Friday, November 30, 2012

All About Eve (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I ran an old DVD of the 1950 classic All About Eve, which remains a brilliantly wrought film even though it’s a bit too long for its own good (it runs 136 minutes and could probably have been dispatched in two hours even without losing anything except a few of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ wisecracks — though it’s Mankiewicz’ wisecracks that really make the film!): it’s both cynical and hilarious, it’s vividly acted (Anne Baxter delivered the performance of her life, and the lines George Sanders — whose character adds acid to the alcohol-drenched rest of the dramatis personae — delivers about Bette Davis’s character, Margo Channing, is equally true about Davis herself: “Margo is a great star, a true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else”) and, as I noticed the last time I watched it, impeccably constructed. Mankiewicz was very careful to time just when each character saw through Eve Harrington’s innocent act and caught on to the manipulative bitch she was — Thelma Ritter’s character saw through her instantly (Charles pointed out that this was the first of two films in which both Ritter and Marilyn Monroe appeared — the other was The Misfits, Monroe’s last completed movie), Celeste Holm’s was the last to catch on (only when Eve made a play for her husband, played by Hugh Marlowe), Davis’s caught on relatively early and the others, Gary Merrill as director Bill Sampson (listed as “Simpson” in the closing credits even though he’s called “Sampson” throughout the film) and Hugh Marlowe as playwright Lloyd Richards, find out somewhere in between — though not before the Richardses arrange, in a plot twist Mankiewicz seems to have “borrowed” from the movie Holiday Inn, for Margo to miss a performance of her current vehicle, Aged in Wood, so Eve (as her understudy, a job she wangled without telling Margo) can go on in her place, invite the critics to witness her performance and get the lead in Richards’ next play, Footsteps on the Ceiling. Charles pointed out that though it’s a backstage story, we never actually see any of these people’s creative work — we never hear a word of Lloyd Richards’ purported dialogue or watch Margo Channing or Eve Harrington act or Bill Sampson direct — though in a sense we don’t need to: all these people are so “theatrical” not only when they’re onstage but 24/7, they are not only in but of the theatre and we can easily imagine what they’re like onstage from what they’re like offstage.

George Sanders was used to being able to steal the acting honors from mini-talents like Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (the way he out-acts the stars in that practically has you rooting for the Philistines!) but here he makes a good play for them even with mega-talents like Davis and Baxter in the cast, and he’s marvelous as the cynical narrator (though the story is actually told through multiple flashbacks in the technique pioneered by Joseph Mankewicz’ brother Herman and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane). I’ve never been that impressed by Baxter — even under Orson Welles’ direction in The Magnificent Ambersons she’s still pretty much a non-entity, a quite ordinary romantic juvenile lead hung out there as a prize awaiting Tim Holt once he gets his “comeuppance” — but this is the performance of her career; Mankiewicz got a convincing bitch out of her and managed to turn the tables and make Bette Davis, even in full cry, surprisingly sympathetic and even a figure of pathos, especially when she delivers the speech that manages to be moving despite its rank sexism: “Funny business, a woman’s career — the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.”

 All About Eve, especially in Davis’s role, sounds so autobiographical it’s frankly unbelievable that it was ever considered for anyone else — least of all the relatively bland Claudette Colbert, who had weaseled out of the lead in Frank Capra’s State of the Union (Katharine Hepburn, who had been running lines privately with star Spencer Tracy, got the part) and got out of All About Eve as well — officially she hurt her back, but in light of her prima donna pretensions, vividly described by Capra in his autobiography (she said she would never work past 5 p.m. and had her agent put that in all her contracts because her doctor said she got too tired — “Her agent was her brother, and her doctor was her husband,” Capra acidly commented), I suspect she had a contractual problem and decided she didn’t want to do it for whatever it was she was being offered. Much to her credit, Bette Davis not only stepped in but allowed cinematographer Milton Krasner to photograph her unattractively, making her still a good-looking woman but also clearly a middle-aged one, and when she comments in the movie about how she’s tired of playing 20-somethings and for once would like to act her age, I couldn’t help but flash back to the last Davis film released before this one, Beyond the Forest (her last contract picture for Warner Bros. — she made Payment on Demand for Howard Hughes’ RKO in between but Hughes held it back until after All About Eve was released and was a smash hit), in which it looked like her makeup had been applied with a trowel in order to make her look younger (and her long black Morticia Addams wig seemed like it had been fitted on her head by a blind person). Once again, as through so much of All About Eve, it seemed like “Margo Channing” was an autobiographical portrait of Davis herself.

Current scholarship on the film tends to discount the long-held belief that Davis based her Margo Channing on Tallulah Bankhead — the raspy voice with which Davis speaks through much of the film apparently came from long drawn-out and often loud arguments between her and her soon-to-be ex-husband William Grant Sherry (father of her only natural child, daughter B.D., though she adopted two more kids with husband number four, Gary Merrill, whom she met making All About Eve) and the original basis of the story (a short story by Mary Orr called “The Wisdom of Eve”) was a young woman who hung around the theatre where actress Elisabeth Bergner was performing in London in the 1930’s and saw her current play over and over again. All About Eve is a marvelously bitchy film, but at the same time it has pathos and heart, and as one poster noted it seems odd that Joseph L. Mankiewicz knew little about the Broadway stage but made a great movie about it (even satirizing the Broadway actors’ lordly contempt for films as a medium), but when he came to make a movie about his own medium, film, it was The Barefoot Contessa, a critical and commercial flop and a lousy movie that wastes the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner (though it carries over the multiple-narrator structure Joseph Mankiewicz had appropriated from his brother’s script for Citizen Kane and used in All About Eve as well).