Tuesday, June 29, 2010

All About Eve: When Unreal Is More Real Than Real

All About Eve holds the Oscar record for most nominations: fourteen, with six wins. The film is atypical of a feted Oscar nominee—it isn’t an epic, a musical, a period drama, a biopic, a war film (well, not any sort of actual historical war). In fact, All About Eve, with its storylines about backstabbing actresses, seems more like it is ripped from the headlines of a 1950 edition of Us Weekly. How does a film that sounds like the 1950 version of Mean Girls end up one of the most honored Best Pictures of all time?

Mere synopses and source material can be deceiving. Just one year previous to All About Eve, All the King’s Men—adapted from no less than a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—won Best Picture, but that film was one of the dullest movies I have ever watched. All About Eve was adapted from a short story that first appeared in Cosmopolitan (a magazine that the characters of this film would most certainly be reading), and this is one of the most awesome movies I have ever seen. You know why? People like the kind of stuff you read about in Cosmo. Fashion, gossip, lifestyles, relationships, sex advice, the arts—these are the kinds of subjects most human beings spend the hours talking about in one way or another. Corruption in politics, anti-Semitism, WWII—those sound like college courses someone would have to twist my arm to attend. Bitchiness, backstabbing, jealousy—these are the kinds of things people stretch their ears to eavesdrop on. Which movie would you rather watch?

Titillation alone does not account for the greatness of All About Eve. Certainly one could pop the film into your DVD player and be entertained by the surface aspects about the story. Yet all great films—like all great works of art—operate on many levels. First, helping tell the story is some of the greatest, wittiest, and most venomous dialogue ever written. Next, some damn talented and perfectly cast actors bring those words to life. Finally, after you’ve been hooked by the subject matter, the story, the dialogue, the acting—you realize what All About Eve is really all about. The cost of vanity and ambition. The fear of aging. The responsibility (or lack thereof) of people in power. Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Others have dug deeper to find both homosexual and anti-Communist subtexts (which I won’t be discussing here, but both are present in the film). Unlike All the King’s Men, which is transparent about its subject matter, beating out its moral to the viewer as if they were a piece of metal being forged and hammered out on an anvil, All About Eve appears to be about trifling subject material but the film gradually unveils itself to be about deeper universal themes.

The film has a great opening scene. Like The Godfather twenty-two years later, within the opening sequence of the film the audience is introduced to every important character and we get a glimpse of each of their motivations and personalities. The film opens at the beginning of the final act, making the remainder of the movie a long flashback. The scene is an award ceremony for the Sarah Siddons Society (and here’s how you know a film becomes a classic: the actual Sarah Siddons Society was established in 1952—two years after All About Eve was released—yet the award and the society were an invention of director/screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz; the film proved to be so influential that a Chicago theater patrons made what was in a movie a reality, life imitating art), where according the narrator, the top award is “the highest honor our theater knows” is awarded to the greatest star of the theater and that the minor awards “for such as the writer and the director since their function is to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes upon it,” have already been presented. Who is the light flashing upon the tower? Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), whom, according to the narrator, “no brighter light ever dazzled the eye.”

The narrator then introduces himself as Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), an egomaniacal and bitterly cynical theater critic who describes his occupation as “essential to the theater.” How else do we know that Addison is a snob? Easy—he’s the kind of guy who can’t just say “theater”. In his mouth, the word becomes a sonorous, trilled “theee-aaaah-taaah” as if it were the word of God. Addison then introduces the rest of the characters (director Bill Sampson—played by Gary Merrill—and playwright Lloyd Richards—played by Hugh Marlowe—are introduced first in Addison’s line about “minor awards”). First up is Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the playwright’s wife, who has “nothing in her breeding or background that should have brought her any closer to the stage than Row E, Center” but because she is Mrs. Lloyd Richards, she is an important part of the periphery of the theater community. To Addison, Karen is simply “the lowest form of celebrity.” Next is producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff). Addison says “there are two types of theatrical producers. One has a great many wealthier friends who will risk a tax deductible loss. This type is interested in art. The other is one to whom each production means potential ruin or fortune. This type is out to make a buck.” Max is of the former.

Finally, there is Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in her greatest role), whom Addison praises as “a great Star. A true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.” Mankiewicz responds appropriately to Margo’s introduction with a close-up. As Eve accepts the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement, she is greeted by canned applause and indifferent looks. Margo’s disdain burns the brightest. Mankiewicz freeze frames right as Eve—who is the youngest person to receive the Distinguished Achievement Award—is about to clasp her claws around the coveted prize. The film then flashes back as we learn all about Eve.

Eve is introduced to Margo after a performance of Fabian’s play Aged in Wood. Karen arranges the meeting, after she learns that Eve has attended every performance Margo has delivered in the play. Margo is Eve’s idol. Karen feels that Margo ought to throw her biggest fan a bone, but Margo derides her fans as “autograph fiends” and “juvenile delinquents”, noting that they’re “never indoors long enough” to even see a play. Yet when the nature of Eve’s devotion is revealed to her, Margo softens. Eve wins over Karen, Bill and Margo with her wide-eyed innocence and star-struck behavior and her tale of growing up in Wisconsin (where “everything is beer”), where she lived a dreary existence as a secretary for a brewery where “it was pretty hard to make-believe you are anyone else.” Eve became drawn to plays—for reasons almost identical to my own love of movies—because “the unreal seemed more real to me.” Her stories win over her audience—save for Margo’s backstage maid and companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who sees right through Eve and how she is manipulating the others and says: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end!” Birdie’s warnings go unheeded, and Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life when Margo later offers Eve a job as her personal assistant. The bond between Margo and Eve strengthens when Bill—who is also Margo’s fiancée—leaves New York temporarily to pursue a directing opportunity in Hollywood (the script makes many jokes about the differences between the theater community and Hollywood community).

The next big set piece in the film involves a party celebrating Bill’s return from Hollywood. By this point in the film, Eve’s ruthless ambition is made crystal clear—most strikingly when Margo catches Eve dressed in her own costume (Birdie notes: “She’s studyin’ you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints. How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep.”)—and Margo, while understanding Eve’s envy toward her acting career, becomes unglued when she learns that Eve has planned the party for Bill’s return without her say-so. Margo’s deepest fear is made open and raw: that Bill will leave her for a younger woman. When Bill returns, Margo remarks “there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges. For instance, you.” When she misinterprets Bill speaking with Eve as flirting, she admonishes him: “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.” The claws have come out; Margo is a woman who means war.

As the guests arrive, each of them remark how much they like Eve and admire Margo for taking her under her wing. Margo acts out, becoming drunker and surlier as the night goes on (Margo warns the party, in the film’s most famous line: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”) Lloyd Richards notes that Margo’s mood is “very Macbethish”. The unflappable Addison arrives, a dumb blonde bimbo starlet—Miss Casswell, a “graduate of the Copacabana School for the Dramatic Arts” (Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earliest roles)—on his arm, and tells Margo, “You were an unforgettable Peter Pan. You must play it again soon.” Margo’s insecurities only become more fueled when Lloyd says that the lead role in his new play is written as a “twenty-ish” woman. Margo lays the facts bare: “Lloyd, I am not twenty-ish. I am not thirty-ish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh - That slipped out. I hadn't quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as if I've taken all my clothes off.” Furthermore, Margo makes note of the sexism actresses face when they reach middle age by comparing herself to Bill. “Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago. He'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men."

By this point, with her insecurities fully revealed in the company of her friends and colleagues, Margo’s character becomes, in the words of Eve, more real than unreal. Who doesn’t—women and men both—have fears of growing old and feeling unfulfilled in life? I don’t care how confident a person is, everyone has a scab that they don’t want picked, covering an insecurity always threatening to fester. Margo is no longer simply a drama queen, spoiled actress, and bitch of the highest order (though she is always all of those things and very entertainingly so); she loses her star luster and becomes achingly human. The jokes the party guests make about coming to view the “remains of Margo Channing” as if she were a naked corpse laid out at a viewing become more poignant (but still funny).

What is a character becomes flesh and blood in the hands of Bette Davis. One aspect of the casting that works extraordinarily well in All About Eve is that Margo Channing the character closely resembled the true life of Bette Davis the actress. Davis was considered box office poison, and she was unceremoniously dumped by her longtime studio, Warner Brothers, at the end of her contract in 1949 after each of her films performed substantially worse than the last. Davis was always frank about her career coming before personal relationships or reputation. Davis wasn’t even the first choice for Margo—another actress with a reputation for being bitchy, Claudette Colbert, was—but when Colbert suffered a back injury, Davis was in. She was 42 when filming commenced. Furthermore, she developed a relationship (and eventually married) with Gary Merrill, who played her paramour in the film and was also seven years her junior. In watching Davis as Margo, actress and part develop a symbiotic relationship. Davis expertly delivers the many delicious lines Margo has but also imbues her with the humanity that could only have come from Davis’ own life experiences. I think Davis felt a kinship with Margo that could only have developed out of the compassion she felt for the character and how Margo mirrored her own life. If there was ever an example of a role an actress was born to play, it is Bette Davis as Margo Channing.

The remainder of All About Eve becomes a contrast between Eve’s ruthless ambition and Margo’s acceptance of her insecurities. A more predictable—and less great—film would have Margo and Eve facing off in the mother of all catfights, a tussle filled with hair-pulling and backbiting. Mankiewicz takes the story in a different direction, allowing Margo some moments of self-reflection. Margo tells Karen—who feels a measure of guilt toward Margo for it was she who arranged for Eve to meet her idol, and Karen also schemed to let Eve become Margo’s understudy in Aged in Wood—“Infants behave the way I do, you know.” It is in this scene where Margo realizes that she envies what Karen has—a healthy marriage. In a speech where Margo advances for feminism then simultaneously takes it two steps back, she says:

“Don't fumble for excuses, not here and now with my hair down. At best, let's say I've been oversensitive to her...to the fact that she's so young, so feminine and so helpless, too so many things I want to be for Bill. Funny business, a woman's career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. There's one career all females have in common - whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed - and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a - a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain. The End.”

Margo reprioritizes her ambitions; her time as an actress in its sunset, she needs to remember how to be a woman, to be—in her eyes—worthy of Bill’s unconditional love. Margo’s next great role will be as Margo Channing, member of the human race.

Meanwhile, Eve schemes her way to the top. Her stage debut is facilitated by Karen (in fact, when Margo is giving Karen her “funny business, a woman’s career,” speech it is on an outing meant to deliberately keep Margo off stage and allow Eve to take over the lead role for the night), but it is Addison who takes full advantage of Eve’s nascent career and accelerates the blossoming of the nubile young star. Addison tells Eve: “We all come into this world with our little egos, equipped with individual horns. Now if we don't blow them, who else will?” That sells Eve, who tells Addison to “take charge”. Addison arranges for theater critics to see her perform as Margo’s understudy, writes a rave about her performance, and introduces her to Hollywood agents. He writes fluff pieces about Eve’s humble beginnings, and encourages her to make statements that older actresses should not take parts envisioned for younger performers. Lloyd’s new play has a part, Cora, which is intended for Margo but more age appropriate for Eve. Eve’s ambitions undoubtedly lie on Cora.

At a dinner with Karen and Lloyd where Bill proposes marriage to Margo (she accepts, the marriage will be a simple ceremony at City hall where Bill and Margo will acquire a marriage license and she will wear “something simple. A fur coat over a nightgown.”), Eve and Addison are also seen dining at a nearby table. Eve summons Karen via a note to the ladies room, and by this point Margo only wishes to know what Eve is thinking out of pure curiosity, not spite, and tells Karen to find out “what’s going on in that feverish little brain waiting in there.” Eve offers Karen a phony apology about the “poison pen” article Addison wrote where Eve is quoted dressing down Margo because of her age, but she is really there to blackmail Karen into convincing Lloyd to let her play Cora. In exchange, Eve tells Karen that she won’t divulge to Addison that it was Karen who schemed to have Margo be absent on the day Eve took over the lead in Aged in Wood, thus destroying Margo and Karen’s friendship and ruining Karen’s credibility. (What Eve doesn’t know, of course, is that Karen and Margo have reconciled against Eve.) Karen, astonished at the depths of Eve’s Machiavellian calculations, tells her, “You’d do all that for a part in a play?” Eve replies: “I’d do much more for a part that good.”

What is telling about Margo’s character is her reaction. She tells Lloyd, “I don't want to play Cora...It isn't the part. It's a great part in a fine play. But not for me anymore. Not for a four-square, upright, downright, forthright married lady...It means I finally got a life to live. I don't have to play parts I'm too old for, just because I've got nothing to do with my nights.” Margo is content, happy. (Karen has the best reaction to this news—hysterical laughter.) Eve thinks she can only be content when she is on stage, receiving applause, calling it “waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine to know, every night, that different hundreds of people love you. They smile. Their eyes shine. You've pleased them. They want you. You belong. Just that alone is worth anything.” Eve thinks she can receive love without a relationship, by playing a role.

She receives her ultimate comeuppance when Addison exposes her entire backstory as a lie—Eve has been performing the whole time. Addison calls Eve out: “You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition—and talent. We deserve each other...and you realize and you agree how completely you belong to me?” Eve falls victim to Addison’s gambit—she will “belong” to him as his mistress and he will never reveal that the foundation of Eve’s existence as an actress is an utter lie. The two schemers inevitably end up alone together.

Cut to the awards banquet. Eve accepts the Sarah Siddons Award for her role as Cora. Eve gives a canned valedictory, giving “credit where credit is due” (cut to a shot panning over the faces of Lloyd and Karen, Bill and Margo, who know that they’ve been used), calling the night “the happiest of my life” and saying that although she will be leaving to film a movie in Hollywood, she says that “three thousand miles are too far to be away from one’s heart”, promising that she will be back to “reclaim her heart” soon. Margo gets the last laugh—“Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Eve decides to forgo the after party thrown by Max Fabian in her honor, demanding that Addison take her home.

When they arrive at Eve’s suite, Phoebe (Barbara Bates), a pretty young fan, surprises the couple. Phoebe says Eve is her idol and she is there to write a report about her—“how you live, what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of perfume and books, things like that.” Eve is flattered by the attention and invites her in, just as Margo once did for her. Addison, of course, knows exactly what is happening, but does nothing to stop it. He asks if Phoebe would like to win an award someday, and Phoebe tells him “more than anything else in the world.” Addison’s reply: “Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. Miss Harrington knows all about it.”
The final shot of the film has Phoebe, wearing Eve’s coat and clutching onto the Siddons Award. Phoebe vainly admires herself in Eve’s four mirrored cheval, and the mirror returns an infinite number of reflections where Phoebe bows with dignity, imagining that she is the recipient. The cycle of ambition continues. There will always be another Eve.

So, what seems like a tawdry tale about catty actresses ultimately reflects infinite insight into our own lives. All About Eve can be enjoyed simply straight up, but because the film has much deeper levels, it resonates as a classic.

Some interesting life-follows-fiction details happened after the release of the film. First off, Bette Davis—though she delivers what is universally acclaimed as not only her finest performance, but also one of the finest performances ever given by an actress—did not win Best Actress for Margo Channing. Why? Because Anne Baxter considered herself (with justification, after all it is the title role) also a lead actress in All About Eve. Both women secured Best Actress nominations for their work in the film, effectively splitting the vote and handing the award to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. (Some mention must also go to Gloria Swanson, who also spectacularly played an aging actress—Norma Desmond—in Billy Wilder’s superb Sunset Boulevard, seen as the chief competitor to All About Eve in the 1950 Oscar race.) Many who follow the history of the Oscars have speculated that Baxter (who had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1946) was pulling a real-life Eve Harrington move. In reality, Davis and Baxter became great friends on the set of All About Eve and remained that way for the rest of their lives. However, there is no doubt in my mind that had Anne Baxter considered herself a supporting actress in the film, both she and Davis would have Oscars for their indelible performances.

Happily, Davis married Gary Merrill, mirroring the Margo/Bill relationship in the film. The marriage would ultimately end in divorce ten years later, and Davis, like Margo (presumably), did not receive many substantial roles once she hit middle age. Though she received a final Oscar nomination in 1962 for the campy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Margo Channing is widely perceived as Davis’ last hurrah.

Tragically, three of the actors who made the film—George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbara Bates—died by their own hand. Coincidentally, each of the actors played either unhappy or empty characters in the film. Monroe everyone knows all about (and there is much speculation that her death wasn’t a suicide, but I will leave that to the conspiracy theorists). Sanders, who is so, so good as Addison DeWitt (very deservedly winning Best Supporting Actor for his efforts), did not find much happiness later in life. Sanders the man, like Bette Davis, in reality was much like his on screen counterpart in All About Eve. His autobiography was titled Memoirs of a Professional Cad (Sanders’ suggestion for the title: A Dreadful Man). He succumbed to alcoholism and on April 23, 1972, Sanders overdosed on Nembutal, his suicide note reading: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” Bates parlayed her role as Phoebe into a modestly successful film career, but was prone to depression, mood swings, and bipolar behavior. When her husband died of cancer in January 1967, Bates followed him on March 18, 1969 when she committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.

All About Eve has ensured immortality for all those involved, despite the tragic circumstances that befell some of its cast. Like Eve’s statement, the film is one of the rare works of art where the unreal is made more real than real. Watching the film, I felt as if I’ve known the story for my entire life, because in many ways, I’ve known Margo Channings and Eve Harringtons everywhere I’ve gone.


All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

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

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture, Best Director—Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Best Supporting Actor—George Sanders, Best Adapted Screenplay—Mankiewicz, Best Costume Design Black & White—Edith Head*, Best Sound Recording) out of 14 total nominations** (Best Actress—Bette Davis, Best Actress—Anne Baxter, Best Supporting Actress—Celeste Holm, Best Supporting Actress—Thelma Ritter***, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Set Decoration Black & White)

*Edith Head is the most celebrated costume designer ever in Hollywood history. She received an Oscar nomination in every year from 1949 to 1967, representing 30 nominations in total. She eventually received 35 nominations in total, winning 8 Oscars (and won in both the B&W and color costume categories in 1950).
**14 Oscar nominations is the Academy record, shared by Titanic (1997)
***The nominations secured by Davis, Baxter, Holm and Ritter represented the first and only time four actresses had been nominated from one film. None of the actresses won, though Davis, Baxter, and Holm had won Oscars previously. Ritter received six total career nominations and never once was victorious, an all-time Academy injustice.

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