Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s theatre fandom inspired him to create a tribute to the 18th-century actress in his Oscar-winning 1950 film.
Sarah Siddons was born in Wales on July 5th, 1755 — a pioneer when acting wasn’t considered a respected profession for women, Siddons established herself as a leading figure both on the London stage and in touring companies, and was best known for her performances in such classic Shakespearean roles as Lady Macbeth and Desdemona. Fold in her multiple performances as Hamlet, and it’s easy to see why she earned the nickname “the tragic muse.”
Surely you’re wondering by now: How did a Welsh-born English actress who gained fame roughly 140 years before Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès were making movies play her own role in classic film? Just ask fans of All About Eve.
The scene that bookends Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, of course, is the annual awards ceremony of the Sarah Siddons Society, a then-fictional event that in the film honors the best of New York theater. Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington wins the award that night, a moment that kicks off a series of flashbacks exploring the road Eve traveled to get to this triumph — and how she attempted to usurp her idol, Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, to achieve her professional and personal goals. Our first glimpse of Eve starts with her “young hands,” as the awards presenter describes them, before Baxter stands and accepts her trophy amid thunderous applause — a sound that she would compare to “waves of love” later in the film.
Even before the audience sees Baxter, we’ve already enjoyed a lengthy close-up of the award itself, which is modeled after a famous painting, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds between 1783 and 1784. (You can still view the original painting at The Huntingon museum in San Marino, Calif.) Mankiewicz evidently was a huge fan of 18th-century theater, hence the award that figures so prominently in his film being named for Siddons. His script is based on a short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” by Mary Orr, published in Cosmopolitan in 1946, but the society and the award are the inventions of Mankiewicz, All About Eve’s writer and director. The 20th Century-Fox prop department ultimately would cast the trophy in acrylic to mirror the seated position of Siddons in the painting; it was then finished in gold lacquer and placed on a pedestal fashioned to look like black marble, but which was more likely crafted of wood or plastic.
Of course, the trophy in Baxter’s hands isn’t the only one seen in the film, nor is it the only appearance by Siddons. Three Sarah Siddons prop trophies reportedly were created for All About Eve, and two others indeed are positioned in front of their respective recipients during that ceremony: Gary Merrill, who plays director Bill Sampson, and Hugh Marlowe, as playwright Lloyd Richards (saving the Best Actress category for last, of course, is also a Mankiewicz invention that we’ve never seen at either the Oscars or the Tony Awards). Close to the film’s end, Lloyd presents his trophy to his wife, Karen, played by Celeste Holm — “For services rendered, beyond the whatever-it-is-of-duty, darling,” he says — and in 2008’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Interviews, the writer/director reveals that he gave that prop trophy to Holm when filming was completed.
Flashbacks that follow the opening scene reveal how thoroughly Eve fooled everyone with her act of feigned innocence, a series of machinations that result in Margo’s expression, which can be viewed as nothing less than utter contempt as Eve gives her acceptance speech. But is there more to the look on Margo’s face? She’s earned her prize in more ways than one: Eve tried to take Bill away from Margo but didn't succeed, and by the time the awards ceremony occurs, it’s implied they got married (Davis and Merrill are both wearing wedding rings in the scene — and would marry in real life soon after filming wrapped).
But Margo also had already won her Sarah Siddons Award, likely years before the events of All About Eve. Margo’s own prize is never mentioned in the film, but watch the party scene, especially the moment after she escorts Karen, Lloyd and producer Max Fabian (played by Gregory Ratoff) into the living room. As they stand in front of the fireplace, there is Margo’s trophy, front and center on the mantle, announcing to all who enter that her talent is undisputed:
The party scene continues to be celebrated 70 years after All About Eve’s release for several reasons, from Margo’s iconic “bumpy night” line to the Edith Head dress that’s beloved by costume-design fans. But for the true Easter egg in All About Eve, however, look closely at the staircase scene later during that same party: To the right of Margo’s left shoulder, there’s a copy of that famed portrait of Siddons by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the implication being that Siddons inspired Margo Channing as an actress.
Or perhaps it was just for show? Margo drunkenly remarks during the scene that she wasn’t able to enjoy the Radcliffe education and “unyielding good taste” exhibited by Karen, largely because “father wouldn’t hear of it; he needed help behind a notions counter.” Was Margo therefore classically trained and schooled in the history of actresses like Siddons, or is the placement of Siddons and other paintings more a collection of the accoutrements expected of an actress of her stature? That’s left for the audience to decide.
Ultimately, the Sarah Siddons Award would live beyond All About Eve. A group of theatre patrons in Chicago liked the idea of honoring theater performances via an award named for the actress, so in 1952 they formed their own Sarah Siddons Society, initially created to honor women for achievements in Chicago productions. The first Sarah Siddons Award went to Helen Hayes in 1953; Celeste Holm was awarded the prize in 1968 for her performance in Mame. The awards later were expanded to include men; actor/writer Tracy Letts received the Sarah Siddons in 2019.
In 1973 the society presented Davis with her own Sarah Siddons, a “special recognition” award to celebrate the group’s 20th anniversary. It was Anne Baxter who presented the award to Davis — some accounts indicate that Davis wasn’t happy to share the spotlight with Baxter, but in the great book All About All About Eve, author Sam Staggs quotes Davis as saying, “I made an absolute fool of myself. Anne went on and on about me, and I cried. It was the first time that I’ve ever broken down in public."
Davis later gave her Sarah Siddons Award to legendary Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who passed away in March 2017. The trophy sold at the 2018 Bonhams “TCM Presents” estate auction of his collection for $25,000. A screen-used prop award already had sold at a 2015 Profiles in History auction for $10,800; an up-close look at that trophy reveals that, like Davis’s trophy, both hands seem to be broken off, damage that likely also contributed to its finally selling price. The nameplates for both pieces are also missing.
All About Eve would garner 14 Academy Award nominations and won six, including Mankiewicz for both Best Director and Best Screenplay. And likely more than anyone, he was amused by the idea that his invention of the Sarah Siddons Society later took on a life of its own; he had, after all, thought of All About Eve as a work of satire. “I wish long life both to the Sarah Siddons Society and to its award, believe me,” he says in Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Interviews. “They will provide for me an annual and infinitely gratifying reaffirmation of what All About Eve was really all about.”