Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The end of each calendar year brings with it a flood of new films vying for attention from audiences with holiday time on their hands and awarding organizations like the one to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society. Because critics generally see so many films in a year that we presumably can’t possibly remember them all, publicists send bundles of DVD screeners and, increasingly, links to online screeners so nothing will escape our notice. It is at this time of the year, when I most feel the pressure to celebrate the new, that I realize how important it is to shine a light on films, even famous and well-recognized films, that have been forgotten or unseen by new generations of film fans.
Which brings us to All About Eve, one of Hollywood’s most honored and iconic motion pictures. Winner of six well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and especially, Best Screenplay, this endlessly quotable film has been a staple in my life for decades, so much so that it never even occurred to me that a well-established cinephile like the hubby might not have seen it. Yet, when after scrolling through the cable desert looking for something watchable, I landed on All About Eve as winner by default—my views are, after all, in the double digits—I had no idea what kind of a “bumpy night” I was in for. Watching Shane whoop and holler and dish on what the characters were doing during this, his first viewing, was a revelation to me. This supremely theatrical film about the supreme world of the New York stage was playing like Brando on Broadway for my enthusiastic newbie and left me thinking about the strengths of an art form whose death has been predicted for decades.
Calling a film stagebound normally would be considered a criticism, but for All About Eve, it is the highest of compliments. Nothing, in fact, is more distasteful to the title character, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), than to hear that one of her theatre idols has taken work in Hollywood. “So few come back,” she says to director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the paramour of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway legend Eve worships. Sampson has indeed taken a few weeks’ work in Hollywood, a move that has 40-year-old Margo worried that her 32-year-old lover will be tempted to stray.
She might have worried more about taking Eve under her wing after her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), wife of Margo’s regular playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), brings her to Margo’s dressing room after finding her standing by the stage door. Eve gives a short account of her life—a farmer’s daughter, a secretary in a Milwaukee brewery, and wife of a coworker named Eddie who went to the Pacific to fight in World War II. She says she traveled to San Francisco to meet Eddie following his discharge. Eddie, however, didn’t show up, and a State Department telegram informing her that he wouldn’t be coming home at all reached her after being forwarded from Milwaukee. She says she decided one aimless evening to see a play starring Margo, “The most important night of my life until now.” Eve followed the play to New York, attending every performance, flattering Margo into offering to help her. From that point on, Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life with the goal of displacing her as the toast of Broadway and the woman in Bill’s life.
It is almost impossible to overstate how much this film gets right about a life in the theatre and how shrewdly Mankiewicz heightens the melodrama of the milieu—hoisting the theatre on its own petard might be a more accurate way of describing it—while paradoxically peeling away the artifice to reveal some painful truths. By shooting the film in what amounts to a series of Noël Coward’s patented drawing rooms with a script so loaded with bon mots that Coward must have been panting with envy, All About Eve does “meta” better than any newly minted movie could hope to achieve.
At the same time, Mankiewicz keeps one foot in Hollywood. He uses a voiceover by Karen to provide the flashback narrative that would be difficult to recreate on stage. His grand set-piece is a party at Margo’s home that moves episodically through the many stages of Margo’s morose jealousy and inebriation by telescoping time with something similar to a cinematic b-roll. Would-be star Miss Caswell, played by soon-to-be movie star Marilyn Monroe, comes on the arm of the king of debonair cynicism, George Sanders, playing theatre critic Addison de Witt. Her attempted seduction of producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) is open and above board, which contrasts the deviousness that seems to characterize the New York scene in movies ranging from this one and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) to Tootsie (1982) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). (Mankiewicz fires one across the bow for himself and his colleagues when he has Bill tell Eve off: “The Theatuh, the Theatuh! What book of rules says the Theatre exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City?”)
In his infinite wisdom, Mankiewicz never shows Margo and Eve performing on stage, not even a closing curtain line. What we know of their abilities—all we need to know—is how they play-act and self-dramatize in their offstage lives. Eve (née Gertrude Slescynski, an ugly, ethnic name for an inwardly ugly climber with a fake backstory), going for the ultimate long con, literally gives the performance of her life playing Eve Harrington, the humble, worshipful fan of the grand dame. She must be absolutely convincing to disarm her marks and get them to accede to the requests she calculates will pave her road to stardom. No one smells a rat except Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former vaudevillian who acts as Margo’s dresser. After Eve tells her hard-luck tale, Birdie cracks, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” The others protest her callousness, and she herself says she was moved by Eve’s story, but the seed is planted; later, Birdie says outright that she doesn’t like Eve, that she seems to be studying Margo. Sadly, Ritter’s character disappears for the rest of the film—one can imagine Eve packed her off somehow to avoid detection, but I wish she had been around for the run of the show.
Margo, of course, has played the star so long that she can display artistic temperament in her sleep. The problem with that particular script for a woman, however, is that it has a shelf life. Even extraordinary talent will only go so far once a woman has passed her peak of physical beauty. When she sees Bill off to California, Margo warns Bill not to “get stuck on some glamor puss.” He chides her for being childish, to which she responds helplessly, “I don’t want to be childish. I’d settle for just a few years.” His increased irritation only pushes her further, “Am I going to lose you, Bill? Am I?” And like the proper denouement to a truthful scene played for high theatricality, Bill takes her in his arms, tells her “As of this moment, you’re six years old,” and starts to kiss her. Their scene is interrupted by Eve handing him his airline ticket, a suggestive statement of theme that is itself theatrical.
Where Bill remains loyal to the woman he loves, Addison is ready to throw Margo over for a new temple idol. When Margo characteristically arrives hours late to read with Miss Caswell, who is auditioning to replace a pregnant cast member, Eve steps in. Addison, who has witnessed her remarkable performance, wounds Margo by saying that Lloyd “listened to his play as if someone else had written it, he said, it sounded so fresh, so new, so full of meaning”—in other words, it had an age-appropriate actress in the role. This exchange highlights the black hole that swallows up middle-aged actresses who find it hard to find characters their age to play. Mankiewicz shows his compassion for these mature artists by writing one of the best parts a mature actress could hope for; Davis was 41 when she made this film.
The conventional wisdom of the time gets an airing, too, as Margo’s only option at her age seems to be to get married while someone still wants her. Mankiewicz has her say to Karen after she and Bill have broken up, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not woman.” The feminist in me bridles at this scene every time, but a secondary theme of All About Eve, one that edges it toward women’s film territory, is the desire for love. Eve wants the love of the audience, Bill wants Margo to marry him, Karen wants to keep her loving friendship with Margo, Addison, yes even poor, closeted Addison, wants a companion and blackmails Eve into being that person. Margo’s philosophizing feels both true and another part she seems to be convincing herself she wants, fearing that the age difference between her and Bill will become a yawning chasm. I can hate the sentiment while acknowledging that there’s truth to it even today.
The third act has Eve exposed and baring her teeth as she moves aggressively to capture Bill, who rejects her, tries her luck with Hugh, and finally loses all of her early benefactors as they see her for the conniving careerist she is. In a heavy-handed ending, Eve, successful yet still unhappy, finds a young woman (Barbara Bates) in her suite. As Eve starts to use her as a gofer like Margo used Eve, we see the young woman don Eve’s elegant wrap, hold an award Eve just won, and bow before a three-way mirror, multiplying many times the image of the young hopeful set to exploit and displace the established star. This is a Hollywood image that gives just a little bit of dignity back to a theatre that, after Mankiewicz’s takedown, really needs it.