"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 9, 2015

"All About Eve" (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Film review)

All About Eve is an award-studded film, with an excellent script and superb performances, especially by Bette Davis and George Sanders, but it is also a wordy film with lots of snob-appeal where everyone talks in perfect lines. It is a film that celebrates the theater, but that ends up looking like a theatrical play itself, although it was based on an original script by its director, Mankiewicz (1909-1993), and is not the film version of a pre-existing play. Mankiewicz seems not to have been very interested in camera movement, composition or cutting - but he wrote such sparkling, memorable lines that you would like to frame them and hang them on the wall, and when these lines are spoken by a set of fine actors as here, the result is a great film, period. And the story, about the battle between the generations, that is always lost by the older one, possesses universal relevance.

It goes as follows. Out of admiration for actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) a young woman (the "Eve" of the title, played by Anne Baxter)  every night watches the same play. Afterwards she hangs around in front of the theater. One night, she is accosted by Karen (Celeste Holm), the wife of the writer of the play in question and friend of Margo Channing, and taken to the star's dressing room. The admiring and self-effacing fan tells a sad life story. Nobody (except Birdie, played by Thelma Ritter, Margo's dour assistant) notices she is only acting the breathless fan, her eyes brimming with phony sincerity and fake humility. She is warmly welcomed into the circle of Margo Channing, which consists of her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen, and sarcastic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). She starts living with Margo and helps her as a secretary. But it soon becomes clear that this seemingly so innocent young woman is a sharp character: she copies everything Margo Channing does, eats or wears, and then slowly but surely insinuates her way into the theater as her understudy, and finally her rival...

She is helped on the way to success by Addison DeWitt, an extreme cynic who likes to play puppet-master behind the scenes, and whose authoritative newspaper reviews help Eve to fame when as understudy she has to step in for the absent Margo (kept away on purpose by Karen and Lloyd, to help the seemingly so helpless Eve). But when Eve wants to go further and further, even trying to steal Karen's playwright husband (after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to steal Margo's fiancé, Bill), Addison steps in and makes it very clear to Eve that she is his creature.

From her side, being forty, Margo understands she is too old to continue playing starry-eyed young women who are half her age, and gracefully relinquishes such roles to Eve. The film ends with a joke: when Eve, now famous - we have seen her receive an important theater award -, returns to her hotel she finds a sweet girl in her room who admires her acting and would love to be her assistant... History repeats itself over and over again.

In real life, Bette Davis didn't need to worry about being replaced by Anne Baxter. Her Margo Manning is a real character, despite her sizable ego and sharp tongue (she can be deliciously bitchy) in love with her work. She is a professional, the real thing. Even her excesses are realistic, but she also has her softer moments when she can be quite touching. Anne Baxter only succeeds in playing a type, that of the outwardly docile, inwardly scheming ingenue. When her role changes to that of established actress, she is less convincing.

While all actors are fine, there is one more outstanding performance besides that of Bette Davis: George Sanders as the powerful critic Addison DeWitt, who is full of manipulative charm and sardonic humor. Together with Margo Channing's character, he has the best and sharpest lines. He also fulfills another useful function: at a party that Margo gives, he brings along a real beginning actress, whom he introduces humorously as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art:" Marilyn Monroe in one of her first small roles. Even for the brief periods she is on screen, her shining figure already attracts all eyes.

[This is a wholly new version of a previous post, as my appreciation and understanding of this film have deepened]