Sunday, February 28, 2010

Classic Film Review: All About Eve

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950, Best Picture)
DIRECTED BY: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
STARRING: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe, Celeste Holm and Marilyn Monroe

"If nothing else, there's waves of love pouring over the footlights." ~Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter)~

The corruption that comes with wealth and fame, and the desire to be publicly adored, has been a recurring theme in Hollywood cinema for as long as we can remember. 1950, in particular, was a big year in terms of films dealing with fame and how fleeting and unforgiving it can be. Sunset Blvd. came out the same year as All About Eve and each film boasts wonderful lead performances from their actresses, Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis, respectively. While Sunset Blvd. addresses the perils of aging and being forgotten in Hollywood, All About Eve tackles another dark side to fame: ambition and, ultimately, betrayal.

Aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) closely scrutinizes every performance and real-life drama of her Broadway idol, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) to the point of obsession. Quiet, polite, although obviously a little unhinged, Eve goes out of her way to integrate herself into Margo's elite inner social circle; quickly rising up the ladder to success as she goes from shy and awkward assistant to close friend and confidante to the star. Right from the start, everyone loves Eve. Playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife, Karen (Celeste Holm), are beyond smitten with the young ingenue. Director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), who also happens to be Margo's younger beau, is intrigued by the odd young woman who has suddenly entered their lives. Even arrogant British theatre critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), has the urge to learn more about the enigma that is Eve Harrington. However, all winds up going horribly wrong as Eve shows her true colours through her driving ambition to be famous and the backstabbing betrayal of her former idol, and new nemesis, Margo Channing.

Like Sunset Blvd., All About Eve has a sharp, witty and clever script. The dialogue is rife with astute Hollywood references and inside jokes. One particular interesting decision was casting Marilyn Monroe in the role of rising ingenue, Miss Casswell. She shows up on the arm of more than one famous beau and, while at a party, is encouraged by her agent to mingle and flirt with the variety of directors, playwrights and producers in attendance. Monroe's own career was undoubtedly built in a similar fashion. Being young and beautiful in Hollywood or on Broadway can go a long way towards making one famous.They'd need to be on standby to replace the aging Margo Channing's of the world.

Despite the fact that it was released well over 50 years ago, its story and themes are still relevant today. It takes a bleak approach to the gritty and cheap actions done behind the scenes by people who thrive in the limelight and also fear it when it starts to falter and dim. Margo Channing is 40 years old. She knows she can't play a 25 year old on stage anymore. Eve Harrington is 24 years old and talented and everyone on Broadway knows it. Eve wants nothing more than to be Margo Channing from 15 years ago.

As superstar Margo Channing, Bette Davis is a revelation. Always one of Hollywood's leading ladies, Davis steals the show, as usual, with her spot-on portrayal of an aging actress who is aware of her own mortality and the fact that fame can be fleeting. Ever confident and overly boastful by nature, Margo never felt her talent was under threat until the appearance of Eve Harrington. When faced with a pretty, young talent, Margo becomes all too aware that her reign as the queen of the stage may have reached its final curtain. Davis instills Margo with a fiery temperament and determination to prevail. It's fascinating watching her confidence in herself waver at the hands of a younger rival. Despite her diva-like ways, Margo is likeable and sympathetic and this is all thanks to Davis' wonderful performance. As a viewer you root for her success and want nothing more than for this 40 year old woman to remain the stage's leading lady.

As Eve Harrington, Anne Baxter is appropriately eerie and unlikeable. Initially, her fascination with Margo Channing is chilling in its quiet and penetrating stillness. She allegedly has a tragic past, involving a husband who didn't return from the Second World War. In gaining sympathy, (including from Margo, who cries when Eve tells her sad tale) Eve becomes a fixture in Margo's camp. As the film progresses, Eve further and further alienates the viewer as she flirts and laughs her way to the top. Baxter makes Eve a fascinating and unsettling study of non-violent aggression and behind-the-scenes backstabbing ambition.

Ironically enough, when the 1950 Academy Award nominations were announced, Anne Baxter fought to have herself in the Best Actress category alongside Bette Davis, as opposed to Best Supporting Actress. Baxter obviously saw her role as equal to that of Davis in terms of both screen time and talent. It's likely the reason why Davis didn't win a much-deserved Best Actress that year, as the fact that both actresses were nominated for lead performances likely split the vote.

Ah, when life imitates art.

All About Eve is a classic film that should still be talked about amongst movie fans and critics alike and dissected in film courses. Like a fine wine, this film has aged incredibly well.