Friday, August 18, 2017

Classic Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950)
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.   
Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merrill (Bill Simpson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Barbara Bates (Phoebe), Marilyn Monroe (Miss Casswell), Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan). 
Some films have become so infamous, so part of the canon – the foundation on which so much else has been built – that it can a little difficult to see them clearly for what they are. All About Eve is a film like that – it was a critical, financial and Oscar hit when it was released in 1950 – that rare best picture winner that is also a masterpiece, nominated for (still) a record 14 Oscars – including 5 acting awards (four for women, another record – although, of course, it was the one man nominated who was the only one who won). It is famous mainly for the acid tongued dialogue written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also direct) and the performances by Bette Davis and George Sanders – career bests for all of them. I saw the film a couple of times years ago, but hadn’t revisited it recently. I remembered a bitter, cynical but wickedly funny film – all of which is true – but there’s more to it than that as well. The title character is (necessarily) a cipher – she changes to whatever she needs to be at any time – but the rest of the cast are fully realized people. There is cynicism to All About Eve – a lot – but it remains a story of people who feel real.
Bette Davis gave her best performance in a career full of them as Margo Channing – the “aging” Broadway star, who will turn 40 during the course of the movie, but is still packing in audiences when she plays characters in her 20s. She is a legend, and she knows she’s a legend – as does everyone else. Her boyfriend is her director, Bill (Gary Merill) – only 32, something that if their gender were reversed wouldn’t matter – but, of course, they’re not, and it does. The playwright is Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), who knows Margo is his meal ticket, but still wishes he’d be recognized for his own (perceived) greatness. He’s married to Karen (Celeste Holm) – Margo’s best friend. It is soft-hearted Karen who first meets Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). She is on the street after a performance of the latest play – she has seen every performance she says, and taking pity on her, Karen invites her to meet Margo and company. Margo loves the attention, and laps up Eve’s sob story – everyone else does to, except for Birdie (Thelma Ritter) – Margo’s dresser, who sees through Eve from the get go. Eve has soon got herself inside Margo’s inner circle – where she’ll go from an assistant to an understudy to a rival of Margo’s.
The movie is narrated by Sanders’ Addison DeWitt – the powerful newspaper gossip writer and critic – who is the most cynical person in this film full of cynics. He has the power to make or break people, and he uses it. In Eve, he finds a kindred spirit of sorts – someone as ruthless as he is, but better able to hide it. Every word out of his mouth is full of cynical, sinister glee, except for the scene with him and Eve alone, where he brings it down a register – he knows precisely how to bring her down. Sanders is perfect for the role (given the wording of his suicide note, which I’ll let you look up, even more perfect than you first realize). Yet, as a great as Sanders is, even he plays second fiddle to Davis’ Margo. The aging actress is in many ways a clichéd movie role by now – Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond this same year for instance, and many films center on an aging actress and her youthful rival. None are better than All About Eve, and that’s because of Davis, capable of delivering the bitterest, most cynical lines in the movie, and still come across as sympathetic. Her speech about Bill being 32 is one of the best in screen history – and she makes the most of it. David knew this role all too well – she was 42 at the time – but she was already aging out of where Hollywood likes their leading ladies – she was a perennial Oscar contender from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, but hadn’t gotten the really good roles in a while (was nominated 7 times between 1935 and 1944 – and 1950’s All About Eve was her first since). This is a sad story for most actresses – who have much to offer after 40, but Hollywood isn’t interested – but downright tragic for Bette Davis, best at playing strong willed, mature women. She knew Margo Channing, she was Margo Channing, and that’s why it’s one of the great performances in film history.
The rest of the cast is fine as well – although neither Merill or Marlowe could keep up with the women (Merill does have a great put down of Eve, but other than that doesn’t do much, Marlowe remains a clueless dope throughout). You feel the worst for sweet, lovable Karen, as Holm makes her not stupid, but friendlier then the rest, and that gets her in trouble. I would have loved more Thelma Ritter – who seems born to play Birdie, but the film doesn’t make much time for her. Marilyn Monroe shows up at the infamous party scene, and when she’s onscreen, you cannot look away. As for Baxter, she is pretty much perfect as Eve – she is right in every moment in the film, even if Eve never really becomes a believable three-dimensional character – then again, perhaps Eve doesn’t have three dimensions at all. Margo is a great actress on stage, Eve is acting always. Davis – and others – blame the fact that Baxter was nominated alongside Davis for Best Actress, as to why Davis didn’t win the Oscar this year – because Baxter split the vote. Perhaps that’s true – perhaps Swanson, playing another aging actress, and going over-the-top with it – stole some votes to (Judy Holiday won for Born Yesterday – and fine, its good, but Davis and Swanson are literally two of perhaps the 10 greatest performances ever by an actress).
All About Eve is so beloved, so iconic so entrenched in the canon that I fear some are intimidated by it – what else is there to say about the film. Perhaps not much. But is beloved for a reason, iconic for a reason – and if nothing else you should see it to find out why.

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