ALL ABOUT EVE —-this wonderfully wicked 1950 classic won writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz back-to-back Oscars, a double-coup, his having already claimed the pair scripting and piloting those categories the year before with A Letter To Three Wives. Apart from some of the acting, I’m not a fan of the earlier, overrated film, where the dialogue crackle sounds unnatural and the tone feels condescending. Undisputed, this one bats the proverbial thousand, and not only seized awards for the clever gent behind the chatter but locked up four more; its total of 14 nominations outdid venerated Gone With The Wind. Though the vaunted verbal volleys are again stylized, since they relate to ‘theater’-people and their cosseted, coveted word-world, the byplay here fits like mink-lined brass knuckles, barbs popping like vintage champagne. It doesn’t hurt that the sterling silver cast clearly revel the rivalry, ripostes and rancor.
Broadway star ‘Margo Channing’ (Bette Davis, 42) is feeling her age, doubting her appeal, drinking more than she should. A sympathetic friend (Celeste Holm) makes a big blind turn into a dark alley when she introduces a “devoted fan” (Anne Baxter, 26) who slyly burrows her way into the favor and fortunes of Margo’s circle of admirers, acolytes and asps. Earthy maid ‘Birdie’ (Thelma Ritter) smells a leopard; the other refined noses gradually clue in to how hungry the new housepet is. “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”
That’s but a slice of the screenplay’s deeply layered cake, which has delicious mouthfuls for every character as they mirror unbridled ambition, the fratricidal stage vs. Hollywood jealousy and the blight of ageism—particularly toward women, way ahead of its time: “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.”
Camp abounds, with subtle insinuations around sexuality (Addison’s silky bitch-kitty haughtiness and the tease of Eve’s apparent equal-opportunity stance) and the generally poisonous atmosphere of elegant hostility. A dark and bumpy night.
“Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave – they’d get drunk if they knew how – when they can’t have what they want, when they feel unwanted or insecure or unloved.” Davis is outstanding—dynamic, gutsy, open & closed, fearless and fearful. The part rejuvenated her moribund career, and Life Imitating Art, she and co-star Gary Merrill went gaga over each other and got married (a 10-year tussle). Eve is a hard part to put across, and Baxter’s breathy playing takes some time to adjust to, but ultimately she delivers when the real Eve sheds her camouflage.
One of the on-target Oscars went to archetypal cad’s cad George Sanders, who stings to live as the waspish ‘Addison DeWitt’, partially based on critic George Jean Nathan (a quote-machine, that chap). He cited this as his favorite role. The wonderful Thelma Ritter provides a dose of common sense among the star-struck, and drew the first of a record six Supporting Actress nods. A camera-loving 23-year old newcomer brightens two scenes, and along with a plum part in the same year’s The Asphalt Jungle, announced to anyone with a pulse that Marilyn Monroe, and a new notion of sex appeal, was here.
“I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind.”
Produced for $1,400,000, running a tony 138 minutes, with Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, Barbara Bates (24, yet another real-life Hollywood casualty), Walter Hampden and Steven Geray. It wasn’t just highbrow film critics and industry-insider Academy voters who approved: enough of the smart end of the public pool dove to place 9th at the box-office, grossing $8,900,000.
When Oscar evening wrapped, this carried off Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Sanders), Costume Design and Sound, while being nominated for Actresses (Davis & Baxter), Supporting Actresses (Holm & Ritter), Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing and Music Score. *
* You could make some lazy snark point about public taste from the trivia that one notch ahead of the sophisticated All About Eve, the #8 earner of the year was At War With The Army, starring Martin & Lewis. The main competition—for awards, insights and spite-spewing— was Sunset Boulevard, which also had an aging star, young status-climber and venal show business, except it laced into the Hollywood home turf of movies and ‘Eve‘s safety valve for scorn was the snobbish New York stage. Good as Mankiewicz’ triumph is, the Oscars did lay on overkill by bestowing wins and nominations in the technical categories that should have gone to other films.
Talking about taking advantage: Joe Mankiewicz’ gab gift made the movie the best-reviewed of the 22 he directed, and the one most associated with him (I do like his greatly underrated Cleopatra). It deserves mentioning that All About Eve (Darryl Zanuck provided the title) does not give credit to writer Mary Orr, whose 1946 short story “The Wisdom Of Eve” set it up. She based it on something that happened to German actress Elisabeth Bergner. Mankiewicz retooled it to suit his own ideas, Zanuck trimmed it down and an iconic movie resulted. Ms. Irony smiled when it was done two decades later as a stage musical, Applause: Lauren Bacall was replaced as Margo Channing by….Anne Baxter, who finally really did take over Margo.
Like fame, misery loves a crowd, and while the eyeball-baking MM, a few years later became a phenomenon, it was the movies other starlet, Barbara Bates—showing up at the end of the film and given its final memorable shot—whose promised career evaporated into episodes of chronic depression and instability. In 1969, she sealed up her garage and turned on her car. She was 43.