Friday, November 08, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

USA, 138 minutes
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mary Orr
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Alfred Newman
Editor: Barbara McLean
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Matoff, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates, Walter Hampden

All About Eve is a strange romp, an overlong movie that pretends to despise Hollywood but won 14 Oscar nominations for its pains, still the only movie ever to give four women four major nominations (Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress). Very few movies, especially this celebrated, so radically disregard the advantages of cinema, opting instead for dialogue (witty and urbane or not, according to your inclination) and a convoluted script shot in endless drab interior scenes. Going outdoors in this one, even a walk down a city street, tends to involve unconvincing rear-screen projections. Befitting its schizophrenic approach, All About Eve has not one but two voiceover narrators (George Sanders as a theater critic and Celeste Holm as possibly the only human being in the picture), weaving intricate backstories of the mother of all backstage dramas, and then not one but two psychotics.

It's kind of a train wreck, with a hodge-podge cast that ranges from the brilliant (Bette Davis, George Sanders) to the competent (Thelma Ritter, always) to the mundane (I like Hugh Marlowe but he's much more familiar to me as a hey-that-guy science fiction movie and TV player and Gary Merrill and Anne Baxter never even managed that much profile). It plods along in gossipy enjoyable scenes and then in its last act turns into a kind of horror picture of improbable nested blackmail schemes poised in midair, defying gravity. It's done quite neatly but they forgot to make them people. Still, there's no point denying the bitchy fun of this one (not to mention the chance to use the word "bitchy"). I might prefer its de facto companion piece from the same year, Sunset Blvd., or you might prefer Kirk Douglas and company chewing the scenery in The Bad and the Beautiful from a couple years later. It all amounts to the same thing. Those beautiful people in Hollywood making big successes where we can't, they're all miserable depraved slobs anyway. Pony up for the show, folks. Get your ticket.

The plot unfolds in complicated ways but think of any version of A Star Is Born. Eve (Baxter) develops into a steely-cold ambitious ingénue. She speaks in a husky whispery obsequious voice as she fastens like a barnacle onto Margo Channing (Bette Davis, past her prime but that is the point, and she is mostly perfect, in gowns by Edith Head). First Eve is a shy fan, then she is a kind of personal secretary and model of efficiency, and finally she becomes Channing's theatrical understudy, viciously plotting to steal Channing's roles, friends, and man. Addison DeWitt (Sanders) is the stereotype of a noxious theater critic—this movie may have deeply influenced John Simon. DeWitt (get it, get it?) is a lion of The Theater, by which is meant Broadway. In the same way that Margo Channing has lines of connection to Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., DeWitt is a forebear of J.J. Hunsecker in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success. Say hello to postwar America.

Behind all the fancy glitter there's a certain sense of domestic social breakdown in a context that liked to think of itself as more open, honest, and probing—post-Freudian. There's a lot of bickering in this movie, in other words, with the kind of dynamics that pointed to d-i-v-o-r-c-e, or at least profound marital unhappiness. The 40-year-old Channing and her 32-year-old boyfriend, theater director Bill Simpson (Merrill), are not married yet, but they're planning on it and it's easy to see where that's headed: 1966 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At the same time, All About Eve plays it safe to convention—as it must—with the one featured marriage in it, between Karen and Lloyd Richards (Holm and Marlowe), as stable and normal as pie, including able to survive at least the appearance of infidelity, if not the fact.

Eve (get it, get it?) comes busting into this joint wanting everything and everybody. She is more than just ambitious, she is galactically evil, as we discover in a rush at the end. Fortunately (or not), DeWitt is even eviler and in due order has her trapped in a jar with a few nail holes punched in the lid for air. This is where the bitchy fun happens and if you like all that be sure to look up The Bad and the Beautiful. I like how Eve is at once naïve and yet acutely conscious of her desire, which is exactly for fame and nothing else, as she reveals unknowingly in a scene with everyone (including Marilyn Monroe) weirdly stuffed onto a narrow staircase. "If there's nothing else, there's applause," Eve says in her monotonous dreamy unctuous tone. "I've listened backstage to people applaud. It's like waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine, to know every night that different hundreds of people love you. They want you. You belong." (cue Sally Field)

Of course, All About Eve is a movie famously packed gaudy full with dialogue bon mots, or entertaining attempts at same, including Bette Davis's shout-out to the burgeoning airline industry, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" I recommend the same, except by "fasten your seatbelts" I mean "fill up your popcorn bowls." It's a long and bumpy ride.


  1. My choice as the Best Picture of 1950. It's the ultimate Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie, as you note: dialogue is king, the film is barely "cinema". My favorite film for every participant with the exception of Edith Head, where it loses out to Vertigo.

  2. I thought I remembered you liked this one, but Google apparently cuts off blog searches beyond five years back, so I couldn't find your review (wasn't up for digging through the FB archive either). Hey Edith Head did all right by Barbara Stanwyck too in Double Indemnity! But I would have to agree Vertigo is her best.