Saturday, January 30, 2010

All About Eve (1950): A Review (Review #41)


Buckled Up And Ready To Go...

There are few things as flat-out pleasurable as seeing people at the top of their game. It is a joy to behold people who know what they are doing and do it so well. This is the case with All About Eve, a malicious yet truthful look into human nature and folly. The setting is the theatrical world of Broadway, but one aspect of the genius behind the film is that we can see that the "actors" are much closer to people we know than we might care to admit.

The film takes place at the Sarah Siddons Awards dinner with three narrations telling the backstory of how we got to this night. The primary narration is taken between theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a playwright's wife, with Margo Channing (Bette Davis) narrating once. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a girl who has attended every performance of diva extraordinaire Margo but who is a shrinking violet in reality, too afraid to meet her idol. Thanks to an invite from Karen, Eve soon becomes part of this world where the theater and the theatrical are interchangeable. However, Eve is much more than the sweet, always eager-to-please war widow. You see, she's also an aspiring actress, one with burning ambition, and one who thinks she'd be PERFECT for a part written for someone else...

What makes All About Eve stand out is that everything in it just works so smoothly it looks almost effortless. Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz creates a world where people use words as weapons and a single put-down can cut to the core. The script is one of if not the wittiest, sharpest, shrewdest one written. Mankiewicz has the patience to let the story tell itself. Rather than rush everything or worse, have everything explained to us, he allows the dialogue to carry the film and give us an insight into the characters. More important, he TRUSTS that we will be able to keep up with the story. He also has a great ear for dialogue and attention to how intelligent people speak. During a verbal fight that Lloyd and Margo have over Eve and even after he leaves, Margo continues to use the phrase "fire and music", which Lloyd used to describe what Eve had done. I find it's human nature to repeat certain words and phrases that get at people, and here, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue both intelligent and realistic.

Take, for example, the opening. We hear the cynicism of Addison and the sincerity of Karen not just by WHAT they say but HOW they say it, from their voice and choice of words. All the praise being heaped on Eve is counter-set by the reactions of DeWitt, Channing, her beau/director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Karen, and Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Here, we quickly establish that it's not what others might think about Eve that is the truth, but what this particular group knows and says about her. There are brilliant bits of dialogue throughout the film, such as when Margo confesses (albeit a bit drunkenly) about her fears on turning 40, or the fight between Margo and Lloyd, or when Margo discusses (soberly) what it's like to be a woman with a career, between the persona of Margo Channing and the person who is Margo Channing.

The meatiest dialogue goes to Addison DeWitt. His name alone explains what kind of person he is: a sharp man who is far too smart for himself and those around him. Few people have been so gleefully malicious and snide, contemptuous of people and also understanding of how people's need for applause or love can make them do all sorts of terrible things to others. He also is cynical of almost everything and everyone. When his protogé Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles) bombs the audition, he encourages her to go into television. "Do they have auditions in television?" she asks. "That's ALL television is. Nothing but auditions", he tells her. We all wish we were that sharp and witty. Certainly, I wish I were that sharp and witty. In fact, if you listen to all the characters speak, you find that they all have something clever to say about each other, or themselves, or their various situations.

Another aspect of All About Eve that sets it apart from most films is the acting. It's rare when you get one or two great performances in the same film, but when you get ALL the major players in the cast to be brilliant, it has to be a cinematic miracle. George Sanders brings a vocal sneer to DeWitt, someone who has a great opinion of himself because he knows who he is and is entirely unapologetic about it. Marlowe makes Lloyd the perfect dupe in Eve's machinations, and Merrill brings a realistic approach to Bill Simpson as someone who isn't impressed or taken in by the subterfuge of the theater and its world but who sees it as a job like any other.

Of course, this film is dominated by the women, and what women they cast. Karen could have come off as stupid or naive, but Holm makes her a sincere friend to everyone she meets but one unafraid to tell people what she thinks. Even she is not above a touch of cynicism, as when she assures Eve she'll get Lloyd and Bill to let her be Margo's understudy by telling her, "They'll do as they're told".

Baxter's Eve makes her metamorphosis from sincere, sweet, kind, girl to...fill in the blank (here's a hint: it rhymes with 'stitch'). She holds the audience in wait, making us wonder who Eve really is, perhaps even up to the end of the film. In her surface kindness that hides a heart of mud, Baxter holds our attention, devouring anyone who stands in her way until she meets her match in DeWitt, nobody's fool.  It's a truly pitch-perfect performance.

The highlight, however, has to be Bette Davis as Margo Channing. One can make a case that Davis was playing a version of herself: the tempermental yet vulnerable actress who fears she might lose everything and have nothing left...except a book full of clippings. However, she creates a well-written character and make her real. We know Margo as a woman who loves being an actress, who loves Bill, but who while knowing she is a great star and great actress is still a woman who wants a man she fears may leave, especially now that she's hit a critical age of 40. Her discussion about this to Lloyd is a remarkable dramatic turn, one where Davis lets her guard down and has us totally sympathize with a person as opposed to the persona she may come off as. Margo Channing, however, is no wimp. She knows how to take it, and when she says good-bye to Eve it's one of the finest kiss-offs in film.

There are a few odd bits in All About Eve. For example, there's Thelma Ritter as Margo's dresser/assistant/confidant Birdie Coonan. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but curiously she disappears completely after Bill's birthday party with no explanation for her departure. There is also the scene where Addison and Eve leave the Shubert Theater in New Haven, which is obviously fake. The latter is a minor detail, a bit of 50's film-making, while the former is something not so easily dismissed.

At the end of All About Eve, we get the sense that Eve may eventually get what she deserves, but we also get the sense that Mankiewicz is making a commentary about celebrity. Margo is an ACTUAL ACTRESS, someone who while at times difficult can always be counted to be professional where it's important and who knows it's her job to be good. Eve, on the other hand, appears to want a theatrical career for the applause serving as a substitute for love. She wants to be a star, but has the talent to back it up. As for Phoebe (and all her mirror images--you'll have to see it to have that explained), it appears that fame for fame's sake is something that didn't originate with reality television and Youtube.

You have great acting in All About Eve. You have great dialogue in All About Eve (the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night", has become part of the vernacular). You have a story that has recognizable people in All About Eve. In short, you have an extraordinary film that you shouldn't be afraid of. It's well worth the ride.


1951 Best Picture: An American In Paris

There are more Essentials, as well as The Best Picture Winners Collection.

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