THE THREE FACES OF EVE directed, written & produced by Nunnally Johnson in 1957, succeeds as an absorbing, occasionally wrenching drama partially because the fact-based story is so unusual, but far and away due to Joanne Woodward’s tour de force performance in the title role/s. At 27, after appearing in just two prior features (Count Three and Pray and A Kiss Before Dying), she walked off with a deserved Oscar for Best Actress.
With narration provided by Alistair Cooke, the story begins in 1951, with shy, unhappily married Georgia housewife and mother ‘Eve White’ (Woodward) seeing psychiatrist ‘Dr. Curtis Luther’ (Lee J. Cobb) for help diagnosing her headaches and blackouts, and sudden behavior switches that confound her husband ‘Ralph’ (David Wayne). In Luther’s presence, the timid Mrs. White suddenly reveals another “personality”, the sexually provocative ‘Eve Black’, dismissive of the ‘absent’ Eve White. After continued sessions and a stint of hospitalization, a third personality manifests as ‘Jane’; calm, rational and intelligent. Which of the three is her true self, and who will win out?
Johnson based his script on the bestseller “The Three Faces of Eve: A Case of Multiple Personality” by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley, the doctors who had handled the case. It caught on with a public fraught with atomic age anxiety, primed by the postwar boom in psychology and psychiatry, and movies like The Search For Bridey Murphy and The Cobweb. Done in semi-documentary fashion, the script is less adept with the psychology aspects than the dramatic; fortunately the latter (more important for a movie, anyway) aren’t marred by undercutting the material with sensationalism; lesser talents would have gone overboard with lascivious Eve Black in particular. Economically done for $965,000, the tidy gross of $4,000,000 ranked 62nd for the year. Its success eclipsed the similar, now obscure Lizzie, with Eleanor Parker and Richard Boone, released earlier in ’57, but failing to find much reception, placing 170th. *
Among those who turned down the role were Doris Day, Lana Turner, Jennifer Jones and Olivia de Havilland: Judy Garland and Susan Hayward were each interested. Any of those actresses would have have done their own brand of justice to the part, but Johnson made the smart choice in newcomer Woodward, who didn’t bring an established persona (or “identity” as it were) to the part, and she added an extra natural touch by hailing from Georgia.
Woodward is remarkable, running the emotional gamut—demure to hysterical, sweet to eerie, weak to flirty, abject to determined—with faultless changes in expressions and voice, posture and body language to convincingly switch on a dime from drab, defeated Eve White to carefree tease Eve Black, and eventually strong, balanced Jane.
Co-star Cobb dials down his usual tendency towards bombast and goes the calm route as the lead doctor, and Wayne, mostly known for comedic roles, does well as the understandably overwhelmed husband.
Sensitively scored by Robert Emmett Dolan. With Edwin Jerome (the other doctor working with Cobb), Ken Scott (stolid Fox contract player who didn’t pan out), Vince Edwards (uncredited, glowering as ever, as a soldier who tries to pick up wanton Eve Black), Nancy Kulp (Eve’s mother who, according to the film, inadvertently contributed to her daughter’s malady). 91 minutes.
* After the book and movie created a stir, in 1958 the real ‘Eve’, Chris Costner Sizemore (1927-2016), co-wrote “Strangers in My Body: The Final Face of Eve”, then in 1977 “I’m Eve”, and finally in 1989 published her autobiography “A Mind Of My Own”. She revealed that further treatment (lasting seventeen more years after the film’s resolution) from seven other psychiatrists, notably Tony Tsitos, showed that not only were the 1957 book and film incomplete but that in fact she’d been subject to twenty-two personalities. She sued 20th Century Fox when decades later they proposed a parody remake (that’s right) with Lily Tomlin. She also claimed that doctors Thigpen and Cleckley made over a million bucks off their book (which sold over two million copies) and the film rights and that she had signed, unaware, the original book rights over for three dollars.