Thursday, August 11, 2011

ALL ABOUT EVE 1950

In spite of owning two 2 DVD copies (those “Special Edition”s get you every time) and having seen the film more times than I can count; All About Eve is one of those movies I still find I’m unable to tear myself away from whenever I happen to come across it while channel surfing the TV. Perhaps due to its origins as a short story published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1946 ("The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr), All About Eve's somewhat vignette structure lends itself perfectly to an la carte viewing. It’s one of those rare films that's equally satisfying whether watched in its entirety or in brief snippets. Brimming with witty dialog, keen performances, and by-now classic cinema “moments,” All About Eve is an all-time, escapist favorite. 

The familiar story of how aging Broadway diva, Margo Channing, takes conniving über-fan, Eve Harrington, under her wing and lives to regret it, is a tale borrowed and revamped in films as diverse as: 1987's  Anna, which cast Sally Kirkland as an aging Czechoslovakian film star taking in the deceitfully ambitious Paulina Porzikova; 1972's The Mechanic, where aging hit man Charles Bronson plays father figure to  deceitfully ambitious hit man-in-training, Jan-Michael Vincent; and, of course, Paul Verhoeven’s  Showgirls (1995), which defies description. Each of these films is both a legacy attesting to the enduring dramatic appeal of All About Eve’s simple plot and a testament to the old adage, "Often imitated, never duplicated."
Bette Davis as Margo Channing
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington
George Sanders as Addison DeWitt
Celeste Holm as Karen Richards
Gary Merrill as Bill Sampson
Thelma Ritter as Birdie Coonan

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
What do Valley of the Dolls, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Kitten With A Whip, and All About Eve have in common? (Insert joke here.) Answer: They are, without a doubt, the most quotable movies ever made. Anyone who's a fan of All About Eve has his favorite quotes. Here are just a few of mine:

Lloyd- "Eve did mention the play, but just in passing. She'd never have the nerve to ask for the part of Cora."
Karen- "Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello."

Eve- "Get out!"
Addison- "You're too short for that gesture. Besides, it went out with Mrs. Fiske." 

Birdie- "Next to a tenor a wardrobe woman is the touchiest thing in show business. She's got two things to do—carry clothes and press 'em wrong. And don't let anybody try to muscle in."

Miss Casswell- "Oh, waiter!"
Addison- "That isn't a waiter, my dear. That's a butler."
Miss Casswell- "Well I can't yell, "Oh, butler!" can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler!"
Addison- "You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point."
Marilyn Monroe as the hapless bombshell, Miss Casswell.
A graduate of The Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.
  
PERFORMANCES
Davis is too good an actress and Margo Channing a character too broadly drawn for this to be my favorite Bette Davis performance (that would have to be Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes or her turn in The Letter), but for anyone seeking the full Bette Davis "experience" in all its glory, this is the film to see. Inspiring literally generations of impersonators, impressionists, and drag queens, Bette Davis as Margo Channing, the ultimate over-theatrical diva, is an actress 100% on her game. The film just wouldn't work if we didn't buy Margo as this dynamo of histrionic affectation who never stops being "on" even after the curtain comes down. And it's to Davis' credit that she somehow gives this potentially one-note character a great deal of depth. Far from being over-the-top or camp, Davis creates in Margo, if not exactly a recognizably real human being, then a surprisingly likable, larger-than-life creature of fiction possessing warmth, humor, and intelligence.

Part of Margo's intelligence lies in her lack of illusions about herself. She knows she's an aging actress in a business preoccupied with youth, but she's terrified of inhabiting a world which requires nothing more of her than just to be "herself'." The problem: after a lifetime of play-acting on the stage, Margo isn't quite sure who that is.
My favorite Margo Channing moment is when she catches sight of Eve posing in a mirror with one of her costumes. The look on her face as she watches her biggest "fan" imitating her is really something. It's a look of surprise mixed with affectionate amusement, and for a fleeting second, a trace of maternal tenderness.

"I wouldn't want you to marry me just to prove something."
Life imitating art. Older Bette Davis and younger Gary Merrill fell in love 
during the filming of All About Eve.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As much as I delight in All About Eve’s lively dialog, I’m quick to admit that the film is at times too clever for its own good. All that sophisticated repartee has a way of distancing me from the characters and keeping me at a remove from the drama at hand. Still, it’s no small feat the way in which the film so thoroughly succeeds in pulling off the kind of witty wordplay and bitchy sarcasm it so readily scarifies audience engagement to achieve. Indeed, a recent viewing of 1973's The Last of Sheila (screenplay by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim) points out how hard on the ears failed attempts at biting, sophisticated bitchiness can be.
Joeseph Mankiewicz's crackerjack screenplay has the necessary smarts for appropriately witty and sophisticated banter, but good dialog is meaningless without a talented cast capable of putting it across. Thelma Ritter and George Sanders are standouts in this department.

Eve Harrington is about to find out why it's not a good idea to laugh at Addison DeWitt

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
All About Eve has been a part of my film consciousness for so long that I have no direct recollection of the first time I saw it, nor any idea of what my first impressions were. Watching it now is an experience, I would imagine, similar to a child’s when being read his favorite bedtime story: whatever pleasures initially derived from the unexpected twists of plot and character have since been supplanted with the thrill of anticipating, then reliving, the delightfully familiar.

I love All About Eve’s catty, backstabbing vision of life in “The Theatah,” and I never tire of Margo’s tantrums, Eve’s Machiavellian power plays, or Addison’s snide comments. But, given how much fun I always have watching it, emotionally speaking, All About Eve is kind of a cool experience. The film’s sleek professionalism is entertaining as all get out, but I can’t say I’ve ever been moved by Margo’s age-angst and well-placed paranoia. By way of contrast: Sunset Boulevard and The Wizard of Oz are two films steeped heavily in cultural overexposure and camp sensibilities, yet they have something about them that still makes watching them a touching, poignant experience after all these years.
Perhaps there was a forgotten time long ago when Margo’s fear of aging (“Forty. 4-0!”) and Eve’s hunger to be loved carried some emotional heft for me, but I’m afraid too many years of impersonations, spoofs, and camp parodies have made it impossible for me to enjoy All About Eve on any level deeper than exquisitely quotable melodrama.
In the final analysis, All About Eve’s appeal for me may be all surface and style, but trust me, that’s far from a complaint.
The coveted Sarah Siddons Award
Suitable for placement where a heart ought to be.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. 'all about eve' is up there in the "movies i praise list" - however i feel much the same way you do about it. i find it to be a movie embodying darwin's survival theories - indeed, only the fittest survive in this one. it's a riff about life, human conflict and ambition. it has never shook me to such depths as other films, but there is certainly something satisfying and somewhat addictive about it. what keeps me thinking about the movie long after i've turned it off is the character of addison. maybe it is sanders' cool edge to the role, or maybe the subversive and extremely controlling character addison turns out to be, but either way (most likely both) the biggest mental seduction the movie has to offer is from him. like bancroft as mrs robinson, leigh as dubois and mickey rourke as henry chinaski (among of course, many others), sanders as addison is one of those rare and cool merges of an actor's own charisma and personality blended to perfection in a well written character's role.

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  2. Addison DeWitt really is a fascinating character of fiction. I've never been able to watch George Sanders in anything without thinking I'm watching Addison. And he's so sexy too! He makes Lloyd and Bill look like cardboard cutouts. While thoroughly the kind of individual I would absolutely loathe in real life, he's one of my favorites in the film. Another testament, perhaps, to how "All About Eve" keeps itself at an emotional distance for me. Given what a wonderful, plot-propelling character he is, it's amazing to me that "Applause", the Broadway musical adaptation, dispenses with his character entirely. (Oh, and I've never seen the film "Barfly"...another film to add to my Nova list.)

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  3. I don't get much of a chance to keep up with new musicals, or Broadway adaptations, even out here in Las Vegas, a cultural wonderland! (Actually, this city does have some good shows coming through here.) How can they do away with Addison's character? That's crazy! It was probably too obvious a choice, but my favorite quote from All About Eve was the flight attendant slogan of choice, 'Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be a bumpy flight.' author of the Pan Am Airlines Pages

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  4. Hi Gigi,
    Your favorite quote is not only 100% apropos considering your former career, but you're obviously in good company, as The American Film Institute voted it #9 among cinema's most memorable quotes ever.
    And if you're unfamiliar with the 1970 Broadway musical, you'd be happy to know an entire song is built around that single quote. Check it out on iTunes:
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/applause-original-broadway/id1016502
    P.S.
    I LOOOOOVE Las Vegas!

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  5. Thanks, Ken! I've posted your sites on my FBook page for my Los Angelino friends. I really like the Koo Koo California site. Reminds me Ed Byrnes- 'Kookie, Kookie, Lend me your comb!' 'Baby, you're the ginchiest!'

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  6. Hi Gigi
    Much appreciated! Thanks for visiting my other blog as well. You're probably the ONLY person I know (dating us both, perhaps) who actually GOT the "Koo Koo" reference of the title. It harkens back not only to "77 Sunset Strip" (I have that Connie Stevens song you reference on my ipod), but the Judy Holliday film "Bells Are Ringing" where she parodies this sort of hipster slang by using the words "Koo Koo!" as a term of approval. Thanks very much, Gigi! You're awfully nice(the ginchiest, if you will).

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  7. As always I enjoyed your analysis. I own a DVD of this but will stop & watch on TV when I run across it too. I think that's a common situation, I've had friends tell me they do the same.

    I'm not going to talk about Bette Davis's work other than to say she's great and the part does include all her well-known mannerisms, properly scaled and refined unlike in some of her other films, for example-Another Man's Poison where the word modulation has obviously been striken from her vocabulary. Margo's an iconic performance which has been examined almost to death but not my favorite of hers, that would be her work in Dark Victory.

    I'd rather focus on some of the other performers who contribute to the whole of making the picture the classic it is and how the accidents of fate played into it. Of course Davis stepped in for Claudette Colbert at the last minute and I think had that not happened it wouldn't have damaged the picture, it would have been a different one surely but Colbert was an expert at the kind of sophisticated dialogue the script contained.

    The casting that could have torpedoed the entire enterprise was the original intent to cast Jeanne Crain as Eve. A middling actress who did well in peppy comedies like An Apartment for Peggy she was an inexplicable favorite of Darryl Zanuck who constantly planned to put her in his best projects. She however was a remarkable fertile woman who was continually pregnant throughout her star tenure at Fox ending up with seven children, which is why she had to bow out of Eve. That was fortunate for the film because she never could have handled the part. Completely without Baxter's minx like slyness or honeyed sweetness she was all surface; no performance ever going beneath into the inner workings of the characters she essayed. The best performance I've ever seen her give was in A Letter to Three Wives and even there she was by far the weakest of the trio thereby making her vignette the thinnest in a great film, and that was with Mankiewicz directing her, I can't believe he would have been able to do more with her in Eve. Upon Jeanne's departure in the early planning of the film Anne Baxter was cast because of her resemblance to Colbert. Fortunately when Claudette then had to bow out too Anne remained and she is perfection in the role. An actress of great dignity and class but also one schooled in the theatrical manner something that occasionally got in the way of her work when she would slip into being MISS Anne Baxter it works to her advantage here. Everyone but Birdie, who spots her as a four-flusher right away, is so use to the artifice of backstage life that her cool naive farm girl act comes across as entirely plausible. Baxter possessed both the innocence and sweetness of nature to sell it as well as the underlying viciousness to later expose Eve's soulless ruthlessness.

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  8. Much has been made of Anne's refusal to submit herself as a best supporting actress candidate and how her insistance on going toe to toe with Bette for best actress cost Davis the award. That may be so but I have to side with Anne. There are two lead roles in the film neither is supporting and it would have been category fraud to slot them so. Anne already had a supporting actress Oscar for The Razor's Edge-ironically she had inherited that role from Susan Hayward when Susie had to bow out due to pregnancy, other people's children were very good to Miss Baxter, and properly saw this as her chance at a leading one, she was never nominated again.

    A few other actresses were considered for Karen Richards before Celeste Holm was cast and while the others, Shirley Booth, Jessica Tandy and the most intriguing of all and the only one who would have injected a similar feeling into the part, Alexis Smith were all superior actresses the right choice again was made. Holm, who from all I've read was an imperiously cold, haughty woman behind the scenes was an enchanting warm creature in front of the lens and she makes Karen the kind of intelligent funny woman anyone would want for a friend, and her laugh, like a tinkling piano, is always a pleasure to hear.

    I also adore George Sanders in this and shudder to think what Jose Ferrer, who was first choice for the role but for some reason not cast, would have done with the role. The pompous smugness with which he played most roles would have been proper for Addison's character but there is always something off putting about the man, at least to me. George Sanders certainly had that quality but there was an underlying warmth to him and charisma that Ferrer didn't possess and was essential to make Addison DeWitt appealing.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on the other part of Mankiewicz's one/two punch A Letter to Three Wives with my favorite actress of all Linda Darnell.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks for another terrific comment. You sound like you're a big fan of this film too, and I was going to recommend the Sam Stagg's book "All About All About Eve", but I think maybe you know it. It's fascinating to read about all the would-be casting stuff.
      I'm not a fan of Colbert, and Crain is such a limited actress, I cringe at the thought of how pedestrian this film might have come out with their participation.
      I enjoyed reading your thoughts on each of the supporting actors and their performances. I once tried to watch "A Letter to Three Wives" but I think I wasn't in the right mood. I got restless and just turned it off without giving it much of a try (As you might guess from my posts, I tend to respond to film from an emotional, almost instinctual place, so i seem to have to be in the right mood). This was when it aired on TCM and I tried watching it on their schedule. Maybe if I get if off Netflix and watch it when I'm primed, my experience will be different. I know my partner speaks highly of it. (I like that Linda Darnell is one of your all time favorite actresses! I'm so unfamiliar with her.)
      Lastly, I agree with you about the whole Davis/Baxter Academy Award thing. Too bad it caused a mini-rift, but I think of them both being the lead of the film as well. Thanks, Joel. Another enjoyable contribution!

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    2. Letter to Three Wives is great but it does start off with the weakest of the three stories, Jeanne Crain's. Even that one isn't bad and is important to the overall impact of the film but once it's out of the way the film really starts to cook with the marvelous Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas and Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas' final segment is terrific and brilliantly performed.

      Linda Darnell is so underappreciated. A fine actress who was frequently wasted in junk because of her great beauty, Wives is her best showcase but Hangover Square, Fallen Angel, Summer Storm, Unfaithfully Yours and the almost impossible to find This Is My Love all give her a chance to show that she was more than an incredibly lovely face. There's also Forever Amber which was supposed to push her to the top but the film itself isn't very good, she is within what's available for her to work with. The production code of the time though required the guts of the novel, a highly enjoyable page turner, be cut out so what's left is a pallid shadow with beautiful production design and ravishing costumes but little sense.

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  9. I just had to post the briefest comment (and compared to the previous, it is minuscule) to say that 'All About Eve' has to be one of my favourite films to quote along with 'The Women' (the original, of course). The dialogue can be so biting, so snide. You can be sure whenever I am on my pedestal, I'm channeling Bette Davis here.

    "Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke"

    Wonderful post Ken :)

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    1. Hi Mitchell
      Some Journalist long ago said that the charm of movies like this and "The Women" is that the characters speak in ways we ALL wish we could when we wanted to take someone down a peg.
      When confronted with rude clerks and lousy service...oh, to be able to channel a bit of Addison DeWitt snide.
      "All about Ever" is indeed one of the best in the quotable sweepstakes.
      I'm pleased you enjoyed the post enough to leave a comment, sharing your enjoyment of the film. Thank you very much!

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  10. For some reason I've never been able to get into the Karen Richards role, maybe because she's just no fun compared to Margo and Addison. The one moment she really appeals to me is when she explains very simply to Eve, about the men, that "They'll do as they're told."

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    1. I can see your point. The self-described "lowest form of celebrity" is a little too sane for the crowd to be much fun. I like her laughing jag at the table of the Cub Room. All at once she seems like the kind of friend everybody wishes they had.

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