June 28, 2011

#28: All About Eve

"Everybody has a heart... except some people."

I have been looking forward to rewatching Joseph Mankiewicz's masterful 1950 tale of backstage backstabbing, All About Eve, since the blog project began. I only saw it in college and never again since, and now after rewatching it, it's been reaffirmed as one of my favorite classics. (Found it on Amazon used for eight bucks: boom!) It's one of those rare films that seems not to have aged, aided by swift direction, out-of-this-world performances from top-tier actors and what is possibly the greatest screenplay ever written. Oh, and fourteen Oscar nominations (paralleled only by Titanic forty-seven years later).

Company: now that we're getting to the top of the list, it's easier to entice folks in for the night! Along for the "bumpy night" were Paul and Ryan, delightful actors and friends who celebrated their two-year anniversary the next night; Bonni, major fan and beauty; Alex, supplier of sweet snacks and disposition; Kecia, roommate and hostess who really ought to go as Bette Davis for Halloween; and Adam, whose obsession with the film is so great that his shirt purposely matched one of Bette Davis' signature dresses... even though the film is in black-and-white (he still knew).

Cuisine: popcorn with various spices, cheeses and/or truffle salts; a major bowl of M&Ms in various iterations; and beer aplenty.

After a brief prologue in which we see a young actress receiving a major acting award in front of people who are shooting daggers from their eyes at her face, harshly narrated by theater critic Addison DeWitt (Oscar winner George Sanders), we flash back. (Second flashback film in a row!) A year earlier, Karen Richards (Oscar nominee Celeste Holm) is going backstage after a performance to see her old friend, aging but respected Broadway star Margo Channing (Oscar nominee Bette Davis), when she happens upon a young fan, Eve Harrington (Oscar nominee Anne Baxter), who claims to have seen every performance of Channing's current outing, a melodrama called "Aged in Wood," but doesn't have the guts to introduce herself. Karen takes an interest in her and brings her backstage to meet her idol, and in the process also meets Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's fling Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and Margo's quippy maid Birdie (Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter). [ That's right folks, FIVE acting nominees, including four women (the second feat has never since been achieved by any film). ] Having piqued everyone's interest, even the jaded Margo, Eve tells her life story, particularly how it's been enhanced by Ms. Channing's performances. Margo, vain as she is, falls for the girl and gives her a job as her personal assistant.

Margo Channing is a fascinating character, first because of that remarkable switch. At first, Margo is hesitant, even cruel about meeting a fan, but when she hears Eve's tale of adoration, her compassion and tenderness flip on like a light. Birdie is rightfully put off by this new girl in Margo's employ and lays claim to the first sneaking suspicions about Eve. As an audience, we can tell there's something creepy about Anne Baxter's breathy delivery and Terminator-like focus, but nearly every character on screen takes it for sincerity and simplicity... at least at first. But Margo's initial trust of Eve slowly erodes and reveals layer upon drunken layer of paranoia and delusion.

What Eve plays off as simple dreams of a small-town girl Margo slowly starts to take as conniving betrayal. Divas in full force! But her friends don't share or endorse her apprehensions, and soon, it really does become a famously "bumpy night." Alfred Newman's score gives away a little of the surprise, but we're still clutching our pearls all the same.

Is Margo Channing right? Was she right from the beginning to distrust a fan, to even consider fans sub-human?

LLOYD: Have you no human consideration?
MARGO: Show me a human and I might have.

The film deceptively paints her as the villain at first, leaving Eve in the shadows and allowing Margo to wrestle her way to the top of the first half of the story. She appears her alongside her own caricature outside the theater: the audience believes her to be a cartoon, living in a delusional fantasy where every other actress is struggling to take her down. But Eve plays it cool, appearing aloof at even the slightest hint of aggression towards her. Soon, she manages to turn everyone against Margo: her friends, her confidantes, her lover, even the playwright who wrote the role Margo is so terrified of losing to Eve.

"Sink in your mink." -- Ryan Grimes

In order to teach Margo a lesson, Karen devises a plan to have her miss a performance, stalling her car and necessitating Eve's understudy performance that earns raves from critics who all happen to catch her one-night-only engagement. Little does Karen know that Eve planted the idea in her brain in the first place and will use it to her advantage later. Stuck in the car and awaiting help, one of the most telling conversations is also one of the most heartbreaking:

MARGO: So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.
KAREN: You're Margo, just Margo.
MARGO: And what is that, besides something spelled out in light bulbs, I mean - besides something called a temperament, which consists mostly of swooping about on a broomstick and screaming at the top of my voice? Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want, when they feel unwanted or insecure or unloved.

This is perhaps the most vulnerable and honest we'll see Margo, however short-lived. She reconciles her fame and her mortality, and seems on the verge of atonement. But she (and the rest of her duped friends) are about to "go to their battle stations."

Much of the film's success lies in Mankiewicz's unparalleled screenplay, endlessly witty and only rivalled on this list by Network, in my opinion, for originality and a generous dose of great characters. The whole affair is awash in backstage bitchery and depressing theater metaphors, which alone would make it must-see entertainment for actors and theater folk. Luckily, it's also blessed by flawless performances from a huge principal cast.

"Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."

George Sanders won an Oscar for his performance as the jaded critic Addison DeWitt, but you're not sure why until his phenomenal last scene. Though wooden for most of the film, Baxter's portrayal of Eve as a conniving skank is spot-on, and her come-uppance is cheer-worthy. Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe all have chances to shine as well. How many films can you say that about -- SO many juicy roles? Not a lot, says I.

Has Eve become Margo by the end? Is that her greatest curse, or is it that the cycle could start all over again and come back to bite her in the ass? The film's famous ending had me reaching for the rewind button so I could watch it all over again -- or at the very least, finding it used on Amazon so I could watch it whenever, wherever. A total classic, and one I enjoyed even more in the company of friends invested in and intrigued by the bitch factor. A fantastic film, top to bottom.

How can you top that? Gary Cooper's gonna try: it's High Noon, folks.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog, my friend! That's awesome you found a photo of the infamous "sink in your mink"