All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It may or may not be true that egotism lurks somewhere within all great art, but one doesn’t have to be a part of any creative platform to be aware that the grandest of stars and writers and picture-making weirdos from showbiz to starving-artist are in a crucial sense different from you and me. But even more importantly, and in more telling and crucial ways, they are exactly the same as you and me. Hence the dichotomy of selfishness, cruelty, insecurity, humanity that haunts the characters of All About Eve — some, in the end, are good people, some are not, but all are identifiably people, and all finally come to deserve both our empathy and our scorn in almost equal turns.

More than twenty years after the introduction of sound, All About Eve might lay claim to being the first American film that is a masterpiece principally because of its dialogue. That isn’t to discount writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s visual capability, which is subtle but powerful, but just to exhibit how much story and character are brought in front in spoken words, with all other elements meant to revolve around them and the movie-world sleight of hand most directors would employ in the opposite fashion serving largely to hide what is seen behind what is heard. Mankiewicz’s screenplay, available to read online, reveals that much of what’s said in the film is verbatim from the script, the words constructed with telling precision. Eve has been tiresomely labeled “the bitchiest film ever made” by a number of people who should’ve known better; there’s so much more going on here, and what Mankiewicz has really achieved is a dual narrative with dual subjects and dual purposes — we’re so caught up in the way they intermingle that we scarcely notice. A lesser director could never have hidden his structure so deftly.

Mankiewicz made this film immediately after the social problem drama No Way Out, a very different movie, and it’s clear from the vital language and expression in his script that this was a story he’d longed to tell; after the somewhat muted professionalism of films like House of Strangers and A Letter to Three Wives, it’s here that he seems to reveal something deep and true of himself, gleefully taking on mouthpiece after mouthpiece but giving them all distinct personality and purpose. There’s a mild sense that the actions of the characters seem out of his hands once they’re created and defined — the mere interaction of their disparate needs and problems seems enough to light the fire of the piece.

In case you’re not aware, All About Eve concerns an aging but still beautiful and glamorous Broadway actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), initially charmed then besieged by an almost obsessive protege named Eve (Anne Baxter) who begins as a stalkerish fan then becomes her assistant and finally her understudy, at each turn gradually revealing more of her true colors until her behavior is in the end explicitly malicious and self-serving. But other faces and impulses enter here, from Margo’s closest friend Karen (Celeste Holm) and her husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), the playwright behind Margo’s current show; Margo’s lover and director Bill (Gary Merrill); and most importantly of all, a hanging-on theater critic named Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), whose wise but acidic judgment calls place much of the story into motion.

Mankiewicz covers a lot of ground in surprisingly little time; the film runs over two hours but doesn’t feel long in any negative manner. Though the respective arcs of Margo and Eve that drive the film couldn’t exist or work without one another, they finally unfold and resolve separately. Margo’s half of the film is a profound screed about femininity, specifically the societally-crafted construct of paranoia at one’s aging — Davis embodies the sad-eyed cruelty of a body that does not wish to grow older, but the film is far more sympathetic to this than, say, Sunset Blvd., and in fact allows Margo to find her own peace while making explicit the attraction and power she continues to hold over others. Meanwhile, the drama of Eve gradually hiding her rampant cruelty less and less until she and Addison form an alliance against the outer world, a force they both find despicable along with everything except the theater, amounts to a larger narrative about art itself — how its validation of the eccentric, the individual, the Type Z who’d never succeed anywhere else in life, operates with the slight consequence of feeding the worst caverns of human nature in its insular, permissive world. The redemption of those of us lucky enough to love and connect to the work is often thanks in part to jealousies, fears, and acts of bold cattiness we’re never meant to know about. All About Eve tells us about them, in witty and elaborate detail, and demands to know if it changes anything.

One reason the sense of voyeurism, of being led behind the scenes, is so persuasive is that Mankiewicz’s direction is so — oddly, at first — untheatrical. He frames his performers beautifully but resists straight-on takes, establishing shots, and a sense of location, opting instead for a claustrophobic and fragmented space that places heavy emphasis on faces and gestures: the better to promote his words, sure, but also to underline the separation of the stage life of these people and their real, regular life, the gulf or lack thereof between “theater” (or cinema) and “the real world” being one of the key conflicts of moviemaking. The separation of the curtain, so to speak. All About Eve is also demanding of its audience; it expects them to keep up with its often rapid-fire dialogue, to fall in quickly with its unusually sharp and cynical tone, and to be prepared for the deliberate phrasing of its characters as being that of “theater people.” No attempt is made to deflower or grit up their dialogue, which is cleverly reflective at every turn of their profession. One of the other great dialogue-driven films, Broadcast News, would later follow this example on the completely sound theory that what we do for a living informs and changes us, especially if we’re passionate about it.

Perhaps most interestingly, like Sunset Blvd., All About Eve expects us to walk into the cinema with a relative awareness of how other movies work; its impact depends on context, so that its brilliant undercutting of Hollywood sheen carries maximum fury. The tone is set brilliantly, especially by Anne Baxter’s performance, to fit us with certain expectations that we are sure won’t be fulfilled — the way she seems just slightly to be an off-kilter maniac but this is a movie so we believe we’re meant to take her at face value. Outside of the tropes of American filmmaking, we’d never correct ourselves thusly; we’d know from the beginning that Eve was a sinister figure, with or without George Sanders’ voiceover. But because of the audience we are when we see All About Eve, we find our expectations delightfully undercut by, well, our expectations — the film is unafraid to confirm suspicions and delight in our shock, while never letting its characters get consumed under the weight of any gimmickry. That biting, modern feeling conversely helps make Eve valuable for even the most weary and irony-driven viewer today. All About Eve was one of the first “classic Hollywood” films I fell in love with that wasn’t a thriller, and I think it’s an excellent introduction to the often sublime possibilities realized under the studio system. To borrow a tired phrase, it has the courage of its convictions in a sense we still don’t see much from Hollywood pictures.

Unfair as it is to cast All About Eve as all sniping back and forth and the very specific and distant problems of “theater people,” there’s no question that Mankiewicz does those things right — righter than anyone. More universally though, his characterizations are next to flawless, as are his depictions of interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. Some feel he skimped on the male characters save Addison, but both straight men acquit themselves believably, especially Merrill as the long suffering Bill. No question, however, that Addison upstages them. It’s popular to read him as a homosexual archetype, a position George Sanders seems to have relished and seized upon despite being straight himself, and there’s considerable power to the stance given that the same is frequently said of Anne Baxter’s Eve (though reading the film closely, they each are more likely to be bisexual) — there is the unmistakable sense of an uncloseting when Addison confronts Eve with “the truth” and announces that she “belongs” to him now. The sexual layer is hard to miss here, though it seems to me to edge closer to sadomasochism, especially in the way it’s filmed like a thriller and features Sanders demanding obedience. (“Are you listening to me?” [Baxter nods.] “Then say so!” “Yes, Addison.”) But more clearly I think it’s a snaring of Eve by the audience, an indictment that features Addison — who narrated the first part of the film, after all — as a stand-in for us. He knows it all and she thus belongs to him. The same is true for us, now.

The arguments are rich through and through, the jokes still sparkle, the upending of “older women” stereotypes is delicious (a welcome antidote to Sunset Blvd., good and playful as it is), and as much as the script makes the machine operate, it’s the performances that render the film magic. Bette Davis was never more cutting and multidimensional; my favorite moment of hers in the film is her reaction to Eve’s unannounced planning of a midnight birthday call to Bill. Besides that, no one is given more florid speeches by Mankiewicz than Davis, and no one rises to the occasion more brilliantly. Anne Baxter, one of the best actresses of her time, is phenomenally sinister and coy; you can almost hear the director’s delight at how clearly she “got” the role, having based it on an apparently creepy understudy of hers. Thelma Ritter, as Margo’s perpetually annoyed maid Birdie, is outrageously funny as always, and it’s a pity she disappears at the halfway point. But Sanders above all is the giant of the production; he changes nothing in the screenplay, yet his every word is as impeccably dry and natural as if he’d just delivered it off the top of his head — that’s how good Sanders was at playing the suave jerkass. Of course he could do so much else besides, but here he fulfills completely the promise exhibited in his small part as a busybody creep in Rebecca (Rebecca’s “favorite cousin”).

And oh, that final shot. The first time I saw All About Eve it had won me over well before the halfway point but the gorgeously shot and tremendously clever, sharp, brutally direct and cynical finale gave me that run-around-the-room-a-few-times feeling. The cyclical sensibility of the conclusion gives the lie more than any line of dialogue to Margo’s paranoia about everything leaving her behind — nothing ever really changes about human nature, and that’s horribly frightening and beautiful, and that’s the contradiction we’re left with — and the one we eagerly come back to when we revisit this rewarding and wonderful movie.

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