In 1950, Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson launched big-screen comebacks in All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard with scenery-chomping performances that instantly made them front-runners in the Oscar race for Best Actress.
If it was a monster movie, this clash of Tinseltown titans would be called Bette-Zilla vs. Swanson-Stein.
Swanson’s role as “shooting” (ahem) star Norma Desmond was the capstone of a film reign that began in 1914. Born on March 27, 1899, Gloria rose to fame in silent pictures. By the 1920s, she was Hollywood’s highest paid actress. Although Swanson survived the transition to talkies, by the early ‘30s, fans were hungry for fresh faces, so Gloria faded from view. In fact, Sunset Boulevard was Swanson’s first flick in a decade, earning her raves from critics, fans and peers: after one private screening, Barbara Stanwyck was so impressed with Gloria’s work, she knelt down to kiss the hem of Swanson’s gown.
Nine years younger than Gloria, Bette credited All About Eve with resuscitating her comatose career. Sure, she had scored two Oscars in the ‘30s, but post-war audiences craved bombshells like Rita Hayworth or pin-ups like Betty Grable over the pop-eyed, chain-smoking, chops-busting parts that were a Davis trademark. Fortunately, Bette knew a killer script when she read one – and Joseph L. Mankewicz’s witty, Oscar-winning screenplay was a bullet-train ticket back to the “A-List.”
Swanson and Davis both played actresses, though it’s tricky to grade the performances against each other. Norma Desmond was a delusional has-been; Davis’ Margo Channing was still a Broadway star, though she’d recently had the audacity to turn 40, the usual expiration date for leading ladies. Norma was deadly determined to keep William Holden as her Beverly Hills boy toy; Margo loved her man (played by Bette’s future husband Gary Merrill) and he adored her, but she feared losing him to her younger stalker...er, protegee...Eve (played by Anne Baxter).
If you watch both films, you will see two legends at the tops of their games. They don’t so much play Norma and Margo as vanish within them. They swipe every scene. Own every frame. Sunset Boulevard may have been Holden’s breakout role, but it’s Gloria who commands your attention. Same with Davis. She’s surrounded by a stellar cast, delivering one brilliant Mankiewicz line after another, but even Marilyn Monroe can’t upstage the riveting Ms. Bette.
On Oscar night, odds makers weren’t sure if Davis or Swanson would prevail. Instead, newcomer Judy Holliday won Best Actress for Born Yesterday. Some speculated that Academy voters split their votes between Bette and Gloria, leaving an opening for Holliday to squeak through. But if you’ve ever seen Judy’s hilarious portrayal of not-so-dumb-blonde Billie Dawn, I think you would agree that three talented women deserved to win the little gold guy, even if only one went home with him.