Words: Simon Button
Bette Davis in All About Eve is a gift to drag queens. Quick with a quip and caustic with a put-down, her Margot Channing is a fierce creature you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Deepening her legendarily raspy voice and widening those Bette Davis eyes, she’s a spitfire as a 1950s stage star who refers to autograph hunters as “mental defectives” and drolly tells admirer turned rival Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) “You can always put that award where you heart ought to be”.
Talk about backhanded compliments, not to mention great one-liners. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s script is full of them.
Rightly considered one of the best-written films of all time, the 1950 picture has acerbic theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) remarking “You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point” (to a young Marilyn Monroe as a nitwit actress, no less) and features Davis’s classic declaration “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” as she hosts a party for people she mostly loathes.
That’s a line gay men of a certain age have been using ever since in homage to a film that has been called “the bitchiest film ever made”, full of sarcasm and shade and a clear influence on the rags-to-bitches Showgirls that lifted the basic plot but tarted it up with tits and tinsel.
Paul Verhoeven’s Vegas-set, sex-filled variation is tremendous fun but All About Eve is by far the classier movie, darlin’. (And it’s much better than the fussy 2019 stage version starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James.)
It’s all about how wannabe actress Eve worms her way into Margot’s life, then slowly but surely starts to steal it. Eve doesn’t push Margot down the backstage stairs but she cunningly conspires to take her place, aided by a treacherous DeWitt - who comes across as a bitchy queen to her maybe-gay schemer.
Sparks fly all over the place in this Best Picture Oscar winner, which is inexplicably seldom shown on TV these days, isn’t on Netflix and not included for Amazon Prime subscribers. Thank heavens then for the Criterion Collection, those curators of Blu-ray special editions who have lovingly restored it with a 4K scan that brings the black-and-white photography to dazzling new life.
You get the usual bells and whistles (essays, documentaries, radio adaptations and promo material) but it’s the film itself that’s the main draw. It has never looked more sparkling or, thanks to a restored soundtrack, sounded better.
It’s also a testament to Bette Davis as a gay icon - a woman who takes no shit and can whither with just a look. In All About Eve she gets some delicious dialogue but is just as scary when not speaking. Witness how she wields cigarettes like weapons and drunkenly, disdainfully drops an olive into a cup of coffee that’s offered to her as a suggestion she best sober up.
Davis has been mimicked by such drag stalwarts as Matthew Martin and Charles Pierce as well as relative newbies like Jinx Monsoon and Alaska Thunderf**k, with the latter usually going for the grosser Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? vibe.
Either way, having some Bette in your drag arsenal is a good bet indeed. She’s the gift that keeps on giving.
All About Eve is out now on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.