Marilyn: Behind the Icon
Marilyn Monroe Steals Scenes in All About Eve
On the heels of winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) director Joseph L. Mankiewicz casted an A-film produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox. The story, originally titled Best Performance, centered on a fortyish grande dame of the Broadway stage, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and her young stand-in and rival, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve, seemingly a down-on-her-luck star struck ingénue, insidiously ingratiates herself to the actress and becomes her personal assistant and later, her understudy. Slowly, Eve is revealed as a calculating opportunist who arranges for Margo’s absence to perform her role, attract the attention of New York critics, and eventually replace her.
Mankiewicz’s brilliant and textured screenplay twists and turns in plot and contains sharp, snarky dialogue and memorable lines. It is a smart exploration of the backstabbing competition between egotistical actresses and the dynamics and politics of the theater, written by a heterosexual man with a gay man’s sensibility. The American Film Institute ranked the film as twenty-eighth among the Greatest American Films of All Time, and it was the only one of Monroe’s films to win a Best Picture Academy Award (fourteen Oscar nominations and six wins).
Marilyn Monroe’s performance in All About Eve redeemed her in the eyes of Zanuck and would lead to contract with the studio which lasted until her death twelve years later. Previously under contract with Fox in 1946, Monroe appeared in walk-on parts in two productions until her option was dropped the following year. She returned modeling and freelanced at rival studios, delivering a solid performance in MGM’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
“I felt Marilyn had edge,” Mankiewicz recalled in casting Monroe after interviewing nearly a dozen actresses. “There was breathlessness about her and sort of glued-on innocence about her that I found appealing.” Monroe had prepared for the role of Miss Caswell, creating a performance out of a handful of lines and only minutes of screen time. Monroe played her with humor as vacuous but ambitious. Serious about her craft, Monroe put her soul into menial parts as if they were leading roles.
The American Film Institute ranked the film’s star, Bette Davis, as second among the greatest actresses in the history of motion pictures. With a strong-willed character, clipped New England diction, large eyes, and idiosyncratic mannerisms, Bette Davis swept across the screen as a force of nature in over one hundred films over the course of six decades. She earned two Best Actress trophies for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), and received a total of ten Academy Award nominations, including one unofficial write-in nomination for Of Human Bondage (1934). By 1950, her twenty-year career was in a slump after leaving Warner Brothers, where she peaked in Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and Now, Voyager (1942). The comeback role of formidable Margo Channing seemed to define her both professionally and personally at age forty-two, although she played it as a near parody of over-the-top actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Davis and Monroe had little in common aside from their dislike of Zanuck. Davis had not set foot on the Fox lot, nor had she spoken to the mogul since the two had a major falling out during the time she served as the first woman president of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “You’ll never work in Hollywood again,” Zanuck told Davis, but she proved indomitable. Indeed, she was not Mankiewicz or Zanuck’s first choice for Margo. Only after Claudette Colbert injured her spine and could not perform did Zanuck pick up the phone, make amends, and offer Davis the role.
As a contract player at Fox, Anne Baxter was loaned to RKO Pictures for a role in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Mankiewicz cast her as Eve partly because she resembled Claudette Colbert, originally cast as Margo, to suggest that Margo was being replaced by her younger self. In 1947, Baxter won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Sophie MacDonald in The Razor’s Edge (1946).
Gary Merrill portrayed Bill Sampson, Margo’s younger boyfriend. He had only completed four films, including Twelve O’Clock High (1949), before playing opposite the diva of all screen divas. All About Eve brought Merrill and Davis together in an impassioned affair while each awaited a divorce from respective spouses. They married shortly after filming ended, but the tumultuous union ended in divorce in 1960.
As Karen Richards, Margo’s best friend and the wife of her playwright, Celeste Holm outlived her co-stars in the film. Holm signed with Fox in 1946 and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in the studio’s groundbreaking film about anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). As the subdued playwright of Margo’s successful show, Lloyd Richards, Hugh Marlowe delivered the proper toned-down stereotype of a writer. Like Marilyn, he was no stranger to studio rejection. Marlowe had been dropped twice from MGM, hired by Fox in 1948, and had starred in Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Night and the City (1950).
Acid-tongued Broadway critic Addison DeWitt, described as a “venomous fish-wife,” was splendidly portrayed by George Sanders, who embodied suave and snobbish onscreen. For his performance in Eve, Sanders earned the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor of 1950.
Appearing with Monroe in the first of three films together, Thelma Ritter played the crusty former Vaudevillian entertainer, Birdie Coonan, working as Margo’s maid and companion and intuitively suspicious of Eve from the start. Notorious for stealing scenes, Ritter, with her Brooklyn accent, responded to Eve’s sob story with the comical line, “What a story! Everything but the blood hounds snappin’ at her rear end.”
The role of Miss Claudia Caswell in All About Eve was an important assignment for Monroe in a significant film starring several of Hollywood’s veteran actors. When a supporting actress in Margo’s antebellum play becomes pregnant and requires replacement, Miss Caswell vies for the role with the support of her benefactor, critic Addison DeWitt. We learn of Miss Caswell’s lack of professional acting experience when Addison describes her as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art,” implying she had been one of the famous Latin-themed New York nightclub’s showgirls.
At a Fox’s soundstage nine dressed as Margo’s sprawling brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mankiewicz filmed the legendary cocktail party in which Margo Channing delivers the film’s most memorable line, “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” and sashays past her guests toward the second-floor landing to her living room. Miss Caswell ascends the stairs with Addison DeWitt and meets the hostess on the landing.
Monroe is arresting in a white ermine coat over a strapless white brocade gown with a sweetheart bodice and white tulle bouffant skirt, designed by Charles LeMaire but credited to Edith Head. Monroe’s hair was pulled back on each side of her face and pinned up in the back in curls. Her widow’s peak was prominent, and a wave of hair casually touched her forehead. For the first time, Allan Snyder had darkened the small mole on Monroe’s left cheek between her nose and mouth. The “beauty mark” was her signature makeup trick for the rest of her life.
Monroe steals a scene from Davis with an adorable, girlish air, and perfectly timed delivery of Mankiewicz’s sparkling dialogue. In the scene, Miss Caswell meets Margo, much like the way Monroe had met Davis. The characters paralleled the actress’ actual status in Hollywood at the time. Like Miss Caswell, Monroe was a fledgling, whose beauty outshone her developing skill-set. Margo, like Davis, was a diva with decades of acting experience and success behind her.
When Addison asks Margo if she remembers Miss Caswell, the older actress emphatically states she does not. With a sweet smile, Miss Caswell explains the reason — obvious to the others — is because they have never met. Addison makes the introduction, and when Eve joins them, Margo presents her to Addison and Miss Caswell. Until now, he tells Eve, they have only met “in passing.”
“That’s how you met me,” Miss Caswell reminds Addison.
Margo sarcastically introduces Miss Caswell to Eve as “an old friend of Mr. DeWitt’s mother.”
Addison pulls Miss Caswell aside and points to Max Fabien, the producer. While removing the ermine coat from her shoulders, Addison advises her to “go do yourself some good.” Miss Caswell asks him why producers always look like “unhappy rabbits.” He tells her that is exactly what producers are and suggests she advance her career by making this one happy.
Monroe appears in another scene in which Margo’s cocktail party winds down. Miss Caswell sits on the stairs with the film’s stars and Gregory Ratoff as Max Fabien. After calling out, “Oh, waiter” to a server carrying a tray of cocktail who ignores her, Addison explains that he is not a waiter, but instead a butler. Miss Caswell retorts, “I can’t yell ‘Oh, butler,’ can I? What if somebody’s name is Butler?” Addison responds, “You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.”
Seconds later, Max offers to bring Miss Caswell a drink, and she smiles coyly at him. “Well done,” Addison comments, admiring her charms. “I can see your career rising in the east like the sun.” As art imitated life, the line describes the truth about Monroe in this film.
“Thees girl ees going to be a beeg star!” Ratoff correctly predicted in his thick Russian accent.
Whenever Monroe appears on the screen, she commands the audience’s complete attention, no matter who else inhabits the camera’s frame, or even if she remains silent. In the cocktail party scene, all eyes are on Monroe, and she upstages the Hollywood veterans. Davis was not amused.
Photography for Monroe’s third scene took place on location in San Francisco in the lobby and main hall of the Curran Theatre. To film her brief scene, Monroe arrived in the lobby of the theatre wearing her own sweater-dress previously worn in 1950’s Fireball and Hometown Story. Wardrobe attendants draped a fur chain of lynx pelts over her shoulders. Mankiewicz blocked the movements. Davis, as Margo, arrives at the theater late to Miss Caswell’s audition as Addison sits in the lobby waiting for Miss Caswell, who is in the ladies’ restroom being “violently ill to her tummy.” He tells Margo that Eve’s performance was filled with “fire and music” and had been hired as her understudy. Margo conceals her fury. As Miss Caswell exits the ladies’ room, Addison asks how she is feeling.
“Like I just swam the English Channel,” Miss Caswell replies as she undulates across the lobby. Addison suggests her next option is television.
When Miss Caswell inquires if producers hold auditions for television, he explains that television is “nothing but auditions.” The exchange is a joke demeaning the perceived inferior medium competing with both theater and film.
Monroe was playing in the big league with an all-star cast, and her anxiety skyrocketed. According to Celeste Holm, she kept her co-stars waiting as she vomited off-stage, just as her character had at the Curran Theatre.
Marilyn appreciated George Sanders’ kindness in San Francisco. They started having lunch together at the studio’s Café de Paris. Sanders said she was “very inquiring and unsure; humble, punctual and untemperamental. She wanted people to like her, her conversation had unexpected depth. She showed an interest in intellectual subjects.”
Sanders was not the only male on the set that found Monroe intelligent and complex. Mankiewicz drew the same conclusion after he saw her carrying a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and asked if someone had recommended it to her. “No,” Marilyn explained, “I go into the Pickwick and just look around. I leaf through some books, and when I read something that interests me, I buy the book.” Mankiewicz told her it was a good way to select reading material, and she smiled.
In All About “All About Eve”: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made, author Sam Staggs noted that among her veteran costars, Monroe’s career was the only one to ascend. For the others, this film was the peak. In the final scene, Eve wins the fictitious Sarah Siddens Award as Best Actress and returns to her apartment to find a young woman, Phoebe (Barbara Bates). The woman identifies herself as the president of the Eve Harrington Fan Club and ingratiates herself. Later, Phoebe quietly slips on Eve’s satin cape, clutches the award, admires herself in a four-mirrored cheval, and repeatedly bows, echoing an early scene in which Eve had bowed before a mirror while holding Margo’s costume close to her body. Phoebe’s infinite reflections represent multiple ambitious ingénues poised in the wings to replace aging actresses.
Monroe’s performance garnered 20th Century-Fox signing her to a seven-year contract which she effectively renegotiated in 1955. She also appeared at the Academy Award Ceremony in 1951 and presented the Best Sound Record Oscar to Thomas Moulton for All About Eve. Like Eve and Phoebe, Monroe was poised in the wings and equally ambitious for a successful acting career, but not at the expense or exploitation of another established performer. Like Eve, she was willing to sacrifice a personal life to achieve the goal of stardom.
Until her death, Monroe used the name “Miss Caswell” in phone messages for her friend, columnist Sidney Skolsky.
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.