The Best Picture Project – All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck

Written and Directed By Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Thelma Ritter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe and Marilyn Monroe

The story of All About Eve – about the way a naïve young woman ingratiates herself with the more successful older woman, only to reveal herself as far less than naïve when she usurps the older woman’s success – is probably as old as time. And if it’s not, it’s still probably safe to say that All About Eve wasn’t the first dramatic representation of the plot, and given that Showgirls basically recycled the plot 50 years later, with way more boobs, it’s also not the last.

Notwithstanding the familiarity of the plot, nor the fact that the film is called All About Eve, Margo Channing, the woman at the center of this little motion picture who has her career usurped, is supposed to be one of the great characters in history. Strong willed, dominant, and capable of spitting fire, she is also tender and neurotic. In other words, complicated with a capital ‘C’. She’s the type of character any actor would want to play and because she is such a towering figure in the film, it naturally lives and dies with her.

Unfortunately, in the hands of Bette Davis, the film teeters on the brink of death and is only saved by other factors. In Davis’s hands, what might have been one of the great roles of history wasn’t great at all. Instead of complicated, Davis plays Channing as a shrill, shrewish, an overbearing old-crone. Many would rave about her in the same way drag queens rave about Cher but to me she was insufferable and nearly drags down the picture with her. It is undeniable that at a certain point in her career Davis basically slithered across the line from seriousness to self-parody; the only argument for me is when it happened. Honestly, if her take on Margo Channing was a fair representation of her ‘serious’ work, then it seems to me she made the transition far earlier than anyone else would dare say.

For me, there are two things that save the film from the brink of death.  One is just how brazen the director/writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz , was in staging the film. In his hand the things that might trip-up others – shifting voice-overs, very long scenes with lots of dialog that seem to go on without a break that somehow turn into other scenes simply by the addition or subtraction of a given actor, and most of all, that it purposely made itself look poorly written in achieving its goal – are handled quite elegantly.

Take for instance an early speech from Anne Baxter, as Eve, where she sits an tells us, in an unbroken stretch, everything about her history, in the most mundane details. What seemed like ham-handed writing and a clear violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, later was revealed to be an important plot and character point. A bit of genius for me.

The second thing that saves the film is that though Davis might be the ‘star’ of the film, Anne Baxter is the one who walks away with it. At the beginning I found her Eve Harrington to be wan and impossible, a boring dilettante who didn’t seem to have much purpose – she was so modest and humble I wanted to stab myself fin the eye. That’s why when the revelation of her true character came – showing her as less a starry eyed dream than a real scheme – it made all her insufferability before look like the greatest acting job I might have seen so far in my Best Picture Project. At the very least, it makes me appreciate the subtle art of just being annoying.

Given all this, Anne Baxter losing out to Judy Holliday for Best Actress seems like a real shame and the product of the fact that she and Davis split the vote. Of course, if you had to ask my true opinion I’d say that Gloria Swanson – from the more deserving Best Picture loser, Sunset Boulevard – should have been your winner.

Trivia:

All About Eve received a whopping 14 nominations, a record shared with Titanic. However, what makes it more impressive is that while Titanic had 17 categories into which to shoehorn its 14 noms, All About Eve had but 15 categories to work with. However, while All About Eve took 8 Oscars, Titanic managed 11, but, as All About Eve was guaranteed to go home with at least two losses – there were double nominations in the Actress and Supporting Actress categories – we’ll call this a push.

One other interesting fact about the Awards was that All About Eve received five nominations in the acting categories, one of but 9 films to achieve the same feat. Others include Network, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Godfather II.

 

(l-r) Baxter, Davis, Monroe, Sanders

Despite the five acting nominations, the only winner was George Sanders as the acerbic critic, Addison Dewitt.  I’ve liked his work before, esepcially Rebecca.  There, as here, he is called on to play a bit of a rapscallion, but unlike Rebecca, where circumstances conspire to allow his character to be the big loser, here he truly comes out the winner in that, he is neither seriously compromised by Eve’s actions and is no worse, nor better off than before. For me he’s always been charming and so to a certain extent is a one-note actor, but clearly he has be praised for his skill in practically walking away with a film that featured two-time winner Bette Davis, one-time winner Anne Baxter, one-time winner Celeste Holm, soon to be six-time nominee Thelma Ritter, and not-quite-a-sex-bomb-but-almost, Marilyn Monroe.

Click here to see the other winners seen and those left to go.

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