Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Classic Throwback: All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Films now considered to be ‘cinematic classics’ are often difficult to judge when viewing them in a completely different context, and not to mention the absence of a cinema, decades later. It is near impossible to escape preconceptions, and quite often you enter the film with extremely high expectations of the film being nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. In some cases, one can be left disappointed and confused as to why the film was endowed with such acclaim and status. For me, The Maltese Falcon and Bonnie and Clyde are two such films that I really wasn’t thrilled with. But Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Double Indemnity, The Third Man, The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard are all films that I feel have transcended time, and still prove to be entertaining and resonant today. All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ highly polished, literate and sophisticated 1950 drama is certainly another.

All About Eve is both written and directed by Mankiewicz (Sleuth), based on the 1946 short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr. As one of the finest examples of old-school Hollywood filmmaking, the film stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a highly regarded but ageing Broadway star. Anne Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a willingly helpful young fan, who has been plagued by a hard life and is befriended by Margo. But soon enough Eve’s secret ambition becomes more and more evident as she slyly insinuates herself into Margo’s life, ultimately threatening her career and personal relationships. All About Eve is renowned because it was nominated for 14 Academy Awards (a feat not matched until James Cameron’s Titanic came along in 1997). It won six, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. As the quintessential depiction of ruthless ambition in the entertainment industry, it features legendary performances from its brilliant ensemble cast.

The film opens at an awards dinner, where Eve Harrington (Baxter) – the newest breakout star on Broadway – is being presented the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance as Cora in Footsteps on the Ceiling. Theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) observes the proceedings and explains in a voiceover that Eve’s swift rise to fame over the past 12 months is worthy of quite a tale. “Eve, the golden girl, the cover girl, the girl next door. Time had been good to Eve” he muses. The film flashes back to introduce the eccentric personality of Margo Channing (a tour-de-force performance by Davis), one of the biggest stars on Broadway. While gifted with talented and loyal friends surrounding her, she is bemoaning her age and pondering the challenges it will soon pose on her career.

Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of the play’s author Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), meets sympathetic young fan Eve in an alley beside the theatre. Recognizing her, having passed her a number of times on the night of the show, Karen offers to take her backstage to meet Margo. There she reveals that she had seen every performance of Margo’s current play, Aged in Wood and tells a moving story to the group of people gathered in Margo’s dressing room, including Margo’s fiancé Bill Sampson (Gary Merrrill), and maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), of a difficult life, including being orphaned and losing her husband in World War II. Flattering in her idolatry of Margo, Eve is befriended by Margo, moved into her into her home and enlisted her as her assistant. Only Birdie senses something amiss (an intelligence, a compulsion to lie, an obsessive quality) about the sweet, soft-spoken and willful young girl.

Margo is at first thrilled to have me a young girl who possesses such rare qualities as warmth, loyalty, devotion and a passionate interest in Broadway and Hollywood. But she soon develops a paranoiac insecurity about Eve's intentions. Eve repays Margo's trust by worming into her idol's personal and professional life, working to supplant Margo. She schemes to become her understudy behind her back and conspires with an unsuspecting Karen to cause Margo to miss a performance. She also beguiles the loyal but devious DeWitt and attempts to steal Bill and Lloyd away, both of whom have become smitten by Eve's talents and allure following her revolutionary audition, not to mention the idea that the 24 year-old would be reading the lines of 24 year-old character.

It’s easy to see why All About Eve is an established American classic; it still holds up pretty well today. Mankiewicz’ outstanding screenplay is sharp and snappy, witty and sophisticated, but above all, cynical. Though it is considered one of the darkest films ever about the nature of show business, it's also a very amusing film. What makes it so great is the fact that it is such an insight into the backstage of show business. We never actually see any of the on-stage performances; they are either discussed before or after. Mankiewicz presents a number of particular personality types, not just the struggle between the ageing star and the bright up-and-comer, but also playwrights, directors and critics, each with their own ambitions, and individual attitudes toward the theatre. It comes across as strikingly authentic. There was also an antagonism that existed between Hollywood and Broadway at the time, with Bill spending part of the film away directing in Hollywood, openly declaring that he found there was too much bourgeois in the theatre.

It just feels so polished, which is what makes it so watchable. The actors are always perfectly balanced in the frame, the lighting is superb and the editing thoughtful. Despite being heavily reliant on the dialogue, there is plenty of activity enriching the conversations to ensure it is engaging. Mankiewicz really captures brilliant performances from the entire cast, allowing the camera to linger on Davis and Baxter as they deliver lengthy monologues, only cutting away to capture a well-timed reaction or response from another character. As the cast moves around the dressing room, or any other location, the sweeping camera follows them in precise and calculated fashion. It's very dense thematically, delving into the blurring between fandom and ambition, ageism in show business and the control critics can have over the careers of performers.

Bette Davis was really something special in this film, winning Best Actress at Cannes that year, but Anne Baxter I found to be a little weak at times. While she seems to be the epitome of ambition, her motivation isn't really explained. She has some exceptional moments, shifting between mousy and sensitive to ruthless and malicious and back in the space of a few sentences. She was quite inexpressive though and always seemed to be projecting off screen as if she was in stage performance mode. All About Eve also features an important early role for Marilyn Monroe. She was actually quite awful as Addison's accompaniment to one of Margo's parties. But across the board, the cast cannot be faulted. Nor can the film. It's truly a delight and while I don't think any film is deserving of 14 Academy Award Nominations, All About Eve will nevertheless remain an esteemed classic of the cinema for years to come.


  1. Nicely done. Glad you enjoyed it. I agree with your thoughts on the screenplay and so often wish more writers these days could write material this sharp. It's such a classically made movie but still feels a bit ahead of its time. I'm pretty sure this has inspired me to watch it again.

    But you really thought Monroe was awful? I always thought she was kind of the naive innocent who completely takes over a room much to the dismay and jealousy of all the women around her and doesn't even realize she's done it.

  2. One of the largest classics I haven't seen. I kinda agree about the "no film deserving 14 Academy Awards" ... that seems ridiculous.

    Nice review Andy.

  3. LOVE this flick. Completely agree that it holds up even today...the dialogue is SO sharp. I do remember not entirely believing DeWitt's motivations towards the end of the film (trying to avoid spoilers here :P). But beyond that I don't think I can fault the film at all.

  4. @ Nicholas - Yeah, the dialogue was so sharp and sophisticated. I loved it. Yeah, it seemed like Marilyn was really awkward and nervous. I thought I saw her look off camera a couple of times too. I dunno. I do see what you mean, though.

    @ Sam - Yeah, it is a classic, and it deserved recognition in a lot of categories (pic, director, screenplay, costumes, acting) but that's a lot!

    @ Tom - I think Eve was almost too much of a caricature at times, but, yeah, pretty much flawless.

  5. All About Eve is one of my all time favorites and, like you said, it's Mankiewicz's superb script that makes this film an easy watch today.

    I'm not a huge fans of films filled with people talking, but this one is so well written that every scene oozes with great lines.

    I also love the cynical story and dark turns it takes along the way. It's one of the classics I can recommend to just about anyone who likes movies.

  6. You said it. Such fluent, sophisticated and cynical dialogue makes for an absorbing experience. I will find myself recommending All About Eve too.