Sunday, March 24, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

Crystal over at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting the Fourth Annual Bette Davis blogathon on April 5-7, 2019. Here's my (early) entry.

“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.” Addison DeWitt to Eve Harrington
At two hours and twenty minutes a movie can feel more like a life sentence than entertainment but this is not the case with All About Eve. Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz for Fox, the picture is a biliously cynical and biting commentary on theater life specifically and human nature by extension. The project, unsurprisingly, sat untouched for years by studios. Too unflattering was the presentation of show business as a world full of sociopaths, or damn near to it. 

Films that are like stage plays - with a strong reliance on dialogue and a limited number of sets - can come off as very static and overly verbose, but not when we have a script that is as witty and viciously sharp as this one, with acerbic zingers and prickly little barbs galore. The literary craftsmanship on display is simply a cut above the rest.

Author Sam Staggs described the film as “the bitchiest movie ever made” in his book All About All About Eve. A misguided assessment of a film if I’ve ever seen one. No doubt there’s a lot of scenery-chewing going on in the movie, and it’s Bette who’s doing most of it. The other cast members have to content themselves with chewing the leftovers. Davis was rarely ever a subtle actress but then she believed that “acting should be bigger than life”. I have no problem with that and call her acting broad and blousy. 

The issue I have with the “bitch reputation" is that it banishes the movie to the camp stratosphere where it definitively does not belong, despite the fact that the film has been like Manna from Heaven for generations of second-rate drag queens from Singapore to Los Angeles who can’t resist the temptation to parody Margo Channing because…Ab Fab! 

Throw into the bargain that poky runt-of-the-litter line about seatbelts and a bumpy night - endlessly parroted as part of the pop culture collective consciousness - and you have a movie that many people lampoon without ever having watched it. Don’t get me wrong, my tastes are low-brow enough to like camp. In fact I adore it. But years of impersonations and spoofs have given this genuine classic - fully deserving of its status - a bad rap, and have made it impossible for many to see it as anything other than an overwrought soap opera. I don’t want to beat a dead caribou to death, but this isn’t Plan 9 from RuPaul's Drag Race. All About Eve elegantly sidesteps those pitfalls.

The plot is quickly told as befits a movie that is more about character motivations and intentions than story. The film opens at an award ceremony where Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is honored with the coveted Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. The unsuspecting audience is applauding but quite a few are sorely lacking enthusiasm. They’re the ones who know all about Eve. One long flashback tells us the story of how Eve came to be The Golden Girl.

The pistol
Stage-struck, sweet and oh so innocent Broadway fan Eve Harrington weasels and slinks her way into the company of famous but aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) - with a sob story to end all sob stories. A sad childhood, a life of drudgery in a brewery, a tragic shot down fighter pilot husband…cue the soft violins. Margo’s perceptive friend and wardrobe mistress Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is the first to sense something the others don’t: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” Caustic but with real sympathy and friendship for Margo, unfortunately her character falls by the wayside halfway through the movie.

In no time Eve becomes Margo’s companion and assistant but her devotion soon shows more sinister layers. She immediately goes to work trying to separate Margo from her career, her friends and her fiancĂ©, director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). Also along for the ride are playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo's best friend. It's only acid-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) who catches on to Eve and takes action. Turns out Eve isn’t the only shark in the tank.

Eve is a frightening case study in sociopathy if there ever was one. So sweet, so humble, so pitiful. Poor little lost lamb. Her wide-eyed innocent act is well-played because innocence is the ultimate master manipulator and can be just as potent a weapon as in-you-face sex. If this were Noir - which it isn’t - there’s no doubt Eve would be called a femme fatale. 
She's pure poison dissolved in fluffy and sweet cotton candy. Any shrink would gladly attest her a 10 out of 10 on the psych-o-meter. She’s classic textbook. A compulsive liar, manipulator, user and cheat with no empathy or remorse. She feels entitled to leave a trail of victims in her wake if it suits her needs. Amorality, Miss Harrington knows all about it.

A little mouse
Eve wants everything Margo has. Her roles, her star status, her friends. She’ll even take her man, as an afterthought. But it doesn’t end there. It seems Eve wants to morph into Margo, become Margo, not only steal her life but her very soul. “It’s as if she’s studying you”, says Birdie. 

It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Strangely, Eve seems to think she can become a real star by imitation which to me is a premise that does not work. A real star must possess originality. It begs the question though, does Eve even have a personality of her own? Does she have a self? While Margo is all charisma and personality, Eve is not only fake all the way through, she seems to be an empty vessel. She is what people want her to be by taking on an infinite number of roles. The performance of Eve’s life is literally being Eve.

Her scheming is hard to nail down because there’s nothing definite to get hold of, nothing you could put your finger on though cracks show in the facade occasionally. By the time everybody catches on to Eve, it is already too late. Eve has landed the coveted part of Cora and for Eve, sharing isn’t caring. There Can Only Be One.

One almost has to admire the amount of planning and preparation Eve has done to get her introduction to Margo and gain sympathy. Deliberately dressing in drab and pitiful clothes, Eve signals that a little mouse like her would be no threat to an established star. She had to look the part, not just play it. But this is one little mouse on the prowl. The more Eve gains the upper hand, the more her wardrobe changes to the elegant and expensive. Soon she dresses like Margo’s equal. At Bill’s birthday party, Cinderella is finally wearing her ball gown. And not just any ballgown but one that is almost a carbon copy of Margo’s. A separate article could be written about the costume design.

Eve is in stark contrast to Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe). Miss Casswell may be a graduate of “the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts” but she won’t let a little disadvantage like that derail her. Her, erm, business arrangement with producer Max Fabian is - if nothing else - at least refreshingly honest and above board. Everybody knows where they stand. No subterfuge required.

Much has been made of Eve’s sexuality, with many viewers suggesting Eve to be a lesbian. A fairly convincing case could be made for that, with the way she and her female friend ascend the staircase at her boardinghouse tightly hugging and the way Eve extends an invitation to stay overnight to Phoebe. What it comes down to is that it has absolutely no bearing on the movie. I’d go so far as to suggest that Eve is not really interested in sex at all. She no doubt would use sex as leverage - and obviously does so on several occasions - with whoever can promise her the most gain, but it is nothing more than a means to an end. Eve's relationships are based on opportunism, not affection. One thing will always take precedence over her private life - whatever it may be - and that is the applause of an adoring audience - “the waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up”. For that she’d gladly sell her, let’s call it virtue to the highest bidder.

Margo is a woman of a certain age and a midlife crisis in full swing. At the same time vain and full of insecurities, her ego needs constant feeding and that’s where her fiancĂ© Bill and her friends come in. They're supposed to supply her with nonstop unquestioning adoration which is becoming increasingly difficult for them as her prima donna behavior and her temperamental outbursts are becoming harder and harder to take.
Margo can’t stop acting, even after the curtain comes down. She lives and breathes melodrama. Her approach to life is inherently theatrical. It seems she doesn’t know where make-believe ends and reality begins. Margo, just like Eve, isn't living her life, she is performing it.
Karen has to throw the painful truth in Margo's face: “Stop being a star...It's about time Margo realized that what's attractive on stage need not necessarily be attractive off.”

Sloshed at the big Four-Oh
Incidentally Sunset Blvd. came out the same year and both Davis and Gloria Swanson were nominated for an Oscar. Norma Desmond has been teetering on the brink of madness for years, her narcissism is a hermetically sealed bubble that reality can’t puncture anymore. For quite a while the viewer is afraid that Margo may turn into Norma Desmond 2.0 because Margo's vanity is her Achilles heel as well. That’s why Margo is easily swayed by Eve’s devotion in the beginning. Her narcissism doesn’t allow for the possibility that Eve’s idolatry is all an act, after all she is a STAR, and blind adoration is something due a star. Eve - who has a good working knowledge of psychology - knows how to play Margo.
It’s interesting to note that Margo later despises Eve for what she has done but there’s good reason to assume - though we never get conformation for this - that Eve is Margo’s younger self.

Bill’s birthday party is the night the claws come out. Margo is itching for a cat fight. The air isn’t always rarified in theatrical circles. Two sheets to the wind and working on three after guzzling down a few painfully dry martinis, Margo is in rare form and hyping herself up to an epic hissy fit, uttering THAT line…I’ll be damned if I repeat it.
Loudly proclaiming that she detests cheap sentiment, Margo isn’t fooling anybody. She literally wallows in boozy misery and self-pity. Admittedly her scenes here are pretty high on the Richter scale for bitchiness. Not to say she hits it out of the ballpark. It’s loopily enjoyable. 

But Margo - for all her egotism - is a realist. In the end she understands that she can’t go on forever playing ingenues and that there comes a time for a changing of the guards. Fame has a short shelf life. 
Much has been made of the conflict between marriage and career. 
“Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.”
...ruminates Margo one night. Of course we could snigger about this sentiment but I consider this tediously revisionist. Eve’s machinations have forced Margo to do one thing: take a good hard look at herself. Life isn’t only about the ambition to be a star, there’s more to it. All the world is not a stage.  
Margo has realized that true love is more important that the adoration of a faceless crowd.

When Margo turns down the role of Cora, in a way she triumphs over Eve, she refuses to let herself be drawn into another contest and chooses not to be bothered by Eve anymore. She emerges from the battle disheveled but unbowed. Maybe she’s hasn’t found peace yet but she’s finally come to terms with herself. “No more make believe off stage or on.” It's probably the most grown-up thing she's ever done.
Sympathies fluctuate during the entire movie but in the end the scales of sympathy come down in favor of Margo.

About Anne Baxter’s role Roger Ebert wrote: “Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo, but is convincing as the scheming fan.” I’m inclined to agree. Baxter’s babe in the woods act is well played but it’s hard to believe she could be an actress of the caliber to rival Bette Davis, or (presumably) Sarah Siddons for the matter. Eve is a knockoff and as such I have a hard time believing her to be serious competition for Margo. It throws the film slightly off-balance.

We never find out if either Margo or Eve have real talent because in a smart twist, All About Eve studiously avoids showing anybody perform on stage, instead using newspaper testimony to describe Margo's and Eve's performances. Mankiewicz confines himself to showing their offstage antics and self-dramatizing. It’s easy to believe that Margo has talent - we sense the artist underneath the Star - but does Mankiewicz want the audience to doubt Eve’s abilities? Of course Addison praises Eve’s performance but then he has ulterior motives. Does Mankiewicz want to make the audience believe that bloodsucking and backstabbing is what really counts? That theater and film is nothing but a Darwinian dog eat dog world?
All About Eve was the movie that resuscitated Davis’s career which had been on the downward spiral for a couple of years. Many people maintained that Bette didn’t have to act playing Margo, that she was Margo’s mirror image. I’m sure there’s a good deal of truth in it, with one crucial difference. Davis proves that - contrary to Margo - she was not afraid to show her age. Davis didn’t put a premium on vanity. She was 42 at the time of the movie but looks a good ten years older. When we see her first, Margo is positively unglamorous with her hair scraped back and her face smeared with make-up remover. Davis didn’t let herself be defeated by her insecurities, because Davis could rely on her attitude and personality to see her through. To quote Roger Ebert again: “Growing older was a smart career move for Bette Davis whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing.” She would prove that even more in the years to come when she didn’t mind looking positively grotesque if the role called for it.
Eve can only hope that there’s a painting of her in an attic somewhere that's rapidly aging.

George Sanders, if he wanted to, could steal the thunder from anybody. Addison DeWitt is New York’s foremost theater critic… by the power he has invested in himself. He’s deliciously wicked.  Shrewd, sophisticated and with a penetrating insight into the human condition, he is by far the smartest guy in the room, probably any room he enters. His charm can easily lull people into believing he’s a nice guy. A dangerous miscalculation. He’s somebody on whose bad side nobody wants to be on. Sanders was blessed with a mellifluous voice - like soft silk with a touch of unyielding steel underneath. Everything he said sounded like a sly and not unwelcome insinuation. A poisonous snake, so polite on the surface, so dangerous underneath.

DeWitt enjoys the power he wields, he likes people to be afraid of him and his goose quill dipped in venom. Eve may have won the Sarah Siddons Award, but Addison deserves the Waldo Lydecker Award for Cutting Wit and Withering Scorn.
He is an agitator, a man who pulls the strings and then sits back and watches with sardonic glee. He’s also a catalyst, someone who brings about a reaction between people without being himself affected. In a way he has detached himself from humanity, he considers himself above the rest. 

Addison recognizes in Eve “the mark of a true killer”. That’s why he can talk to her on his own level, “killer to killer”. He admires Eve’s ruthlessness - as long as he can keep her under control.
Eve, so secure in her own arrogance, makes the mistake of underestimating him. He isn’t fooled by her little games, for that he’s too much like her. He slaps her hard across the face, saying:
“Is it possible, even conceivable, that you've confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them? I am nobody's fool. Least of all, yours.”
It’s actually shocking when he drops his guard. An animal lurks under his impervious calm. There’s a world of wounded pride in this little speech. Nobody makes a fool out of Addison DeWitt and puts him in the same category of gullibility as The Great Unwashed, least of all a little upstart of an actress.

For Eve karma’s a bitch. It’s not he who falls into her trap, she falls into his. Addison can sniff out a phony a mile away. He dug up some juicy dirt on her and quickly demolishes the lovely sob story she had manufactured about herself. And then lays down the law.
Addison: I’ve come here to tell you that you will not marry Lloyd or anyone else for that matter because I will not permit it.
Eve: What have you got to do with it?
Addison: Everything, because after tonight, you will belong to me.

You can always put that award where your heart ought to be
Just as with Eve, there have been endless speculations as to Addison’s sexuality. I’ve seen myriads of people vehemently insisting Addison is a coded - or not so coded - gay character but not one has been able to nail down a convincing reason for this assessment. Just because he’s eloquent, suave and sophisticated doesn’t mean he’s gay. Those are rather flimsy arguments, in themselves nothing more than cliches. 

When he utters the line “you belong to me” it is not just an exercise in pure power and a show of ownership. Not with that tone in his voice. This is not a gay man talking to his beard. This is not Waldo Lydecker wanting to possess a perfect work of art. This is a man talking to a woman who he wants to, well…let’s keep this family-friendly. It doesn’t take a particularly fertile imagination to guess how this relationship is going to play out.

It’s a very satisfying comeuppance for Eve. With her machinations Eve has lost all her benefactors bar one, and if Addison tires of her it will be the final curtain for Eve. Addison triumphs, as he must have many times before. The devil looks after his own.

The last scene is rightfully a favorite of many viewers. It features neither Margo nor Eve but a new girl, Phoebe (Barbara Bates). She has invaded Eve’s apartment and immediately starts to ingratiate herself with Eve. Phoebe is yet another snake in the grass waiting for her chance to replace the star as soon as she lets her guard down. Posing before a multi-paned mirror, Phoebe puts Eve's cape around her shoulders, holds her Sarah Siddons Award and admires herself. We see infinite replications of Phoebes reflected in the mirrors. Mankiewicz doesn’t go in for the subtle approach here. For every star, there is someone younger and more ambitious in the wings. Past and future, a never-ending cycle of lies and deceit. The many faces of Eve; the many faces of treachery, expanding themselves into infinity.

It should be a consolation for Margo. The laws of gravity never fail. Once you’re at the top there’s nowhere else to go but down. Eve will be brought down by Phoebe, as Phoebe will be brought down by yet another young hopeful. 

I have seen criticism of the film that calls it “misogynistic” because it paints a bleak portrait of female power games. I says cow patties. Apparently it’s a hanging offense for certain people to suggest that women are anything less than perfect. I've seen enough women who are perfectly happy to use every dirty trick in the book to get where they want to be.

The story of treachery, power games and ambition that blinds people is a tale as old as time. It is universal and eternal, it spans centuries, countries, class, race, everything. It will never go out of fashion. 

Let’s just hope Hollywood won’t make another sequel in 2019, All About Phoebe. That's just too depressing to think about.