Hollywood film history is littered with stories of classic movie roles that – through one reason or another – weren’t played by the actor/actress who was the first choice for the part, but were so memorably brought to life by the replacement that it becomes impossible to imagine another performer in the role.

Judy Garland got the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz only after 20th Century-Fox refused to make their ten-year-old child star Shirley Temple available to MGM. Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester were confirmed for the two lead roles in The African Queen until Columbia Pictures sold the rights to John Huston. He then cast his old friend Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the roles; performances that garnered Hepburn an Oscar nomination and won Bogart an Academy Award for Best Actor. Barbara Stanwyck was offered the lead in Mildred Pierce but rejected the part stating, “I have already done my sacrificing mother routine in Stella Dallas.” Joan Crawford was her replacement and won an Oscar. The first two choices for the villainous female, Alex Forrest, in Fatal Attraction were Sally Field and Isabelle Adjani – both believed such a role would damage their film careers. The “bunny boiler” part then went to Glenn Close, who received an Oscar nomination and a career boost to major movie star.

But arguably the most famous replacement actress story was for the role of Margo Channing in the 20th Century Fox classic production of All About Eve (1950). Claudette Colbert had willingly signed up to play the part when it was offered to her by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Colbert could hardly wait to finish her final scenes in the movie she was currently working on to begin rehearsals for Eve. She sensed she was giving an outstanding performance in the WWII drama Three Came Home (1950), so when the director asked her to throw herself into the final scene of fighting off a Japanese prison guard, she fought and thrashed about as if her very life depended on it. But during the climax of the scene, Miss Colbert suddenly screamed and fell writhing to the ground. Rushed to hospital, she would remain there indefinitely with a ruptured vertebra. “I cried for days”, Colbert recalled decades later, “Days! I cried for years in emotional despair at losing such a plum role.”

The main cast of All About Eve: Gary Merrill, Bette Davis, George Sanders, Anne Baxter, Hugh Marlowe and Celeste Holm

With Colbert’s back in a steel brace and the Eve production now running well behind the planned schedule, a replacement had to be found. The studio’s second choice was an actress who was famous for her stage work in London and New York – the great Gertrude Lawrence, who had not made a movie in fourteen years. But all scripts had to be submitted and approved by her lawyer before being passed on to Miss Lawrence. The lawyer demanded numerous changes to the script, which the studio refused to undertake. The now desperate Zanuck’s third choice, however, was a perfect coalescence of movie actress and movie character. Bette Davis would become indissociably linked with the bombastic stage diva, Margo Channing.

All About Eve is an acerbic backstage drama written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which he loosely based on the factual short story The Wisdom of Eve, written by Mary Orr. The film is centred around the legendary but aging 40-year-old Broadway actress Margo Channing (Davis) whose star is on the wane. A conniving young woman named Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) ingratiates herself into the lives of Margo and her theatrical friends. Pretending to be Margo’s most devoted fan, Eve conjures up a false life story riddled with hardships that results in a sympathetic Margo allowing her to act as her unofficial secretary-aide. However, Margo’s dresser and general factotum Birdie (Thelma Ritter) sees right through Eve’s concocted sob story but is unable to convince Margo that Eve is manipulative and dangerous. Indeed, Eve’s ultimate goal is not just to work for Margo but to actually replace her. With duplicitous and cunning ambition, she blackmails Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm), and totally beguiles the pompous theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Slowly but surely, she manoeuvres her way into becoming Margo’s understudy, even attempting to seduce Margo’s fiancé – stage director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). After Eve successfully usurps Margo’s career and receives a prestigious acting award, the movie wickedly ends with a threat to Eve herself in the form of one of her own “adoring and devoted” female fans.

Regardless of the eponymous title, it is Bette Davis that dominates the film. She emphatically stamps the role of Margo Channing as hers and hers alone.

Her intelligence and acting technique, expertly using her face to express all her emotions, is plain to see, including her character smoking cigarettes as only Davis could. Her gritty portrayal masterfully delivered insights into how women experience the loss of idealised beauty and the realities of growing old in the youth and beauty obsessed world of show business.

Davis had been the reigning queen of Hollywood for almost two decades, making back-to-back hit movies which garnered her two Best Actress Academy Awards. But in 1948 she hit a brick wall with a series of weak films – all of them box-office flops. She had also gained a reputation of being extremely temperamental and difficult to manage on set

When it was announced that Davis would star in All About Eve, Mankiewicz’s good friend and fellow director Edmond Goulding wrote him a letter: “Dear Boy, have you gone mad? I’ve directed four films with that damn woman and she will destroy you. She’ll grind you down to powder and blow you away. Mark my words.” But the savvy Miss Davis had immediately realised that Eve was easily the best script she had read in years. Perhaps just as important, the character of Margo as an actress past her prime hit very close to home, so close in fact that Davis would later say, “ I had to work hard to remember I was actually playing a part”. Consequently, instead of her usual harridan mode whilst on set, she treated Mankiewicz with almost exaggerated respect throughout the shoot. When the film wrapped, she said to her director, “Thank you, Joe, you’ve resurrected me from the dead”.

Although Davis and the rest of the cast (including a young Marilyn Monroe) all delivered stellar performances, the film’s greatness lies in Mankiewicz’s scathingly witty screenplay, the dialogue of which all came from his own fertile imagination. The movie opened in October 1950 to rave reviews and sensational business. The following year it received fourteen Academy Award nominations – a record it held for 47 years until equalled by Titanic. It won six Oscars: Best Picture (Zanuck); Best Director; Best Screenplay (both Mankiewicz); Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders); Best Costume Design; and Best Sound. It remains the only film ever to see two actresses nominated in both the Leading and Supporting Role categories, but although being a perfect feminist motion picture, it won Oscars for none of them. Film studios have ever since considered this to be a classic example of vote-splitting. Votes for both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter let through Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday to win Best Actress. Likewise, the split-vote for Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter gave the Supporting Actress award to Josephine Hull in Harvey. Today, both are long forgotten actresses in vastly inferior films to the brilliant and highly entertaining All About Eve. Such are the vagaries of Hollywood’s Academy Awards.

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