If a singular aspect, alone, can propel a film to greatness, than perhaps writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 black and white Oscar winning best film, All About Eve, is that film. Given that the film is about a play- a medium dominated by the power of the written word, this should not be a surprise, but it’s also a testament to the notion that, despite the fetishizing of cineastes, film was, is, and always will be, a medium dependent on the written word more than any visual aspect. In short, it is literature with pictures. All About Eve is blessed with dialogue that still sparkles with wit nearly six decades on, and, even more so than the films of Billy Wilder (whose Sunset Boulevard, released in the same year, is often compared to All About Eve) there simply was no Hollywood screenwriter that came as close to the great stage comedies of Oscar Wilde than Mankiewicz. That said, while the film’s cinematography is rather pedestrian, the only real ‘flaw,’ if one will, with the film is that, unlike Wilde, the very intelligence of all the characters works against any realism. Wilde tends to have characters that are not as smart as Mankiewicz’s, but usually more obviously comic. Granted, there is a dopey harlot-cum-starlet, Miss Caswell, played by Marilyn Monroe (in the most ‘realistic’ performance of Monroe’s career- itself a testament to great writing), but even there she is used to set up peerless wittiness. However, if this is a flaw with this film, so be it. Let us indulge in such travesty. Given current Hollywood’s obsessions with Lowest Common Denominator brain-dead fare, in which it seems incapable of realizing that film’s passive medium will never be able to out-video game the video game industry’s interactive medium, I say that every wannabe Michael Bay wannabe and clone in film school and beyond should be forced to watch this film over and over (strapped in and eyes forced open ala Little Alex’s coercion in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), if only to see that there is a market for mature adult drama out there, and that such need not be relegated to independent and foreign film fare.
The film has been so famous for so long that I will not recapitulate the tale in detail, only limn the highlights. The film opens with an awards dinner, the Sarah Siddons Award (a fictive award which later was inaugurated in reality), for a young Broadway star named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). There is an opening narration by a droll drama critic named Addison DeWitt (George Sanders)- the first of several narrations by assorted characters in the film. It’s worth noting how apt Addison’s surname is, since he displays a rapier wit throughout the film. At the gala, we learn there is Margo Channing (Bette Davis, doing her best Tallulah Bankhead homage- a fact which drove the real Bankhead mad), a huge Broadway star, her best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) and her playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill)- Margo’s younger lover and theater director, and Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff)- a wealthy Broadway producer. After setting up the main players for the film, the film freeze-frames as Eve is about to accept her award. The film then becomes a flashback for the bulk of its remainder. We are told the awards show is in spring, and that all this was put in to motion only the previous October. Karen finds Eve outside of Margo’s show, and finds out that she has been to every show. She seems to be an obsessed fan, or a stalker, but, Karen introduces her to Margo. Eve spins a sad tale of being a World War Two widow whose life of drudgery as a secretary at a brewery was ended when she ended up in San Francisco and saw Margo in a play. She then followed Margo cross-country, attending every show. As these are simpler times than now, little is made of this bizarre behavior. Margo takes Eve under her wing, and makes Eve her assistant. This does not sit well with Birdy (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s longtime Girl Friday, who soon deduces that Eve is out for herself, not Margo’s interests. Margo also turns on Eve, and tries to get Max to give her a job. The others in Margo’s life think that her reactions to Eve are evidence of Margo’s oft-displayed insecurities, but, this time, she is right. Eve is indeed scheming to displace Margo, personally and professionally. She weasels her way to become an understudy, tries to seduce Margo’s lover Bill, and also tries to work and or blackmail the Richardses. Eve uses Addison DeWitt to bolster her career and trash Margo in the press. After getting a plum role she tried to blackmail Karen into having Lloyd get for her, rather than Margo, Margo (after accepting Bill’s proposal) decides to cut back on her workload, and declines the role Eve schemed for. Eve gets the role, and, just before its trial opening in New Haven, Connecticut, Eve reveals to Addison that she has seduced Lloyd into leaving Karen, and marrying her, so that he can create star roles for her to play. Just as it seems all has fallen into place, Addison reveals that he knows that she is a small time hustler named Gertrude Slovinsky, not a war widow, but an adulteress who was paid to flee town after an affair with a brewery owner. She will not be marrying Lloyd, but become Addison’s paramour, for he now owns her. Eve weeps that she can never do the performance now, and Addison remarks she’ll give the performance of her life. It is a chillingly brilliant scene- one of the best acted vicious moments in cinema history, that shows George Sanders at the top of his game, truly revealing ‘All About Eve.’ It also shows how similar and cold blooded Eve and Addison are- contemptuous of humanity and each other, but attracted to each other for that reason. We return to the awards dinner, and the freeze-frame continues. After a self-serving (and pre-PC PC) speech, Eve declines a party and Addison takes her to her hotel room in a cab. There, Eve encounters Phoebe (Barbara Bates), a high school girl obsessed with Eve Harrington. Addison returns to the room with the award Eve forgot, and Phoebe recognizes him by name. Addison smirks, seeing in Phoebe, Eve’s Eve. As Eve rests, Phoebe holds Eve’s trophy and tries on Eve’s outer coat in front of a triptych mirror that reveals an infinite array of fractured Phoebes cum Eves, as the cycle of the young displacing the old (The Phoebe Effect?) is about to begin again. As might be assumed, from my description, the ending is a bit too much, in that it lacks all subtlety, yet, given the over the top natures of both Margo and Eve, perhaps it is a fitting testament to ego- Phoebe’s and Mankiewicz’s. But, narratively, given the time frame laid out in the opening scenes, there’s just too little time that has passed for Eve to reach a stature akin to that of Margo, and thus attract a coterie of admirers, as Phoebe claims- unless this is evidence Phoebe lies as well as Eve.
There are a number of scenes that are nonpareil in the film, such as the party sequence midway through, Addison’s denuding of Eve, and Phoebe’s fracture at film’s end. Naturally, a film as good and influential as this one is will naturally be misread in many ways. The first misreading comes in believing that the film is somehow an exposé of life in the theater. It’s not, and for a very simple reason, the one I mentioned earlier- all the characters are too smart and witty to be realistic. Most people in the theater are poseurs, they are not great at what they do, and the film seems to have focused on all the best in their professions- the best actresses, best theater directors, best playwrights, best drama critics, etc. In reality, they are usually poseurs and wannabes. What All About Eve is really about is the obsession with fame at all costs. That may seem obvious in looking over a synopsis, yet this rather easily deduced statement has usually been sidetracked by critical claims about its views on theater, politics, or, most laughably, about sexuality- in fact, homosexuality; even though there’s not a scintilla of evidence that there is any homosexuality in the film.
The claim by many critics is that the lead character, Eve, is a lesbian. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that this accounts for her sociopathy. The evidence? That Eve wears, in some scenes, a ‘butch’ haircut- actually a close-cropped haircut. The further evidence? That, in one scene, Eve has a woman who lives in her building, place a phone call to Lloyd Richards, for a false pretense, and, after having done so, Eve puts her arm around the pajama’d woman gratefully, and they head up the stairs. Then, at film’s end, when Phoebe states that her bus back to Brooklyn has already left, Eve asks her if she will stay the night at her place. Ok, there it is. Now, let’s puncture this nonsense. First, the stereotype of a woman with short hair as a lesbian was ridiculous then, and now, and, as stated, her hairstyle is not static. Eve clearly shows heterosexual interests throughout the film, to boot. She lusts for Margo’s Bill throughout the film, and from their first encounter. In fact, Eve’s lust for him is one of the first tipoffs to the viewer that she’s no innocent. As for the telephone scene, it’s worth noting that the telephone call is from a payphone in the building’s hallway, not in an apartment, and Eve’s congratulatory armsling is just that. There is no undue sexuality, nor lasciviousness present. Lastly, there is no sexual hint in Eve’s voice regarding Phoebe. In fact, Eve is drowsy and yawning throughout the scene. The scene is a parallel to the earlier scene where Margo invites Eve to stay with her, and also affectionately puts an arm around Eve. Yet, no one sees evidence of Margo’s bisexuality in the film. Why? Because it is silly. However, Eve is not the only character claimed to be gay. Addison DeWitt is claimed to be gay, too. Why? Because he’s witty, neat, snarky, droll, and stuffy. But, these are not shorthand characteristics for homosexuality any more than they are for DeWitt’s simply being British. Like Eve, he also is clearly heterosexual, shown lusting not only for Eve, but for the dimwitted Miss Casswell, among other females. So, yet another critical myth busted, and one wonders to what degree projection of their own sexual insecurities abounds in such critics’ claims.
Not all claims for the film are false, though. The film is amongst the most quotable of all time, for a potpourri of great quotes abound. The most famous, of course, is Margo’s exhortation at the party: ‘Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.’ But, there’s also Bill’s shot at Eve, when he rejects her: ‘Don’t cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass.’ Of the two or more dozen other great quotes, my two personal favorites are Addison DeWitt’s final stab at Eve, when he denudes her lies (and also shows a passion for her that is definitely not homosexual): ‘You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also, our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.’ Lastly, is his putdown to Miss Casswell, when she states she cannot call the butler ‘butler,b so calls him ‘waiter,’ because ‘butlerb could be someone’s name, while ‘waiter’ is not. Quoth Addison: ‘You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.’ Precious!
The DVD, by Twentieth Century Fox, comes in a two disk package. Disk One has the 138 minute long film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, along with two audio commentaries- one by Sam Stagg, who wrote a book about the film, and the other by Celeste Holm, Mankiewicz’s biographer, and Mankiewicz’s son, Christopher. Neither is any good. Stagg sounds like a flamer with a boner, and revels in bitchy gossip over real information, while Holm can barely speak, and the other two utter nothing of consequence, that is, when there aren’t long silent spots in the commentary. Disk Two has four featurettes on Mankiewicz’s career, his life, the film, and the then fictive Sarah Siddons award. There’s a longer piece from AMC on the film, some old Movietone footage, a restoration comparison, the original theatrical trailer, and a few minor features. Not the best DVD package, but quite good.
The film is a rarity in that it was praised at its release, and has never critically waned. That, however is not the rarity I refer to; the rarity is that the film is deserving of the praise. It won many awards at many festivals, and was nominated for fourteen Oscars- a record tied only by the abysmal Titanic, in 1997- a film that represents an almost polar extreme from this film, in that it was all glitz and special effects, and had a terrible screenplay- one that dates Titanic, made almost a half century later, far more than All About Eve. This film garnered six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (for Mankiewicz) and Best Supporting Actor (for Sanders). Yet, despite all that, and my admiration for Mankiewicz’s great writing, All About Eve is not a flat-out great film. It’s close, a near-great, but the fact is that, for all of its stellar writing, it simply is not a deep film. In a sense, it recapitulates the shallow values all its lead characters embrace, in varying degrees. That, along with its rather pedestrian cinematography by Milton Krasner, as well as bad rear projection, in a scene of Eve and Addison walking in New Haven (even if its minimal soundtrack, by Alfred Newman, is commendable), are just enough to keep the film out of the pantheon of all time greats. Despite that, All About Eve is a great way to spend a few hours, and a shining example of classic Hollywood at its best (nearly).