All About Eve

1951 Cannes
2014 New York

All About Eve is the supreme achievement of one of Hollywood’s most civilized and articulate writer-directors, Joseph L. Mankiewicz – a celebration of his fascination with the theatrical world. The film remains unsurpassed for the power and complexity of its cast’s performances, the brilliance of its wit and the unsparing and remorseless exposition of its central theme. With a scalpel coated in acid, Mankiewicz cuts through the theatre’s surface layer of tinsel and hyperbole to expose a seething nucleus of ruthlessness, egotism and ambition, revealing at the same time a curious, pitiable vulnerability… Mankiewicz’s directorial style is perfectly suited to his subject. He shoots in long takes and shows a fondness for medium close-ups, enabling the audience to savour the acting and the dialogue, which are the film’s enduring strengths. All About Eve received a record 14 Academy Award nominations and won 6, including Best Picture, Best Writer, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders). Although both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated for Best Actress, they lost out to Judy Holiday, the star of Born Yesterday (1950). However Davis won both the New York critic’s award and the Cannes Film Festival award, and the film revived her flagging career.
– Jeffrey Richards, The Movie, Orbis.

All About Eve possesses one of the best screenplays ever to grace the silver screen. It also has one of the best performances by an actress in the history of Hollywood features. For his writing, Joseph Mankiewicz was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar. For her acting, Bette Davis was snubbed in favor of Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday (arguably the weakest of the five nominees). (Common wisdom suggests that since both Davis and co-star Anne Baxter were nominated in the Best Actress category for All About Eve, they split the vote, resulting in neither winning.)

For a number of reasons, some intentional and some coincidental, All About Eve stands out as one of the best small-scale dramas ever produced under the Hollywood system. In fact, the movie relies so strongly on dialogue and has such a limited number of sets, that it could easily be mistaken for a movie adaptation of a stage play. The fact that the film deals with the behind-the-scenes goings-on in theater serves only to strengthen this erroneous assumption.

Few would argue that Bette Davis was one of the Grand Dames of Hollywood. Never a traditional beauty, Davis thrived because of her attitude, which comprised the lion’s share of her unconventional star quality. True, she also had amazing eyes (as noted by Kim Carnes in her ’80s song, Bette Davis Eyes), but it was the way she carried herself and bit off her lines that arrested the camera’s attention. Davis’ reputation was cemented by two films: Jezebel, which was made early in her career and for which she received an Oscar, and All About Eve, which rescued her from oblivion and re-established her on the A-list. Ask anyone today what scene typifies Davis, and chances are the response will involve the words: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.”

Watching All About Eve more than five decades after it was committed to celluloid, it’s virtually impossible to believe that the role of Margo Channing was not written with Bette Davis in mind. In fact, Davis wasn’t even the back-up choice of Mankiewicz and producer Darryl Zanuck. Claudette Colbert had already signed a contract to appear when an accident removed her from the picture. After other actresses declined the part, an offer was made to Davis, who accepted after reading the script. The parallels between Margo and Davis hardly need elucidation – both were brassy, aging actresses battling the odds to stay on top. To add another layer of similarity, during the course of production, Davis entered into a steamy affair with Gary Merrill, who plays Margo’s on-screen lover, Bill Sampson. In an interview conducted after the movie wrapped, Davis admitted that she didn’t fully know where the fictional personality ended and the real-life one began.

The storyline is simple, as befits a movie that’s more about words, characters, and human motivation than about narrative. The uncomplicated nature of the plot also allows Mankiewicz to get away with straightforward, traditional camerawork. Many critics have noted that the only aspect of All About Eve that prevents it from being mentioned in the same breath as Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard is the pedestrian nature of its visuals. There’s nothing wrong with Mankiewicz’s approach (he won a Best Director Oscar), but nothing eye-catching, either. The director’s strengths lie in his writing and his rapport with actors.

Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a Margo Channing groupie. She attends every one of Margo’s Broadway appearances and hangs around outside of the theater in a trenchcoat. But she lacks the gumption to meet her idol until the day when Margo’s friend, Karen Richard (Celeste Holm), brings her to Margo’s dressing room. Margo takes an instant liking to younger woman, and a grateful Eve begins to act as an unofficial secretary for Margo. All goes well until Margo begins to suspect that Eve’s ultimate goal isn’t just to work for her, but to replace her. Margo’s fears are justified when Eve makes a play for Margo’s lover, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and “steals” Margo’s role in an upcoming play written by Karen’s husband, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Aside from Margo, the only one to see through Eve’s façade is theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), but he has reasons of his own to keep silent.

Aside from Davis’ performance, which is one for the ages, the screenplay represents the reason not only to see, but to savor, All About Eve. Nearly every significant character has a quotable moment, and there’s never a time when more than a few minutes go by without someone uttering something deliciously edgy. Davis and George Sanders get the best of the best lines, and their delivery (hers full and bold; his dry and sardonic) enhances the quality of what Mankiewicz penned. All About Eve contains lines guaranteed to delight even the most discriminating viewer, from Margo declaring, “I detest cheap sentiment” to Addison remarking, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent!”

Although five actors were nominated for All About Eve (Davis and Baxter for Best Actress; Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress; and Sanders for Best Supporting Actor), the only one to take home a statuette was Sanders. Although All About Eve may really be All About Bette, there’s no doubt that Sanders’ performance, while not as showy, is a source of genuine pleasure for audiences. His voiceover narrative drips with sarcasm, and, during every moment when he’s on-screen, viewers await his next cutting remark. (Think of a sophisticated version of American Idol‘s Simon Cowell.) Addison’s exchanges with the helium-brained starlet Claudia Casswell (played by a young Marilyn Monroe) are an undeniable highlight.

Other than Davis and Sanders, the only acting standout is Thelma Ritter, who is delightfully tart as Birdie, Margo’s confidante. Birdie disappears about half-way through the film, but only after she has planted the seeds of doubt about Eve in Margo’s mind. As the title character, Anne Baxter is adequate, but not outstanding. Her primary weakness is that she proves unequal to the task of portraying a single-minded bitch. During the film’s first half, when she is required to put forth a façade of naïveté, she is effective. But, when Eve’s true colors emerge, Baxter’s performance goes flat. Meanwhile, Celeste Holm, despite receiving a Supporting Actress nomination, is no better than okay. The same is true of Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe. They inhabit the characters, but don’t make them memorable.

Based on the screenplay, one might assume that Mankiewicz possessed a vast in-depth knowledge of the theater. After all, All About Eve takes some of movie-dom’s most vicious jabs at the backstage wrangling involved in getting a play into production, building a career, and appeasing a fickle public. In reality, however, Mankiewicz’s entire career was in the cinema, and, when he tried to do something similar to All About Eve for the motion picture industry (The Barefoot Contessa), he failed. Although Mankiewicz’s screenplay is loosely based on Mary Orr’s fact-based Cosmopolitan piece, The Wisdom of Eve, nearly everything that is memorable in the script comes from the writer/director’s own fertile imagination. The dialogue is his, as is the desire to “psychoanalyze” the characters. (Mankiewicz was a proponent of therapy long before it was in vogue.)

For nearly everyone involved in All About Eve (Marilyn Monroe excepted), this movie represented a career pinnacle. Mankiewicz never came close to attaining this level again, and, while this was far from the final hurrah for Bette Davis, it was her last truly great role. However, considering how few people in Hollywood have been involved in a production this good, it’s no shame to say they never again attained this kind of success. All About Eve is one of the ’50s gems – a worthy holder of the 1951 Best Picture Oscar and a motion picture that, because of its priceless dialogue and unforgettable lead performance, will never lose its luster.
– James Berardinelli, Reelviews.

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