Friday, October 9, 2009

Reeling Backward: "All About Eve"

I was somewhat worried that I wouldn't care for "All About Eve," despite its status as one of the greatest mid-century films. Forgive me, but I thought it might be a little too chick-flickie.

Don't get me wrong -- I love a good flick as much as anyone. But the problem is that even a bad action flick will usually have something to appeal to my masculine instincts. When a chick flick founders, it often has nothing going for it.

Of course, I discovered a wonderful movie with perhaps Bette Davis' finest performance in her amazing career.

An Oscar pedigree isn't a sure sign of greatness -- after all, "Around the World in 80 Days" is supposedly the best picture of 1956 -- but "Eve" deserves the Academy's accolades. The film was nominated for 14 Oscars, including an astonishing five in the acting categories -- a feat I'm not sure has ever been equaled.

It won six of them, including best picture, director, screenplay and the supporting actor statue for George Sanders, whose portrayal of venomous theater critic Addison DeWitt set a standard that inspired many subsequent cinematic portrayals of critics, including Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) in "Ratatouille."

What most surprised me about the movie was that I'd always thought it was Bette Davis' picture, when really it's much more of an ensemble cast. Davis' iconic line -- "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" -- is what people remember, but Anne Baxter's role is at least the equal of hers in terms of size and scope.

The two main themes of the movie are aging and stardom, and how they intertwine. Davis plays Margo Channing, the queen of Broadway who has recently turned 40. Her best friend and co-star is Karen (Celeste Holm), who's the sunny ying to Margo's narcissistic yang.

Despite unchallenged prominence in the theater, a young handsome director (Gary Merrill) for a boyfriend and the adoration of the crowds, Margo sees threats to her status all around her. She thinks that Karen's playwright husband (Hugh Marlowe) keeps writing roles for her that make her seem too old for the part.

Ironically, Margo greets the one true threat to her with open arms: Eve (Baxter), an obsessed young fan who has watched her every performance in her current show, "Aged Wood." Karen takes pity on the girl and invites her to meet her idol Margo, who's swayed by Eve's sympathetic tale of heartbreak and a husband killed in the war.

Soon Eve is living with Margo as her assistant -- despite the fact that she already has one, Birdie. Birdie is an acerbic former actress herself, now relegated to waiting on the current queen and occasionally referencing her own former status on the stage.

Thelma Ritter was also nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Birdie -- Davis and Baxter got leading actress nominations, and Holm for supporting. It's ironic that in a movie with so many meaty female roles (even Marilyn Monroe had a small part as an aspiring actress), only a male actor won an award for his work.

Eve's doe-eyed manner is eventually revealed to be a put-on by an aggressive and conniving climber who not only wants to copy her idol, but actually supplant her. Eve becomes Margo's understudy, and with the unwitting help of Karen replaces her for a single performance that is praised by DeWitt, who writes a biting column in which he laments so many older actresses portraying 20-year-olds.

Rather than getting slapped down as an upstart, Eve's plan actually works. The film opens with her receiving the most prestigious award on Broadway, with Margo and Karen relegated to also-rans. In a clever coda Eve, having now become everything she ever wanted, encounters her own young admirer who quickly moves to assimilate herself into the big star's life.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed, offers up an acerbic portrayal of showbiz as a dog-eat-dog world in which everyone has an angle to play. Even friendship and love are treated as channels through which power flows or is withdrawn.

I also enjoyed the many sarcastic references to Hollywood and movies, which is treated by the theater folk as the ultimate sellout. Of course, in 1950 the majority of the cast and crew, including Davis, got their start on the stage.

3.5 stars

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