar in both versions, however. She was never married to a pilot named Eddie who never fought in a war and never died to leave her a young, bereft widow. Aside from other obvious differences the one thing that stands out for me in the film version is that here Eve is used as well as she uses other people. In critic, Addison DeWitt she finds her match whereas there is no such person to match her lie for lie in the play. Nor is there anyone in the play who can blackmail her as DeWitt does in the film so that (in the play) she is always in control. That’s all to be said about this character. Eve is a juicy role on both stage and screen. Ann Baxter plays Eve masterfully and received a Best Actress Oscar nomination as a result. I hate her last gut. Eve, not Anne.
Margo Channing, “A great star. Never was or will be anything else or anything less.” So, Margo is introduced to us in All About Eve. I love that. Margo Channing (or Margo Crane in the play) is what Eve Harrington aspires to be, except Eve has many more skeletons in her closet and leaves many more bodies to step over along her way to the top. One obvious difference between the play’s Margo and the film’s Margo is that she is married in one and longs to be in the other. In the film this marriage issue is a huge one for this character and also says a lot about women’s roles in society in reference to careers versus a home life. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s.
In Margo Channing we see a very successful woman, so successful she is considered the best there is at what she does. Yet clearly, she is unfulfilled in her life and unfulfilled as a woman. In the scene in the car when she is on her way to missing her Monday night performance she opens up to Karen and I’d be remiss not to mention what she says here, “…funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. One career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, is being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.” This is a very powerful thing to say. Not only because it comes from a seemingly strong woman who’s had all the success anybody can ask for, but also because one knows this is what people felt, that any true measure of a woman was whether she had a man. The great burden a woman may feel simply because she feels there is a choice between a life and a career. In other words, for a man there is no choice to be made, they can simply have the best of both worlds by merit of their sex. In contrast to how the film’s Margo feels about the conflict between marriage and a career, the play’s Margo is happily married to a man who is a producer/director, who shares her life and her work, and who she manages to be happy with.
It’s worth mentioning that both versions of Eve deal with ageism and the huge role it plays in careers in the theater, in particular. Especially for women. In both versions Margo plays women much younger than herself on stage but it seems to bother the play’s Margo much less than it does the film’s. As I see it, ageism and the role it plays in the lives of the main players is central to the film’s plot. For instance, much is made of the fact that Bill, Margo’s love interest, is eight years her junior. This affects Margo in that it causes much anxiety about the way she feels about herself. This anxiety then bleeds over to her life on the stage, where it brings her self-perceived limitations to the forefront. She no longer feels comfortable playing young roles just because she can.
Of the actress, Bette Davis – she is true to Bette Davis. Like Margo, she is a force to be reckoned with. From her first appearance on screen in All About Eve, as critic, Addison DeWitt narrates through the introductions at the beginning, a theater awards ceremony, Ms. Davis (as does Ms. Channing) commands attention and as viewers, we cannot help but give it. She is all magnetism and sheer power. Davis received an Oscar nomination for playing Margo Channing, making All About Eve the first time actresses compete for the Best Actress Oscar in the same film (Davis and Baxter). Margo is one of my favorites of Davis’ roles. Fits her like a glove.
In Lloyd Richards (Roberts in the play) we see a talented playwright who rides the coattails of perhaps the greatest actress of all time. This character changes little between “The Wisdom of Eve” and All About Eve. He is talented and successful in both, is married to Karen in both, and is willing to compromise his art in order to achieve success in both. Of the four people Eve tries to manipulate in the central plots of both versions, Lloyd falls most easily under her spell. In stark contrast to Lloyd (played by Hugh Marlowe), Clement (Bill in the film, played by Gary Merrill) is a man with morals and a spine. In the play he is the first to get a sense of Eve’s true nature and tells his wife when the younger woman makes a move on him. In the film Bill seems to be falling for Eve’s wiles along the way, something that causes much anxiety in Margo. However, when push comes to shove, he states clearly where his heart and loyalties lie and he is unwilling to compromise himself or his relationship with Margo for the likes of Eve.
Leila, Margo’s maid and dresser in the play becomes Birdie Coonan in the movie. Although Birdie is not really a main character she plays a vital role in that through her Margo first begins to see Eve for what she really is. (Birdie is played by the great, Thelma Ritter, a role for which she received an Academy Award nomination.) Birdie is immediately suspicious of Eve, even from the first scene where Eve is recounting the sorry story of her life to the two couples in Margo’s dressing room. The story ends, the four are riveted, hearts bleeding for Eve. But Birdie says, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” She knows it’s all a crock. Like Birdie, Leila (in the play) is very loyal to Margo but Leila allows Margo to send her back to the kitchen to have Eve replace her as the dresser. Birdie would go down fighting.
The character of Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (played George Sanders who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar ) plays a major role in the plot of this film. He is a theater critic, a gossip, Eve’s confidant and co-conspirator and a self-described “nobody’s fool.” As mentioned above, he is Eve’s equal in all things sinister and secretive. He knows all about Eve’s skeletons and is the only one who is able to take some of the wind from under her sail. DeWitt is not a likeable character but there is a sense of “YES!” when he puts Eve up against the wall because by the time he does so she has played dirty against all the people we have come to care for. Addison DeWitt doesn’t exist in the play, or at least doesn’t exist in the same form. In the play there are many minor characters that never make it to the film version, Harvey, the stage manager, “Tally-Ho” Thompson, the newspaperman and Bert Hinkle, the theatrical agent. But in some way Addison DeWitt is an amalgamation – and then some. Being a theater critic he knows all about the world of All About Eve, as does Harvey in the play. With his poisoned pen column he has the power of words behind him, as does Tally-Ho. He takes control of Eve’s career and life in many ways, much like a manager would.
And then there’s Phoebe – possibly the smallest part in a major Hollywood production to have the greatest impact. Or, perhaps no impact at all, which is the final message of this story. Phoebes are a dime a dozen. In the play she can in some ways be compared to Vera but Vera has much less impact on the overall message and seems less sinister in her own right. Back to the film and what an ending it has! Phoebe represents that there is always another play; there is always another ingénue. That last shot in the film when we see what seems like a million reflections of Phoebe in the mirror is simply phenomenal. It could go on forever. There’s always all about another Eve, and another and another…that’s the wisdom.
So, by all accounts, the $5,000 Fox paid to Mary Orr was a steal. Once that deal was signed, sealed and delivered, the screenplay for All About Eve was written by the man who also directed the film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz – brilliant on both counts! Aside from its Best Picture Oscar win, Eve received five other Academy Awards – George Sanders, Best Supporting Actor, Best Black and White Costume Design, Best Director, Best Sound Recording, and Best Writing, Screenplay – and a total of 14 nominations. All About Eve held the record for being the film with the most Oscar nominations for many years. For some reason it makes me sad to know its record was tied many years later by a sinking ship.
Worthy of note: “The Wisdom of Eve” was also adapted into the successful musical, Applause!