Sunday, January 23, 2011

All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Boulevard

While the title of the film is All About Eve it is less about the character of Eve and more about the impact that she has when she enters the life of the aging actress, Margo Channing. The greatest scene in All About Eve is delivered by Bette Davis as Margo when she pauses on her staircase, turns to her anxious guests, and mischievously declares, “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!” Eve is the reason for this line being spoken. She is a catalyst that brings all of Margo’s fears and anxieties to the surface, and all of Margo’s petulant behavior comes right along with them.

The movie opens to a lavish awards ceremony where we meet the recipient of the night’s biggest award, the beautiful Eve Harrington. As Eve accepts the award that recognizes her as the brightest star in theatre she is greeted by rapturous applause. As the camera pans the room we focus in on two women in the audience who are neither clapping nor smiling. Instead these women brood darkly and watch the proceedings with bitter looks. As Eve is about to make her speech the narrator informs us that we shall now learn “all about Eve”.

From there we flashback one year and take another look at the two brooding women from the audience. Margo Channing is a talented actress sitting at the top of the theatre world. When we first meet her she has just finished a performance and is plastering her face with all manner of beauty treatments. It is clear that Margo struggles with the concept of her aging and with the inevitable effect it will soon have on her career. She is at this time a maturing woman playing twenty year old women on stage. The stress of her situation causes her to be prone to bouts of acting the teenage drama queen, a habit that has no doubt been encouraged by her position of fame.

Karen Richards, played by Celeste Holm, is the second of the brooding women, best friend to Margo, and wife to the playwright Lloyd Richards. It is Karen who introduces Margo to Eve, a timid and mousy girl who Karen has seen waiting outside the theatre night after night.

Eve is introduced as Margo’s biggest fan, a young girl who has stood in the rain to catch a glimpse of her day after day, and who has seen every single performance of Margo’s current play. When she does get a chance to explain her devotion to Margo her life story is touching and full of sadness. Those in the room instantly sympathize and like the impressionable young woman, so much so that Eve is almost instantly accepted by the group as a friend. It is only after a few months of this friendship has passed that we get to see behind the innocent little girl to the manipulating one out to seek her own fame and glory.

She quickly manipulates the men involved, most notably Margo’s lover, theatre director Bill Sampson, and Karen’s husband Lloyd. Before long, and against Margo’s wishes, Eve has become understudy to Margo, who has already figured out what motivates the young aspiring actress and attempted to put distance between them. I will leave the remainder of Eve’s machinations a mystery. As Eve’s reputation and status rises, Margo’s reputation begins to plummet and the better Eve is appreciated by everyone and the more innocent she appears, the more cruel, unkind, and full of bitterness Margo appears to her lover and friends. And honestly, it makes for great entertainment.

A special mention should be made to George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, a role that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Addison is our narrator and the only character in the film that appears immune to Eve’s Machiavellian ways, although it is clear that this immunity stems from his own slippery and conniving ways. Working as a theatre critic, and with an ever present sense of his own self importance, Addison DeWitt was one of the things I enjoyed most about this film. In one scene he arrives at a party with a blonde bombshell on his arm (an early role for the then new to the scene Marilyn Monroe), and immediately and effortlessly takes center stage. He is a socialite and a powerhouse in this theatre world and he knows it. His arrogance is great fun to watch.

I walked into All About Eve with little expectations and was stunned by how great of a movie it is. Nominated for a staggering 14 Oscars (a record that it held firm for 47 years until it was equaled by Titanic in 1997) this is a true classic and a film that has stood, and will stand, the tests of time.

Next Up: An American in Paris