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ALL ABOUT EVE (DIR: JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ) (SCR: MANKIEWIZC, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY "THE WISDOM OF EVE" BY MARY ORR)
After picking ALL THE KING'S MEN in 1949, which cast a cynical eye at modern politics, the Academy turned to a film that looked at the Broadway theater world with the same harsh gaze, but this time the cynicism was coated with acidic wit. ALL ABOUT EVE's win for best picture seemed inevitable, given that it was nominated for a then record breaking fourteen awards, and, while it's box office was relatively modest,(around four million dollars on a million and a half dollar budget) it quickly became a cult film, especially for fans of star Bette Davis, or for anyone who enjoys sharp, clever dialogue well delivered by an attractive cast.
It's life began when a 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine ran a short story by Mary Orr entitled "The Wisdom of Eve". Orr based the story on actress Elisabeth Bergner, who, after hiring an admiring fan to be her personal assistant, found that the young woman was using her to advance her own acting career. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz read the story and believed that he could combine it with an idea he had about an aging actress, and he convinced 20th. Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the story. Mankiewicz's career stretched back to writing title cards for silent films, before he began screenwriting, and finally, directing (with 1946's BACKFIRE). By the time he started working on EVE, he was at the top of his game after winning Oscars for both the writing and the direction of 1949's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. On the strength of that film, he became known as a writer and director of films for and about women, a reputation which EVE would certainly confirm.
His skill at casting would prove to be perfect, with stars like Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and George Saunders breathing life into his smart script, not to mention a young Marilyn Monroe in her first substantial role. And of course there was Bette Davis; considering how perfect Davis was for the major part of Margo Channing, it seems hard to believe that Claudette Colbert was initially cast, and that Davis was called in on a week's notice when Colbert suffered a ruptured disc. Colbert's loss would be Davis' gain; although she would lose the best actress award that year to Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY, Margo Channing would probably prove to be the legendary star's best remembered and most revered role.
The movie begins at a theatrical award banquet being given in honor of Eve Carrington (Baxter), a pretty young new starlet. In voice over, Addison Dewitt (Saunders), setting the tone of sharp humor that will continue through the film, tells the audience a little about the evening's guests, and then in flashback we see how they all got there. About a year earlier, Karen (Holm) wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), met Eve standing outside the dressing room of big theatrical star Margo Channing. Karen recognizes Eve because the young woman has gone to each performance of Margo's current play without fail. Karen invites the shy woman in to meet Margo, and when Eve tells them all the sad story of the death of her soldier husband, and how she has become entranced by Margo on the stage, Margo is touched, and before you know it Eve has become her personal assistant. At first, Eve seems innocent and supportive of Margo, but slowly but surely he begins to intrude upon her life, even trying to seduce Margo's boyfriend, Bill Sampson(Gary Merrill).
Although Davis's performance is mostly remembered for the way she gleefully rips through her catty lines ("Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" and "I detest cheap sentiment!"), it should also be noted for her more subtle moments, her Margo is vain and self pitying, but also likable and vulnerable in her fear of aging and loneliness. She wonderfully delivers a moving speech to Karen about her fear of being alone when she thinks she's losing Bill, and there is excellent romantic chemistry between her and Merrill (which was not all pretend, she would marry Merrill shortly after the film wrapped). And, while she looks great, wearing gowns designed by famed costume designer Edith Head, she's also willing to show her natural age, especially in a scene where she is awakened from a deep sleep.
While Davis may dominate the film, Baxter is every bit as good as the duplicitous Eve; hers is in many ways the trickier role, since Eve so rarely displays her real emotions, and Baxter believably gives a performance within a performance, perfectly playing the wide eyed innocent and completely fooling Margo and her friends(except for Thelma Ritter's Birdie, who is on to Eve from the start). I love the way that Eve poses in the mirror with one of Margo's stage costumes when she thinks no one is looking, or the way that she turns from kind to cruel when she tries to blackmail Karen.
While the film is full of virtues, it is not perfect; at two hours and fifteen minutes, it drags at times, especially towards the end. (Eve's final, unnecessary speech at the awards show is a good example of this). And I think Mankiewicz's skills as a screenwriter exceed his skills as a director; for a film with so many memorable lines, there are no memorable images. And at times, the characters onscreen seem crowded in; he also often allows static takes to go on for too long. And even the script has some problems: while I enjoy Addison Dewitt's narration, further narration from Margo and Karen adds nothing and could easily have been cut. And why does Thelma Ritter's very funny Birdie character disappear from the second half of the film? She steals every scene she's in, so I would have liked to have seen more of her, especially since she is proven right about Eve.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
While it's easy to see why the Academy would award such a intelligent and sophisticated film, there was another film that year that also took a harsh look at the underbelly of show business, and it too would go on to become a cult film: Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD. While it's not surprising that the Academy would avoid awarding Wilder's film, seeing as it was Hollywood itself that Wilder was criticizing, I think that his film holds up just a little bit better than ALL ABOUT EVE. (Interestingly, both films would eventually be adapted into Broadway musicals). Still, EVE is far from a bad choice. I should also mention Carol Reed's outstanding thriller THE THIRD MAN, with Orson Welles playing one of the best movie villains ever, would also have been a good choice.