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: ****

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

An acting masterclass from Bette Davis or the archetypal boring mess of a film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (or Elizabeth and Essex, or as Errol Flynn would have had it, The Knight and the Lady) has divided opinion since its 1939 release. Made as a prestige picture showcasing Davis’s talents, hoovering up a significant portion of Warner Bros’s money and gunning for Oscar glory, it was utterly eclipsed at the Academy Awards by a certain, obscure little film centred on the American Civil War.

Much interest in the film has since revolved around a difficult production period. Davis pretty much arranged the green light with her Oscar for Jezebel fresh in the bag and her personal prestige at its height. For the role of Essex, she wanted Laurence Olivier, but the up and coming British actor was otherwise engaged on Wuthering Heights and not considered to be big time enough to star opposite Davis. Ultimately, Errol Flynn was hired, a decision based entirely on his star power. Davis was outraged, sensing Flynn simply didn’t have the actorly range for the production. There was also a mutual dislike between Flynn and the film’s director, Michael Curtiz. Despite the pair producing such winning results on the screen, off it was a seething discord based on Flynn’s hedonistic lifestyle and unwillingness to master some of the basics, such as learning his lines.

The loathing between Flynn and Davis expressed itself in a famous scene that made the final cut of the film. Required to slap him before the entire court, Davis went for a real wallop rather than the usual ‘screen blow,’ prompting a furious reaction from Flynn that obviously wasn’t faked. The moment was remembered by Flynn in his autobiography – ‘My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets and shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn’t knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf.’

Whether she clocked Flynn to make the moment as authentic as possible, to reprimand him for his cavalier lack of professionalism or out of sheer spite, Davis kind of got lucky. Had she been given her own way, Elizabeth and Essex might have been an extremely worthy yet dull affair. Her performance as the Queen was technically spot on, sucking all the glamour out of the character (Elizabeth was in her mid-sixties when the events recorded in the film took place) to present an austere, distant regent who nevertheless retained a degree of magnetism. She even shaved part of her head to make the wig-wearing queen that little bit more authentic. But her heavy handedness needed Flynn’s light touch to give the piece some balance. It’s all reflected in the sets, designed by Anton Grot. Inspired by German expressionism, Grot delivered undecorated high walls and vast chambers for Elizabeth’s palace, where she spends the entirety of the film. The imagery was gloriously clear – here’s the unreadable queen, tender one moment and fuelled with rage the next, capable of beguiling men much younger than her and discarding them with a moment’s thought.

The work that went into it finds its finest expression in the film’s closing scenes, as Essex awaits execution in the Tower. Elizabeth is staying in a room above the prison, another chamber devoid of anything other than a throne and painted as white as the queen’s own face. The only time colour enters is from the steps that open at its floor, from which yellow light seeps in. When Essex emerges, the light floods in with him. When he goes, it disappears, a perfect comparison of the two characters and of the tension between the actors that breathed life into their chemistry together. A raft of fine actors – Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell – turn up as scheming courtiers, attempting to influence the queen as much as they owe their very existence to her whim, but the focus remains on the leads and their perpetual dance of love and death.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: ***