A Star is NOT Born Barbara Bates' All About Eve Tragedy
Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders): Tell me Phoebe, do you want someday to have an award like that of your own?
Phoebe (played by Barbara Bates): More than anything else in the world.
All About Eve is probably the #1 gay favorite film in history. Other titles like Mommie Dearest, Valley of the Dolls and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are securely in that pantheon, but most are just camp. All About Eve is a truly great film.
Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Eve won Best Film of 1950 (over Sunset Boulevard) and earned Mankiewicz back-to-back Oscars for script and direction. Eve has no official gay connection as most of the film’s creators and actors were heterosexual, but somehow Bette Davis as Margo Channing and Anne Baxter as the conniving Eve Harrington have always struck a primal nerve with gay men.
Most know the behind-the-scenes basics, that Claudette Colbert and Jeanne Crain were the first choices for Margo and Eve but an accident and pregnancy kept those two talented ladies out. Marilyn Monroe was at the very beginning of her stardom playing the wonderful chorus girl Miss Caswell, Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm both received supporting nominations, and George Anders won the supporting Oscar for his insidious Addison de Witt. So what is left to know about this famous film?
The story of Barbara Bates.
Bates is the true wild card when you dissect All About Eve. The last two minutes of the film belong to her character Phoebe, and the last images are solely of her. She plays the “Eve on the rise” teenager who turns up in Eve Harrington's hotel room at the film’s climax, and in her scarce screen time manages to be beautiful, insinuating, possibly lesbian, and a liar. It is clear that she will do anything in her rise to fame just as Eve did the year before.
The stunning last images of Phoebe are written like this: "Slowly she walks to a large three mirrored cheval. With grace and infinite dignity she holds the award to her, and bows again and again... as if to the applause of a multitude." With the great Alfred Newman theme rising to a crescendo, the beautiful images of Phoebe/Bates are the final memories of this classic film.
Bates, however, was one of the saddest stories of Hollywood starlets. After All About Eve, Charlie Chaplin personally screen tested her for the suicidal ballerina in his great movie Limelight. Chaplin offered her the role but 20th Century Fox denied Bates this great chance due to Chaplin's politics; Claire Bloom got the role and career that might have waited for Bates. Then, in 1969, Bates committed suicide at the age of 43.
Bates was born in Denver, studied ballet and worked as a model. She won a local beauty contest that included two round trip tickets to Hollywood. Two days before returning home, Bates met Cecil Coan, a United Artists publicist who would change her life. He introduced her to producer Walter Wanger, and in 1944 Bates signed a contract with Universal Pictures. She was then cast as one of the seven Salome girls in his 1945 drama Salome Where She Danced, starring gorgeous Yvonne de Carlo.
Coan divorced his wife and married the much younger Bates in 1945. She did a number of photo shoots, including landing the cover of Life Magazine (a huge honor in those days) in 1945. In 1947 Warner Bros. signed her to a contract and gave her a number of really good parts, including the title role in June Bride starring future Margo Channing Bette Davis. A co-starring role with Danny Kaye followed in The Inspector General, which made a lot of money, but Warner Brothers fired Bates when she would not go to New York to do publicity.
Fox quickly signed Bates and she played one of the daughters in the highly successful Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes. But her role as Phoebe was the crowning piece of luck. All About Eve’s fantastic success helped everyone in it move on to greater success— except Barbara. After failing to get the showcase role in Limelight, Bates' career went into severe free fall. Her mental and physical health began to decline, causing her to be let go from numerous jobs, and her last onscreen appearance was in an episode of The Saint in 1962.
Bates and Coan moved back to Los Angeles where Coan was diagnosed with cancer. Bates was steadfast in her devotion to him, but due to the stress she attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. In 1967 Coan died of cancer and the devastated Bates returned to Denver in total depression. She got work as a secretary, a dental assistant and a hospital aid, then in 1968 married a childhood friend. This did nothing to heal her depression and in March 1969, a few months after her marriage, Bates committed suicide in her mother's garage by carbon monoxide. She was 43 years old and there was little notice of her passing.
A 1949 Movie Pix magazine had a two-page photo story on Bates that observed, "It doesn't take a crystal ball to tell us Barbara, who has our vote as Hollywood's prettiest girl, is on the way up." Bates was clearly a beautiful, talented young woman who almost made it to the top. But for all the “Star is Born” stories in Hollywood there are hundreds of those who never make it. Most get married and survive the experience; sadly, not Barbara Bates.