Today’s actresses can lobby and vie to be Wonder Woman or Black Widow or Jane Bond. Yet, what so many filmmakers and actors fail to recall are the powerhouse performances of yesteryear that didn’t require guns and magic lassos. Movies shouldn’t simply be super heroes and villains in spandex and leather. No movie is a better example of this argument than Joseph L Mankiewicz’ 1950 Best Picture winner “All About Eve.”
This is also the only film in history to have four actresses nominated for acting awards – Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter. What an accomplishment!!!
Davis is Broadway legend Margo Channing, a sexy, tough, cigarette smoking broad who grew up and keeps her social life within the limelight. She’s a warrior among the Hollywood and New York elite. When her friend Karen Richards (Holm) welcomes a mousy young girl in a raincoat backstage to meet the famous Miss Channing, it becomes more than just a quick hello. This girl is Eve Harrington who proudly admits to following Margo’s career from San Francisco all the way to Broadway waiting outside the theatre on each performance night for that opportunity to meet the legend in person.
Upon introduction, Eve shares her tragic story of growing up poor and losing her husband in the war. Margo and Karen are taken with Eve, and now the young ingenue has wielded her way into the upper crust life among the pomp and circumstance. Margo’s test of her own celebrity seems to come unexpectedly as it occurs to her and her smarmy personal assistant Birdie (Ritter) that maybe Eve is angling for a way to fill Margo’s big shoes along with her wardrobe and stage costumes.
The elite are intruded upon by this outsider. Karen’s friendship to her playwriting husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and her friendship to Margo is tested by Eve’s surprising manipulations. As well, Eve is making herself more aware to Margo’s younger lover and stage director Bill (Gary Merrill). Eve also finds ways to build an acting career on the shoulders of these show biz upper class by eventually winning the opportunity to be Margo’s understudy.
The outsider who narrates these developments is the famed theatre critic, Addison DeWitt (a charming and cultured George Sanders who won the Oscar). DeWitt might not get welcomed to every exclusive black tie party in town as he’s “the critic” but that’s fine for it’s how he survives in his career. He’ll recruit a young naive actress like a newcomer played by Marilyn Monroe to maintain a stay within the social circle, and soon he’ll ride along on Eve’s journey for personal gain.
Mankiewicz’ script is brilliantly witty, absolutely biting and sharp. One of the best moments in film belongs to Bette Davis wearing a gorgeous dark evening gown designed by the legendary costumer Edith Head, and used as Margo’s armor ready for social battle. Davis declares “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” No line could be so forthright in what to expect of a film like “All About Eve.”
This picture is ranked at the top of many “greatest film” lists. As it should be. This is not a sweeping biographical epic. Rather, it’s a lot of story branches that begin at the introduction of one character and expand in various directions among a handful of others who become disarmed by her ongoing presence. It’s not even that simple as Mankiewicz writes about Eve’s duplicity and how she manages to collide one piece of her destruction with another kind of destruction elsewhere, and the victims are simply blindsided.
Anne Baxter certainly had me fooled as Eve. She’s sweet and innocent on the surface and soon an inner and more evil shell emerges. Bette Davis looks spectacular and delivered one the best female performances of the last hundred years. She can carry herself and keep her guard up and authority in place. There’s a rich and commanding history about Margo that seems easy to believe. She is the queen of Broadway at the film’s beginning. Yet, for a moment her guard is let down and Mankiewicz gives us that window of time for his showcase.
Mankiewicz effectively opens his picture with Eve winning a very exclusive show biz award. She graciously approaches the podium to accept and deliver her speech. However, there are a select handful of individuals who withhold their applause of celebration. Then he flashes back to how we’ve come to this particular moment. It’s a great opening leaving me curious with a bunch of why questions. To watch this sequence the first time leaves you curious. To watch it on a second or third time is to be in on Addison DeWitt’s exclusive story of show biz scheming and diva oneupmanship.
I only wonder if Joseph L Mankiewicz was as keen as George Sanders’ character to foresee how much life will come from Eve Harrington’s intrusion upon the lives of Margo & Bill and Karen & Lloyd. Before the age of desperate “if it bleeds, it leads” gossip rags, “All About Eve” was the real storyteller.