All About Eve (1950)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 December (3.20 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the holiday period the BBC are screening Feud, the Fox series that dramatises the ‘rivalry’ between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. As a pair of veteran, Golden Age dames, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are spectacular in their respective roles, particularly the latter who essentially looks as though Davis herself has somehow walked out of time to appear personally. To tie in with the series, we are getting a short season of films starring the two old greats, and in All About Eve we have an opportunity to see the role that remains perhaps Bette Davis’s best remembered, an acting tour de force that’s so well performed and came at such a perfect time in the actor’s career that it’s possible to believe she was just playing herself.

While the film’s called All About Eve, it isn’t really. Its heart lies with two characters whose wit and cynicism provide the film with its soul – Davis’s ageing Margo, and the Sahara-dry theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who’s brought to sardonic life by George Sanders. Its four female stars were all Oscar nominated, and none of them won, the feeling being that their presence in lead and support categories split the vote, while Sanders ran away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It’s an appropriate merit for someone who gives the impression of having built up to this moment throughout his career. DeWitt is razor sharp, one step ahead and lights up the screen whenever he appears on it. Though his relationship with Eve suggests a marriage of convenience between friendly critic and rising star of the stage, the implication being that both are in fact gay and have united for mutual benefit, several scenes make it clear that he has her number and can always put her in her place, which adds a destructive and rotten note to their partnership.

All About Eve takes place in flashback, as Anne Baxter’s title character is receiving a prestigious honour and the film’s other main players are all present at the ceremony, recalling their memories of Eve. They remember the first time she entered their little company, appearing at the theatre where Margo stars and telling them of her hard luck history, and the hope inspired by seeing the play every night. All are charmed. Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo’s close friend and wife of the play’s writer, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), takes to Eve immediately and commits to helping her, encouraging the star to employ her as a private secretary. Margo agrees, and over time Eve becomes an essential member of her staff. Then the doubts start creeping in.

Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), suspects that Eve’s humility and willingness to do anything for her employer is a sham, that she spends all her time studying Margo, as though working ultimately to become her. This is a feeling Margo begins to share as the ‘perfect’ Eve anticipates her every whim a little too well, and her concerns grow when Eve talks Karen into letting her be an understudy to Margo’s new starring role. On the play’s first night, Margo is unable to make it to the theatre in time and can only sit, stranded, as her understudy takes over, arranging for the press to be present and giving a sublime performance, eventually landing the star-making part for herself. Before long, Eve is making moves on Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), and then it emerges that she and Karen cooked up a plan to ensure the play’s star was away on its opening night…

One of the film’s main themes is age. Margo, an established star, is 40 and still forced to take roles that are younger than she is, while Bill is eight years her junior. The suggestion is that her resentment of Eve boils down to the latter being just the right age to take over the lead roles she is used to performing, as well as being young, beautiful and ambitious. Before Eve’s duplicitous nature emerges, it’s implied that Margo’s suspicion of her is basic jealousy, something Margo exacerbates through acidic wit and sly put-downs. DeWitt is part of the problem, ever in search for a  new star to write about and promote. In an early scene, he seems to have discovered his muse in Miss Caswell, a young actress he brings along to the party Margo is throwing for Bill, but it transpires her radiance isn’t matched by talent, a vacuum that is waiting to be filled by none other than Eve. Miss Caswell is played by Marilyn Monroe in an early appearance; her scenes highlight her beauty and the way the men fall around her, something else for Margo’s insecurities to fixate upon. The party starts well but turns bitter as Margo drinks heavily and her tongue becomes caustic, lashing out at everyone around her before she retires and everyone else shuffles home. The stars, it turns out, might  be drawn to Miss Carswell and Eve, but they’re in a fixed orbit around Margo.

As Eve, Baxter is not as good as Davis and perhaps that’s entirely the point. The issue isn’t so much her talent as an actor, but her willingness to scheme and plot with no scruples, as part of an industry that in its women prizes youth over experience and ability. She’s worth following however, especially in the film’s earlier scenes when, as Birdy suggests, she does indeed spend her time on screen watching Margo like a hawk, studying her every mannerism. Also very good are Ritter and Holm in their supporting roles, though rightly it’s Davis who the camera loves and indulges, and she is good value in every second she’s on the screen, still a captivating presence despite the perceived diminishing of all those miles on the clock.

Personally, while I have no trouble admiring All About Eve, its acerbic dialogue and finely drawn characters, it isn’t a title I especially enjoy. There’s something about it that’s a bit too clever, too knowing, at the expense of elements like pace, a build of suspense. For me, the same year’s Sunset Boulevard has everything this one lacks. It’s better constructed, like this one telling a complicated story in flashback (and for added value, they’re the memories of a dead man) but building up to its finale in a dizzying, compulsive way that Eve, for all its smartness, never matches. Perhaps the fault lies in the identity of the directors. Sunset Boulevard was a Billy Wilder film, from most points of view a seal of quality, whereas Joseph L Mankiewcz directed All About Eve. With a background in writing and production before he took to ‘the chair’, Mankiewicz had an efficient eye and clearly no problem with bringing written dialogue to life, but the film seems happy moving from scene to scene without ever fully joining the dots.

What remains is a technically fine film, featuring some truly great performances and a haul of awards, indicating that in my mixed reaction I’m most probably wrong about it. Certainly it’s a celebrated piece of work, routinely occupying spots near the top of most lists and remaining an important touchstone in the career of Bette Davis, even if Sanders deserves more praise than he generally receives in a sea of acclaim for its complementary female performances. There’s even a very nice coda to the film that suggests it’s all cyclical, and that Eve will come to suffer the same fate as the one she inflicted on Margo.

All About Eve: ****

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10 Replies to “All About Eve (1950)”

  1. I saw the first two episodes of FEUD but gave up as I got annoyed by how much has been faked or rather artlessly shoehorned in for my tastes. But ALL ABOUT EVE is a near-perfect film, can’t wait to watch that again.

    1. Thanks Sergio. I’ve seen the first episode of FEUD and am intrigued by it, if for no other reason then it’s nice to see these old yarns picked over. I hope they don’t take Joan Crawford totally down the MOMMIE DEAREST route, but I will catch more of it to see.

  2. I haven’t seen the new TV show yet, but I’ll catch up with it at some point, no doubt.
    This is a very good film, justly celebrated in my opinion and with a a cast and crew like it has, that’s not such a surprise.
    Your conclusions interest me, I have to say. I have a lot of admiration for Mankiewicz as a filmmaker and would rate a number of his movies highly, but I paused and thought about your comment on the smartness of this film which you feel comes at some expense to other elements. I hadn’t thought about that before – I’ll need to chew that over a bit.

    1. Thanks Colin. Similar respect for Mankiewicz from this end – I can’t even begin to imagine the toll working on CLEOPATRA must have taken – and several of his titles, especially SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and HOUSE OF STRANGERS I think are excellent, and to be fair I rate ALL ABOUT EVE highly. The dialogue sizzles and Davis and Sanders are very, very good, not to mention supported ably. However I took the opportunity to compare it, as a major award winner, with SUNSET BOULEVARD, its rival in the awards,, and as a whole I just think the latter works better as a complete piece of work (let alone THE THIRD MAN, also from the same ‘Oscars’ year).

      It’s difficult. Some films commented upon over this period I’ve handed top marks to, and I can see why AAE coming in a little lower would be viewed as controversial. Still, I can only call them as I see them ultimately, and as clever a film as it is I don’t believe it’s perfect.

      As for FEUD I’ve only just started watching it, and already there’s a suggestion that the characters fit a perception rather than follow reality. Personally I just enjoy seeing these stories told, even in a skewed way, and Susan Sarandon as Davis is great casting.

      1. There was some real quality represented at the Oscars in lots of categories that year. Aside from the films mentioned, we had Broken Arrow, Harvey, The Furies, Born Yesterday, The Asphalt Jungle and others all up for various awards. It’s enough to make your head swim!

    1. Thanks Maddy. She’s great, isn’t she? I read somewhere a comment from a contemporary that when she was in a scene she tended to occupy all its light, and you really get that in her cameo here. When she’s sat on the staircase with the other characters, talking about sable/gable and wanting her drink, she does seem to put everything and everyone in the shade.

      1. She sure was. Marilyn had a quality about her that meant you can’t look at anyone else but her when she is on screen. She was also a much better actress than some people give her credit for. I wish she had been given more roles like Niagara, Don’t Bother To Knock and The Misfits.

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