After an extended stay in Germany courtesy of Herzog and Fassbinder, Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies-train pulls into ’50s era USA for All About Eve. Seeing release in 1950, All About Eve is the earliest film I’ve crossed paths with so far in following Ebert’s book. It also has the distinction of having the most engaging characters and sharpest writing.
That is no knock on Antoine Doinel or Aguirre, in fact the depth of those characters speaks to just how strong the work done by writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was, especially for the time. But – as the movie itself points out – a performance is about more than the writing, and each of the actors brings his or her own heat to their role.
The film depicts the rise of young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to Broadway ascendancy, achieved by worming her way into the lives of veteran performer Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and her circle of friends and colleagues.
Contemporary cinema is mired in a period where the strongest example of a female character in the mainstream is a felt puppet of a pig with blonde hair. Contrast this with All About Eve, which boasts at least three amazingly confident women in the roles played by Davis, Baxter and Celeste Holm (as Karen Richards, the wife of a playwright). Davis’ Margo is delightfully witty and aggressively biting, failing to mask all of her insecurities. Baxter’s Eve is ambitious and driven, willing to do whatever necessary to attain her goals of fame of fortune. And Holm’s Karen is smart, caring, and a little arrogant. None of these women are perfect, but they feel real, even if the performances don’t adhere to the level of realism found in most indie films of the present day. They are representative, rather than literal. Even smaller female roles (like the one played by an early Marilyn Monroe) are rife with personality and depth.
The men do their best to hang with their better halves. Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe act admirably as Margo’s director/boyfriend and playwright, respectively, but this is Davis’ movie, and their best scenes are the ones where they go toe-to-toe with her (and often lose).
Only George Sanders as critic Addison DeWitt has the balls to stand up to the work being done by the fairer sex in All About Eve. His Addison is conniving and brilliant, giving Willem Dafoe a run for his money in the devilish-ness department (or paving the way for Dafoe, perhaps). Sanders won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the heartless writer, and it was well-deserved.
All About Eve received 14 nominations at The Oscars that year, and it went on to win six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Not on the list of wins? Best actress. Davis and Baxter were both nominated for Best Actress (Holm and Thelma Ritter as Margo’s maid Birdie were both nominated in the supporting category). The statue ended up going to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday (neither the actress nor the film ring any bells). It is hard to believe Holliday delivered a better turn than either of her Eve-based competitors, but perhaps the quality was just that good in 1950. If that is the case then today’s screenwriters (myself included) would do well to look to the past for how to do things right. Because something tells me that Eric Jacobson will not be eligible for his performance as Miss Piggy in Muppets Most Wanted.