Saturday, March 22, 2008

19. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

omgz i wrote something?!!

All About Eve came out in 1950, the same year as Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s subversive portayal of Hollywood and its actors. Mankiewicz was equally scathing in his look at the world of Broadway stage, portraying the mythical ruthlessness and petulance of stage actors. Both were big hits, and All About Eve was nominated for a record fourteen Oscars, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing.

It’s the best film about theatre that I've seen, also happening to say more about the film industry too. Sunset Boulevard might be the film about stars that dwell in the glory days of the past and live in self-delusion, but All About Eve demonstrates how they allowed their egos to get like that.

Like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve tells its story in the form of a flashback. It all kicks off with the presentation of a prestigious stage-acting award to the eponymous Eve Harrington, accompanied by the commentary of theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He introduces us to the players in the world of Broadway before we go 9 months back in history before Eve was a star.

The film then charts the story Eve and how she has wormed her way into the acting clan. She does so by getting into a circle of theatre friends around an aging (and insecure about it) actress Margo Channing, whom she attempts to be a protégé of, using her a persona of friendliness and self-deprecation to mask a sinister plan of getting to the top.

All About Eve is an absolute treat in terms of acting. The role of the older actress, Margo Channing, was considered for a range of in-form actresses, from Gertrude Lawrence (wanted script changes that the director did not), Susan Hayward (too young), Claudette Colbert (pulled out back injury), Marlene Dietrich (Mankiewicz didn't love her), and Ingrid Bergman (would not leave Italy) before Bette Davis was finally chosen.

It’s the role of her lifetime, playing a character that ran only too true – a brilliant actress, but one who felt her time was running out. Bette Davis knew she was handed a dream role when she was cast as the resolute diva caught up in the throes of mid-life crisis both on- and off-stage, and she’s amazing her in performance. She’s selfish and tough yet at the same time, vulnerable and insecure.

Getting suspicious about her increasingly distrustful follower Eve, Margo lets her friends know that she doesn’t trust her, though they, taken to Eve’s put-on niceness, disagree, mistaking her fear for jealousy and harshness. Not willing to resolve the problem in a dignified way, Margo goes on a rampage and has a go at anyone who comes near her.

Bette Davis was born to play Margo Channing and, in my opinion, is even better than Swanson in Sunset Blvd. She can be a catty cow or a coy pussycat, and Davis loves every scene she gets to tear into. At the same time, however, she evokes real sympathy for Margo. The film may be titled All About Eve, but Margo is and always will be the real star of the movie.

Her supporting cast are to die for. Celeste Holm is excellent as Margo's sensible best friend, who at first is on Eve's side but eventually sees how conniving she can be and how ruthless she is in climbing to the top. When she took on the narration, I just got the feeling that things would turn out alright for Margo. She's the closest character to any of the audience throughout the movie, as, she is pretty much a spectator herself.

Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe are a joy in their respective roles as Margo’s boyfriend and playwright. George Sanders plays his trademark role as the cad with such cynicism and unfriendliness that it’s no wonder he bagged the Oscar. As the diabolical theatre critic, he has some of the best lines of the movie.

Thelma Ritter again proves why she is the best supporting player in the biz - as coarse but loyal Birdie Coonan, a member of Margo's "drone". Anne Baxter is pretty good as the sneaky Eve, though obviously my opinion of her performance is tainted by the fact that I despise her character (realistic as it was). There’s even space for a Marylin Monroe cameo, in which she steals the show in the ditzy-blonde trope that she would carry for the rest of her acting life.

All About Eve's screenplay is another one of its assets. Written by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the Mary Orr play "The Wisdom of Eve," it features strong characters and great dialogue that is witty, bitching and biting. Despite its running time, at nearly 2 and a half hours, it never drags on. Each of the characters are so perfectly drawn, you could imagine them doing things just like that in the 50s.

Femininity, aging, betrayal, manipulation and ambition are just a few of the themes touched upon in All About Eve. It's funny, but it's also a lot cleverer than it looks. It's got melodrama, yet somehow never goes over the top. All About Eve takes the age-old story of a young performer buttering up an old one, with the intention of usurping them, but makes it into something new, something utterly brilliant. Not to be missed.