Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A favorite drama-fest, Bette Davis vehicle and security blanket for people in love with the theater, All About Eve is a classic that appeals to movie lovers and Oscar hounds. Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's considerable talent is here for all to enjoy, especially his elaborate and overwritten witticisms that serve well as the language of high-toned stage folk. There are at least six great roles here, with several actors doing the best work of their careers.
With a sad story and sweet manners, stagestruck fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) charms and insinuates her way into the company of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Equally impressed are Margo's fiancé director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill); her playwright, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe); and Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm). Becoming Margo's personal aide, Eve's dedication borders on the sinister, a fact first noticed by Margo's other personal associate, Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter). But when Eve moves in on Margo's career as well as the men in her life, only critic and fellow schemer Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) really knows what the 'innocent' Eve is up to.
As well directed as it is, All About Eve remains a writer's picture. It starts like a drippy soap about personal sacrifice and the stage and then quickly opens into a full portrait of Broadway life, and then some. Aging star Margo Channing has doubts about her attractiveness - do her friends and fiancé love her, or the bigger-than-life persona she acts on and off-stage? The writers and directors are concerned about simply making a living and
worry if working in Hollywood will compromise their talent. Their personal get-togethers turn into 'scenes,' and their fondness for cynicism is matched by an ironic susceptibility to phonies who talk a good line. Machiavellian critic Addison DeWitt agitates the situation, friendless but always in fine company.
Innocent, organized and devoted, Eve Harrington turns out to be a master games-player, worming her way into the good graces of the Broadway clique and eventually clawing upward by deceitful means. She's a type everyone has met, the usurper who leapfrogs the merit path by exploiting a personal relationship, or who bags a plum assignment by intimidating key people. Eve manages to charm Margo's best friend Karen into both an introduction and a job. When Eve's devotion raises Margo's suspicions, Karen takes up 'the kid's' defense. In the confusion, Eve is able to separate Karen from her better judgment, Margo from her fiancé and her high roost, and secure her own status as a sensational stage discovery.
There are many stories about killers like Eve Harrington, but few as sophisticated as this. Nailing down Eve's exact crime isn't so easy, as on the surface she merely allow others to help her. Eve's basic deceit is to manipulate her associates with the aim of taking her benefactor's job. That's certainly how business works. In Horatio Alger terms, Eve's ambition to rise quickly to the top generally meets with approval. Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) is soon deeply
suspicious of the liberties Eve takes with her intimacy with Margo. As soon as she sees an opening, Eve is in like a shark. And before she can be stopped, she finds the opportunity she's been waiting for.
Showbiz bios are usually about the magical quality of talent. Whether it's Cary Grant pretending to be Cole Porter or Liberace playing himself we're supposed to believe that divine justice always intervenes to reward the talented. All About Eve cautiously avoids showing anybody performing, and instead uses testimony to describe Margo's star qualities and Eve's sensational breakthrough performance. The standard show-biz adage is that if a shark like Eve weren't talented, none of her machinations would get her anywhere. 1
Realistically speaking, Eve is herself victimized by the bigger fish DeWitt, who knows her through and through and proposes a 'dangerous liaison' between them as a price for his support. Cynics need love too, it seems. One wonders if this is how Adolf Hitler got started.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of All About Eve is that it codified the behaviors and practices of the theatrical version of the "killer." I don't know if the stage is more cynical now or not. A friend who went to New York to be a costumer told me that in her case, utter ruthlessness and the using of others was the norm. When I hear the same stuff repeated with kids backstage at High School plays, maybe the truth is that it has always been there. As suggested by its title, All About Eve zeroes in on females as the root of all evil.
The actors reading Mankeiwicz's smart dialogue all come off like champs. This is perhaps Bette Davis' best late-career performance, and she proves that her acting instincts are far stronger than her vanity. The role admits she's no spring chicken, and although she has the biggest scenes and the powerhouse part, she bows out at the end to let Anne Baxter wind up the show. No rewrites keep Margo at the center of attention, as Joan Crawford would have mandated. Anne Baxter is icily 'warm' as Eve Harrington, and works up a nice Margo Channing-like hauteur for her third-act heights of hubris. But the play remains the thing, as Mankiewicz reserves the fadeout for the Next Girl in line, Phoebe. 2 Played by Barbara Bates, Phoebe is yet another calculating barracuda waiting to backstab the star as soon as she lets down her guard. 3
Celeste Holm carries the intrigue of the show well, especially in those scenes where she realizes she's allowed herself to be compromised by her own sentimental instincts. Likewise, George Sanders puts several levels of disguise into his acerbic critic. Deeper than the simply misanthropic Waldo Lydecker of Laura, Addison DeWitt is driven by his own intellectual distance from the rest of humanity. DeWitt recognizes and worships Eve's superior gamesmanship apart from sentimental
considerations because he's rationalized all relationships into a cynical Darwinism. One gets the feeling that Addison DeWitt and Hannibal Lecter could carry on a perfectly sincere conversation.
The thankless roles are those given the supposed leading men, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe. Merrill is better than okay but not as convincing as a dynamic director should be. This is Marlowe's most charming and sensitively played screen part, and the only one Savant's seen where he shines. He's effectively Nixon-like in
Day the Earth Stood Still, but his parts in things like Night and the City and Garden of Evil don't attest to any particular versatility.
Positively shining are Thelma Ritter and Marilyn Monroe. Ritter can be caustic and sentimental at the same time and augments her handful of great lines with an equal number of priceless telling looks. Monroe nails her glorified bit, which fits into the show even more smoothly than her other standout in the same year's
4 Savant hadn't seen the film for almost 30 years, but remembered very well the perfect ensemble on
Margo Channing's staircase, with Monroe sitting like a bon-bon on the bottom step. She would soon explode into the phenomenon of the century, eclipsing the notables around her. All About Eve sparkles with that kind of magic.
Fox's DVD of All About Eve has a stunningly transferred picture and clear soundtrack and is a pleasure to watch, seeming much shorter than it actually is. Alfred Newman's score mixes bombast with a few sinister notes seemingly lifted from the sinister main theme of his Leave Her to Heaven, suggesting the evil lurking in the avaricious female heart. Milton Krasner's B&W lensing looks great, even in the second scene Savant remembered, a pitiful rear-projection shot of Baxter and Sanders walking down a sidewalk. It is so poorly coordinated, they look as if they're roller skating.
The main extra is an AMC Backstory piece on the film that probably contains a lot of interesting information. But Savant didn't get far enough into it to find out - like many of those docus, its takes too long to get beyond the superficial. Other short text essays in the special features menu are easier to digest. Also included are newsreel excerpts, interviews from the time with Davis and Baxter, a restoration comparison and a trailer.
Informative commentaries are provided by Celeste Holm, Christopher Mankiewicz and two filmbbok authors, Kenneth Geist and Sam Staggs. There's so much to read about All About Eve in bios of Davis, Mankiewicz and others that the prize of this DVD is just the excellent rendition of the film itself. Fox may have been poky bringing out the riches of its vault, but the quality of their releases is worth waiting for.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
All About Eve rates:
Supplements: AMC 'backstory' docu on the film, text extras, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2003
1. Well, maybe on Broadway. In Hollywood, getting a role has more to do with 50 other factors besides talent - not all of them underhanded. How many actors have we seen riding on looks or a relationship in their early careers, gumming up movies with one wretched performance after another? After years of working many find their feet and learn their craft. For other actors it's a familiar situation, as in any field. An unqualified peer is promoted over you because of friendship factors. As your superior, you basically do their job for them and teach them what the business is about. Then they are promoted again while you are confirmed as the boring-but-reliable type. Maybe
the Eves are right, that if you want something in the world, you have to go out and grab it from other people.
Less clear in the film is Eve's exact relationship with Addison DeWitt, who clearly is in love with her and willing to use his column to sing her praises. If Eve seduces him offscreen we don't see it; the film lets us think that he's a closet admirer of both her talent and her skilled interpersonal manipulations. Eve benefits from it, until he closes the trap.
2. This is in line with Mankiewicz giving a lower eschelon cast member in
The Barefoot Contessa the film's plum line: "What she hasn't got, ..."
3. An actress with a tragic career, who can be seen as a very promising ingenue in the Mickey Rooney movie Quicksand of the same year.
4. Randy Stuart, of The Incredible Shrinking Man fame, is also in there somewhere, listed on the IMDB as, "girl."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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