Co-star Celeste Holm spoke about her experience with Bette Davis on the first day of shooting: "I walked onto the set . . . on the first day and said, 'Good morning,' and do you know her reply? She said, 'Oh shit, good manners.' I never spoke to her again - ever."
Bette Davis fell in love with her co-star Gary Merrill during the shoot of this movie and the two married in July 1950 a few weeks after filming was completed. They adopted a baby girl, whom they named Margot.
Bette Davis' marriage to William Grant Sherry was in the throes of breaking up while she was making the film. Her raspy voice in the film is largely due to the fact that she burst a blood vessel in her throat from screaming at her soon-to-be-ex-husband during one of their many rows. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz liked the croaky quality so he didn't have Davis change it.
Though most of the score is original music by Alfred Newman, the music during the car scene with Karen and Margo is an instrumental version of "Liebestraum" ("Love's Dream") by Franz Liszt, the same music the drunken, maudlin Margo had the pianist play over and over again during the party scene. The joke is that when she hears it again in the car (now sober, of course), she condemns it as "cheap sentiment" and quickly turns it off.
In real life, Bette Davis had just turned 42 as she undertook the role of Margo Channing, and Anne Baxter, still an up-and-comer, not only wowed audiences with her performance, but successfully pressured the powers that be to get her nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category rather than Best Supporting Actress. This is thought to have split the vote between herself and Davis. The winner for the 1950 Best Actress was Judy Holliday for her noticeable turn in Born Yesterday (1950), so Baxter's actions in effect blocked Davis' chances for the win.
Upon learning that he had cast Bette Davis, one of her former directors, Edmund Goulding, rang up Joseph L. Mankiewicz and warned him that she would grind him down into a fine powder. This proved to be a redundant warning as Davis knew better than to mess with Mankiewicz's finely tuned screenplay. In fact, Mankiewicz found her to be one of the most professional and agreeable actresses he'd ever worked with.
Margo Channing's famous cocktail dress was an Edith Head creation. To Head's horror, just as they were about to go film the cocktail party, she found that the dress didn't quite fit Bette Davis in the shoulders. There was no time to fix the dress but fortunately Davis hit on the bright idea of simply slipping the dress off her shoulders.
In an introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies in November 2008, Robert Osborne said that everyone assumed that Bette Davis had based her characterization on Tallulah Bankhead, even Tallulah herself. In fact, Bankhead even considered suing Twentieth-Century Fox, but decided not to, because Bette Davis "did such a good job. I've just been witched out of $1,000,000 by Bette being as good as me." But in 1952, Tallulah Bankhead starred in a radio adaptation of "All About Eve" which featured in the supporting cast Mary Orr, author of the original story "The Wisdom of Eve". According to Robert Osborne, during a rehearsal Tallulah asked Mary Orr: "I was the prototype for Margo Channing, wasn't I?" and Orr set the record straight and said "no". Tallulah reportedly never spoke to Mary Orr again.
The irony was that Joseph L. Mankiewicz knew very little about the theatrical world. And yet he created one of the great classics about that world. Even more ironically when Mankiewicz tackled a world that he knew much more intimately, lampooning the film community in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), it was a resounding flop, both creatively and financially.
Bette Davis admitted later on that Joseph L. Mankiewicz's casting her in this movie saved her career from oblivion after a series of unsuccessful movies. She said in a 1983 interview, "He resurrected me from the dead."
In 1970 the story was adapted into a Broadway musical called "Applause" and in 1973 a made-for-TV movie (Applause (1973)). Lauren Bacall played Margo Channing. When Bacall left the show, the actress who took over the role was Anne Baxter, who had played the role of Eve in the film.
Claudette Colbert was originally cast as Margo Channing, but suffered a ruptured disc during filming on Three Came Home (1950) and had to withdraw. Bette Davis stepped into the role, even though 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck and Davis couldn't stand each other, going back to when Davis walked out from her post as president of the Motion Picture Academy in 1941.
Contrary to popular belief, Margo Channing is not based on Tallulah Bankhead. The film was adapted from an original story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr (uncredited in this film), based on a real-life incident involving Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner during her run in the hit stage thriller "The Two Mrs. Carrolls" in 1943-44. Originally the lead was, like Bergner, a foreign actress named Margola Cranston before it was changed to Margo Channing. However, the story about it being based on Bankhead persisted, however, and when Bankhead heard it, she reportedly told a live radio audience that the next time she saw Bette Davis, she would "tear every hair out of her mustache".
The "Sarah Siddons Award" which Eve receives was invented by writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In 1952 a small group of eminent Chicago theater-goers, including Mrs. Loyal Davis, mother of future First Lady Nancy Reagan, began to give an award of that name which is also physically modeled on the one in the film. The 1967-1968 Actor of the Year award recipient was Celeste Holm. In 1973, during the Sarah Siddons Society Anniversary Gala, an honorary Sarah Siddons award was presented to Bette Davis, even though she never appeared in a play in Chicago. Around 1960 Davis did appear in the Tennessee Williams play "The Night of the Iguana" at the Blackstone in Chicago.
The original story "The Wisdom of Eve" appeared in "Cosmopolitan" magazine in 1946, and was produced as a radio drama for NBC - but every studio rejected it as a film project. Eventually Fox bought the rights for $3500 with no credit stipulations. Joseph L. Mankiewicz combined "The Wisdom of Eve" with a story he had been developing about an actress who recalls her life when receiving an award.
As a special surprise, when Bette Davis was awarded the Sarah Siddons Award, the organizers secretly asked Anne Baxter to attend her presentation. Davis was not at all thrilled about having to share her spotlight with another actress.
Osar winner George Sanders spent his time between scenes napping in his dressing room. Anne Baxter later remarked that the sometimes still sleepy actor took about seven takes before he got it right, which worked well for his characterization.
After Claudette Colbert proved unavailable, Gertrude Lawrence was considered, but her attorney's request that her character not drink alcohol and that she sing during the party scene caused the casting of Lawrence to be dropped. Bette Davis, who was the original first choice but was unable to do the part, came back into the picture and was cast.
In the scene in which Bette Davis arrives "late" for her audition, we see a street on which there is a theatre marquee displaying the title "The Devil's Disciple". A production of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" with Maurice Evans was playing on Broadway in early 1950, when the scene was filmed.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
After the film's release, Bette Davis implored Joseph L. Mankiewicz to write a sequel that would focus on the characters of Margo and Bill (played by her lover on-and-off screen, Gary Merrill). Many years later, after she and Merrill had married and divorced, Davis ran into Mankiewicz at a party and said to him, "Joe, you can forget that sequel. I've played it and it doesn't work."