Film #24 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders & Celeste Holm
It is funny sometimes how low-budget films with little to no recognition can be better than big money, major studio productions that end up receiving the lion’s share of acclaim. There are times when I am truly perplexed as to how some Classic pictures have fared well both commercially and critically when they seem rather insignificant.
I first watched All About Eve when it was being shown on TCM, never having heard of the film beforehand. My first opinion was positive and I believed it to be a good film with a fine cast but that it was not something I would want to see over and over again. As I often do after seeing a new film, I searched for more information about it online. It was surprising to find out about this film’s list of accolades: $8.4 million in box-office receipts against $1.4 million in budgetary expenses, 14 Academy Award nominations, 6 Academy Award wins including Best Picture, and selection for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1990. With all of this praise surrounding the film, surely I must have missed the point of the story. Or did I? Before I get into an analysis of the film, let’s see what All About Eve is really all about.
The film begins with a voiceover narration by Addison DeWitt (Sanders), a theatre critic/commentator who is present at an awards ceremony hosted by the Sarah Siddons Society. The banquet hall is filled with the greatest stage names from both in front of and behind-the-curtain. For this occasion, they hand out an array of awards but none as important as their annual Citizen’s Award for Special Achievement, the highest honour one could receive in the theatre. The person receiving the award on this particular evening, Eve Harrington (Baxter), is the youngest ever to do so. Before Ms. Harrington even has a chance to speak, we are transported 9 months in the past via a flashback.
It is a chilly, rainy mid-October night in New York City and we see Karen Richards (Holm) walking down an alleyway leading to a backstage door when suddenly Eve comes out of the shadows to greet her. It is revealed that Eve has spent 6 days a week for weeks on end attending each and every performance of the current running play because it stars her idol, Margo Channing (Davis). Though she has managed to see Margo come and go out of the stage door, they have never had the chance of properly meeting. As Karen is Margo’s best friend and is touched by Eve’s great fidelity, she invites her along to visit Margo in her dressing room. While there, Eve recounts her rather unfortunate life story and how she came to be an admirer of Margo’s stage work. Margo immediately takes to the young, mousy Eve and that very night invites her to move into the top floor of her Manhattan apartment. Eve becomes Margo’s assistant of sorts and keeps tabs on many little details of Margo’s life which Margo only slowly starts to notice. Eventually, Margo becomes highly suspicious of Eve and her once kind attitude towards her starts to change into an increasingly venomous dialogue. More and more, Margo’s insecurities are revealed as is the true nature of Eve’s personality and her ambitions.
Bette Davis, not surprisingly, got top billing for All About Eve but she was not the stand-out star of the picture. True to the film’s title, Anne Baxter steals the show with her performance as Eve. Her character starts off as very sympathetic and almost innocent yet she slowly reveals her more sinister inner-workings. Having never seen Baxter in another picture, her role as Eve marked my appreciation for her as an actress and, unfortunately for her, she became a very unlikable person in my eyes. Though she is petite with a gentle face and subtle good looks, she plays the part of a so-called villain with amazing ease. Years after watching this film, I got the chance to see some of Baxter’s early work from when she was a contract player for Samuel Goldwyn. It was only then that I was able to detach myself from her performance as Eve and start to see her in a different light. This nearly all went out of the window after seeing her in Ben-Hur as she again portrays a conniving character.
Playing alongside Baxter in many of her scenes is the amazing George Sanders, whose suave, hypnotic voice announces his statuesque screen presence. He plays a theatre critic who has the reputation of a rag magazine gossip columnist but who is a powerful ally to have on your side. He uses his position to eventually expose Eve and dominate her into completely belonging to him. His employ of words is as poetic as his delivery of them, as shown in the following excerpt from a conversation with Eve: “That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability. But that in itself is probably the reason.”
Celeste Holm plays a supporting but vital role in the film because not only is she the one to bring Eve into Margo’s world, she is indirectly responsible for Eve’s rise to power. The character of Karen is labelled as being Margo’s best friend but there are times when you feel that their relationship is quite shallow. For instance, when Karen’s husband, Llloyd, becomes enraged with Margo after a difficult rehearsal he asks her, “Who’s going to give her (Margo) the boot in the rear that she deserves?” Granted Margo is a thorn in many people’s sides, Karen included, but Karen goes out of her way to hurt Margo in order to ‘teach her a lesson’. To boot, she does this knowing that Eve will benefit from Margo’s ills.
The rest of the supporting cast includes Gary Merrill as Bill Simpson, Margo’s on-again/off-again partner and the ever-wonderful character actress Thelma Ritter as Birdie, Margo’s constant domestic companion.
Coming back to Bette Davis, I must say that I like her very much as an actress and that I think she is one of the most iconic of Classical Hollywood’s players. I own several of her films and a couple of them are on my personal list of all-time greats. She has a substantial role in this film but, overall, I find her performance too campy and exaggerated. Often times, she will deliver her lines in an over-the-top fashion, adding far too much drama than necessary. There is also the “bitch element”. I do not believe there is anyone more capable than Davis of exuding snootiness and moodiness as she does on-screen; this no doubt being aided by the fact that she was quite a dominatrix in real life. Once Davis – in character or not – decides that you are her enemy or if you rub her the wrong way, she sinks her fangs into you completely. When Margo becomes increasingly paranoid about Eve’s actions, she immediately turns on her and goes straight for the kill, at least in terms of verbal jargon. In one of the film’s most memorable lines, Ms. Channing announces to her guests, “Fasten your seatbelts … it’s going to be a bumpy night!” On-set, Davis refused to speak to co-star Celeste Holm for the duration of filming after Holm simply arrived one morning in a cheery mood, telling everyone “Good morning”. Davis found Holm’s politeness revolting and for years afterwards in interviews would sing praise about everyone and anything to do with All About Eve, except Celeste Holm.
There are moments when Margo shows her softer, more human side. Having just turned 40, she reveals her insecurity by proclaiming, “I suddenly feel as if I’ve taken all my clothes off.” She is uncomfortable with her lover, Bill, being 8 years her junior and is also jealous his younger age, later on showing the same disdain to Eve’s youthfulness. The character of Margo, despite these brief interludes of personal revelation, remained a rather unlikable person on the whole. She is often cranky and in a bad mood, delivery catty remarks and being completely full of herself. It is hard to see why she and Bill stay together and, moreover, why he runs back to her after having been rebuffed. His love for her is obvious yet remains inexplicable when he defends her behaviour to others. Her love for him seems far less obvious as she appears indecisive over her feelings for him, almost acting like an immature little girl. One needs not to look far in seeing that this situation is also life imitating art. Davis and Merrill, 7 years Davis’ junior, fell in love during production and ended up getting married after filming wrapped, staying together for 10 years before divorcing. In fact, a great deal of Davis’ interpretation is a reflection of her real life circumstances at the time, as she had recently broken away from Warner Brothers, her studio of over 15 years, and was going through career hell. Bette is very much like Margo and vice versa.
It is hard to say whether the character of Eve is more or less likeable than Margo. In fact, I would say that they are equally as high maintenance and calculating in their intentions as each other. Both are very egotistic creatures though it shows far more on the outside where Margo is concerned. Eve tries to repress her true nature but is very sloppy at lying and pretending to be an obedient, goody two-shoes. One point of the storyline that is very frustrating and hard to understand is that Margo, almost by the snap of her fingers, decides to turn on Eve. It makes little sense because Margo was the one to invite Eve to live with her without knowing/verifying anything about her background. She was witness to Eve imposing her authority on Birdie and the beginnings of Eve creeping in on Margo’s decision-making capacities. All of a sudden one morning after speaking with Birdie, Margo takes a loosely formed underlying suspicion and turns it into a huge scandal. Yet, even with that, she refuses to confront Eve face-to-face and acts as if everything is normal aside from the subtle snarky remarks she makes. Later on, Margo expresses regret at having treated Eve so poorly and then, by the end of the movie, she is an irredeemable hussy once more. If this movie proves anything, it shows how awfully competitive and overly dramatic women can be.
I never got a sense of any important social themes being presented in the story or through hints in craftily written dialogue. Perhaps this ‘failure’ is a reason why I can neither understand the significance nor the appeal of this movie, including its insertion on the AFI 100 list with a #18 ranking. In researching some complimentary information on the film, I was made aware that critics and academics alike consider the social themes of Ageism, Gender Representation and Homosexuality to be three riveting presences in the story. I will not speak about the first two themes listed here as I do not feel like going into an in-depth breakdown but mostly – and I say this coming from the vantage point of a Liberal Arts major with many sociology and psychology courses under my belt – I feel as if these points are being misinterpreted by contemporary viewers. I will, however, at least touch on the suggested subject of Homosexuality.
Some scholars insist that it is obvious that the characters of Eve and Addison are homosexual although this is less pronounced in the film version than it was in the short story from which it originates, 1946’s “The Wisdom of Eve’ by Mary Orr. While it may be so in Orr’s story, it is far from clear in the film that both characters are gay, particularly for Eve. Addison’s private life is not really referred to in the film and only once do they show him mingling with the opposite sex, aside from his outings with Eve, when he brings along a beautiful young starlet as his date to Margo’s party. As for Eve, you spend a good part of the film being under the impression that she is a widow and witness her trying to seduce both Bill and Lloyd, though she is refused on both occasions. In fact, some scenes between Eve and Lloyd had to be cut because the head of Fox Studios, Darryl Zanuck, found them to be “dull, obvious, dirty … This is wrong … All relationships with Eve and Lloyd [should be] played offstage by suggestion …”* Later on, when you learn more details about her past, you find out that she had previously carried on an affair with her married male boss. Never once, either, did I get the impression that she carried some sort of romantic torch for Margo. On a personal level, I have no issue with homosexuality in general and as being a part of All About Eve’s storyline. I do have an issue with Classic films being dissected and translated by modern people who see things through modern times.
* Source: Memo from Darryl Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox by Rudy Behlmer, pg. 166
One last thing I would like to address concerns the inclusion of Marilyn Monroe on both the film’s theatrical posters and on subsequent video and DVD covers. Monroe, who plays Addison’s beautiful party date mentioned above, appears in the film for less than 5 minutes and delivers approximately 20 lines of dialogue. This role has been deemed as “small and important” by some but I disagree. Her role is not a bit essential to the story or even to the events of the party yet she is portrayed as being a part of the main cast. On the cover of the DVD I purchased, Marilyn is featured on the back in a very large photo alongside Davis and Sanders. Anne Baxter is no one where to be seen, anywhere. I find this unbelievable and it makes me irate to see that Monroe’s legacy is being used to promote DVD sales for this film.
In the end, despite my ranting, I would still recommend that you see this movie to be able to make your own judgement. Perhaps you’ll end up liking it more than I did and will appreciate Mankiewicz’s screenplay treatment. It is my opinion that there are far more worthy films that could have been included on the AFI 100 list and that ultimately, All About Eve will continue to lose ground in its ranking as the years pass.