Friday, October 19

All About Eve: Favorite Movie #24

1950 Drama
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Bette Davis
Anne Baxter
George Sanders
Gary Merrill
Celeste Holm
Hugh Marlowe
Thelma Ritter
Gregory Ratoff
Marilyn Monroe
Barbara Bates

Any true cineaste would have All About Eve on a favorite films list.  It is that good.  Most gay men would also have it on a favorites list.  It is that popular.  I could very well be criticized for having it on my list at a lowly number 24.  Y'mean there are 23 films I like more than All About Eve?  Well, um, er, I guess there are, but I am the first to admit this is one of the best-made films in Hollywood history.

It was always popular with the critics and public alike.  It would go on to be nominated for a whopping 14 Oscars, a record that stood alone until Titanic tied it in 1997.  It won six.  It is still the only film in Oscar history to have four actresses receive nominations (Davis and Baxter for best actress and Holm and Ritter for supporting).  It appears as #16 on the American Film Institute's 100 best films.  It has been preserved by the United States National Film Registry.  We ain't messin' around here.

While none of those women won the award, it is astonishing that Judy Holliday won over Davis.  It's not that I don't think Holliday was good in Born Yesterday or that fellow nominee Gloria Swanson wasn't deserving for Sunset Blvd., but... but... Bette Davis didn't win...?!?!  May I at least say OMG?

Mankiewicz did win the Oscar for best directing and best writing and the fact that he won those same two awards the year before for A Letter to Three Wives is another record.  In real life he was a noted lover of women and in reel life he was often one to explore the female psyche.

If you don't know the story, you must have been living under a rock or you're under 20 and don't know classic films.  It's really about two powerful women.  One is a flamboyant but insecure Broadway actress who has just unhappily turned 40 and the other is a ruthless and unctuous younger woman, desperate to be an actress and willing to do anything to achieve that goal.  This could easily have been called All About Margo and Eve.

Those in their orbit are Bill, the director of Margo's play and her several-years-younger boyfriend; Lloyd, the author of Margo's current play and a good friend; Karen, Lloyd's wife, not in the business, per se, but she possesses as much clout as those who are; Addison DeWitt, a vicious and unscrupulous columnist; Max, a harried producer, and Birdie, Margo's maid and the first one to catch the clue that Eve is short for evil.

From left: Merrill, Davis, Sanders, Baxter, Marlowe, Holm

You know why the above picture was likely taken?  Because it's not often that one acquires a cast this exceptional and one might want one photo of them all together.  One of the numerous reasons that Eve works so well is this sparkling cast.

It was genius to cast Bette Davis.  To think she wasn't the first choice for Margo just boggles the mind.  Claudette Colbert was signed to play Margo but had back problems which forced her withdrawal.  I liked Colbert, but no, no, no, no, no.  She was Mankiewicz's choice and Marlene Dietrich was Fox chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck's pick.  Davis is said to have patterned Margo after Tallulah Bankhead and that one I could have seen in the part.  Davis was such inspired casting because it was a perfect blending of actress and character.  Perfect.  Some of the lines Margo spoke could just have easily been said by Davis in her own life. 

While I think All About Eve is Davis' best film, it's a powerful statement considering the actress' impressive body of work.  But the truth is that she had just made a series of poor films and was not on anyone's must-hire list.  Zanuck didn't like her either... too headstrong, too troublesome and too not a babe.  Additionally, Davis had just left Warner Bros where she had ruled for years and years.  If Margo was insecure, oddly enough, so was Bette coming to a new studio.  She has said that Mankiewicz ressurected her from the dead.

Anne Baxter wasn't the first choice to play Eve either.   Fellow Fox  contract player Jeanne Crain was slated but got pregnant.  Zanuck didn't think Crain had the bitch gene to play Eve. And while I agree with that assessment, I think it's that very fact that would have made her shine in the role, not forgetting, shall we, that Eve had to be play nice-nice for half the film. Frankly, I was never nuts about Baxter in the part. I did think she portrayed the bitch part well in the second half but I just never bought her entirely in the early nice girl part. Oh hell, maybe it was her hairstyle which I definitely never liked.

Years later All About Eve was made into a Broadway musical called Applause starring Lauren Bacall.  When she left the production, who took over in the Margo role but none other than Anne Baxter?

Another link of the film to real life is that Gary Merrill was hired to play the man who wanted to marry Margo and in real he and Davis did marry.  They were together for 10 tempestuous years.  They would adopt a daughter whom they named Margo.  Some have said he might have thought he was marrying Margo Channing and he wound up with Bette Davis.  Merrill was an extremely hairy man and Davis loved hairy men.  She hoped he would be stronger and have more of an influence in her life than her previous three husbands, but hope and reality were often blurred in Davis' life. 

Celeste Holm had the best role of her movie career as Karen Richards.  Her character handled some of the narration (along with Sanders) and was Margo's best friend, which required some fine acting on both women's parts since they could barely stand one another.  Early on Davis called Holm a bitch and it was war from then on.  Karen is the one who unwittingly aids Eve in her meeting Margo and the others and later on pulls a stunt that puts Eve onto her climb to the top.  I think of her as the conscience of the film.

As her husband, Hugh Marlowe came out of the character actor closet and shone brightly in the best role of his career as well.  His playwright was bright, forthright and strong enough to stand up to Margo's bullying.

George Sanders was George Sanders but that's good.  He was the only cast member to win an Oscar for it.  In real life he was urbane, cynical, smart-mouthed, conceited.  My old pal Clifton Webb could have played this role in his sleep (and was a Fox contract player) but Sanders was equally adept at portraying such abrasive snobs.  He is the one toward the end of the film who turns the tables on Eve to our utter delight.  His sparring with her, both full blown in their viciousness, was great, great fun to behold.

Thelma Ritter had worked the year before for Mankiewicz in A Letter to Three Wives.  He was so impressed with her work in that picture that he not only hired her for Eve but he beefed up the part.  She more than held her own against the formidable Davis.

This was Marilyn Monroe's first important film, although her part was small.  In it she played a starlet not above doing anything whatsoever to get an important man to give her a role.  Hmmm.  Barbara Bates, who unfortunately never had much of a career despite early promise, was perfect in the final scenes as the ambitious, young Phoebe who befriends Eve in her quest for a Broadway career.  Few films have had such perfect karmic finales.

Thanks again to Mankiewicz, this film is beautifully written.  We come to understand (not to be confused with liking) every character, so carved out are they to resemble real people.  There is glorious dialogue, fantastic bitchy lines.  Fasten your seatbelts, it's gonna be a bumpy night and I detest cheap sentiment are the most famous but there are many more.  

So much has been written about this film.  Five bios on Bette Davis sit on my shelves and countless Monroes.  Two autobiographies from Anne Baxter and one from George Sanders shed light on the making of the film.  Zanuck's biography and Mankiewicz's autobiography give some in-depth history and behind-the-scenes testimony to this brilliant film.  But most of all is a bloody yummy book called All About All About Eve, written by Sam Staggs (published by St. Martin's Griffin) which is simply astonishing.  Imagine an entire book written about one film.  Very rare indeed.  I know all Eve devotees already know about the book, but I am mentioning it to the rest of you.  To say I couldn't put it down is an understatement.

Here, enjoy the entire main cast:


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