Tuesday, February 19, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz                      Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders and Celeste Holm

All About Eve is a strange film. Released the same year, it’s often mentioned in the same breath as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, as both of the two films deal with ageing actresses. But apart from that they could not be more different. Where Wilder’s movie is all about the movies, bordering on film noir with a dead man narrating his demise at the hands of a femme fatale, Joseph Mankiewicz’s production feels more like a stage play, consciously or unconsciously replicating the theatrical milieu of story itself. If Gloria Swanson’s faded silent film star Norma Desmond is like “the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while,” Bette Davis’s Margot Channing is a set of fingernails being scraped across a chalkboard. The real irony is that Sunset Boulevard has gone on to achieve legendary status as an iconic film, recognized for its genius and greatness, and yet it was All About Eve that took home the Oscar for best picture of 1950. Academy Awards also went to Mankiewicz, for both writing and directing, George Sanders for best supporting actor, and to the costumes and sound recording. Two hours into the film, after learning all there is to know about Eve, one almost wishes they hadn’t. And that’s kind of the feeling one is left with after watching it. It’s a good, well-written and entertaining film, but none of what happens on the surface is what makes it so.

The film opens up at an awards ceremony, with drama critic George Sanders narrating. The recipient of the award is Anne Baxter, as the titular Eve. But her story comes later. Sanders introduces himself and all of the principals sitting around the table at the ceremony. Then the narration shifts to Celeste Holm as she tells how they first met Baxter. She was an obsessed fan who waited by the back stage door to see Bette Davis arrive and leave, and watched every performance of her play. Holm brings her back to the dressing room one night to meet Davis and her gang, playwright Hugh Marlowe, Holm’s husband, director Gary Merrill, Davis’s boyfriend who is heading off to Hollywood, and Thelma Ritter, former vaudeville actress now housekeeper and costume mistress. Of course Baxter gushes over Davis and gives an overly dramatic and flowery account of her life—her local community theater was like a drop of rain on a desert—ugh, and for some reason they buy every word of it. It’s painful to watch Baxter oozing with insincerity but Davis, like Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, can’t resist the flattery. When Baxter is alone with Merrill and he rants to her how phony the theater is, her intense earnestness gives away the fact that he’s preaching to the choir. As Davis takes up the narration Baxter insinuates herself into the actresses life and Davis, like a frog in gradually heated water, doesn’t realize until it’s too late. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who does.

What the film is more than anything else is a female homoerotic version of A Star is Born, with Davis as the self-destructive elder star and Anne Baxter the newcomer on the rise. At one point shortly after Baxter moves into Davis’s house the older actress even says in the narrative, “The honeymoon was on.” Bette Davis was just starting to lose her looks at this point in her career. And even though that’s the role she’s playing in the film, it’s still disconcerting to see her as a younger version of Baby Jane rather than an older version of Jezebel. Both Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe seem oddly cast as the male leads in an Oscar winning film, but it’s only after understanding the subtext of the story that their purpose becomes clear. The real stars are the women, Celeste Holm who is radiant on the screen, Bette Davis, who plays Bette Davis, and of course Anne Baxter. One can see in Baxter’s performance why Cecil B. DeMille cast her in The Ten Commandments, as her cold and calculating, subtle ruthlessness is unlike any other actress working during this period. Thelma Ritter is rock solid, and a bit part by Marilyn Monroe as a ditz is played for laughs--intellectual laughs. The writing is good, with a lot of clever lines, but the actual story is something of a let down as the whole thing is just too much like a filmed play. The real climax of the piece comes on the stage when Davis has her screaming match with everyone . . . and then the thing just keeps going on and on and on, as if it doesn’t know when to stop.

The A-List review by Peter Travers begins with the obvious comparisons between the Mankiewicz and Wilder films at Academy Award time, but quickly moves on to say how enthralled he is by the screenplay and the barrage of words that seem never to stop--even in his review. Travers is compelled to recount scenes from the film, complete with bits of the screenplay to prove his point. But it’s a weak one. The film is somewhat numbing for all the words. As much as Travers wants to praise Davis’s ability to pose for a close up, there’s very little that seems cinematic in the film. This, in stark contrast to Billy Wilder’s film, which bristles with the art of cinema from start to finish, including its actors--especially its actors. Travers claims the party scene is the centerpiece of the film, but in the end nothing really happens there. It’s at the theater when Davis comes undone that is easily the best sequence in the film. Travers also doesn’t care for Davis’s speech in the car about being a woman, but the irony that it dredges up is incredibly interesting, especially considering Davis’s final line of the scene: “I hate men.” The two women, Davis and Holm, are far more a couple than they are with either of the wooden actors playing their mates. Later, Baxter even walks up the stairs of her apartment arm in arm with another woman, Randy Stuart, and the final scene with Barbara Bates brings the simmering female homoeroticism that has informed the entire picture full circle. But Travers misses all of that. All About Eve--and the character’s name is no accident--is certainly a classic film, just not for the reason most people think.

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