Monday, May 5, 2014

All About Eve (1950)

Incredibly, I had never seen 1950's All About Eve before this weekend.

Yes, I know that the film is legendary. I'm aware of its position in Hollywood history.  I'm aware that it is tied with 1997's Titanic as the movies with the most Oscar nominations (14).  I understand that by being cast in this film, Bette Davis felt that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had rescued her film career.  And I can quote several lines from this movie that I had never seen, including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to seek out All About Eve. Friends who are fellow film buffs have consistently urged me to watch the film. This  weekend finally seemed like the right time to do that.

The story is relatively well-known.  Eve Harrington, a seemingly na├»ve young woman from the
Midwest, attaches herself to Broadway diva Margo Channing and her circle of theatrical friends. Margo becomes aware that Eve may be trying to gain stardom at Margo's expense, but the people around her seem seduced by Eve's charms.  Eventually Eve makes calculated moves that thrust her into the limelight, though there are hints that her fame may not be long-lasting.

The first two-thirds of the movie showcase Davis's tour-de-force performance as Margo Channing.  Channing has created a persona for the public that masks her personal insecurities as she feels threatened by her middle-age in a youth-oriented career. She also longs for passionate love. Davis nails the role perfectly. Her Margo Channing is such a force of nature that the film misses her when she isn't onscreen.

Less successful -- though still effective -- is Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington.  Eve's adopted persona is demure and kindly; a perfect contrast to the in-your-face Margo. Unfortunately, Baxter isn't nearly as strong an actor as Davis, and in my mind, the film suffers a little because Baxter isn't as natural a fit in the film as Davis. 

An argument could be made that Baxter's role is supporting, although the movie allows her to take front and center in the last half hour. Yet both Davis and Baxter were nominated as Best Actress for All About Eve, both losing to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.  Other nominees were Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.  I haven't seen either Holliday's or Swanson's performances but both are probably deserved, and Parker gave a fine performance in a gutsy role. I suspect that Davis or Swanson should have won the Oscar, but I feel that Baxter's nod was undeserved.  (There's also a theory that the vote was split between Davis and Baxter, allowing for Holliday's win.  I don't subscribe to the split-vote theory as the math doesn't work out.)

(But MovieRAM, my readers ask.  If Baxter wasn't nominated in 1950, or if she was nominated in the supporting category instead, who should have gotten the 5th nomination? Easy answer, my friends.  I'd have given the fifth slot to the incandescent Betty Hutton for Annie Get Your Gun.)

All About Eve crowded the supporting actress category too.  Celeste Holm played Karen, the playwright's wife, who wields a surprising of influence in her inner circle before she sees that she never should have been supportive of Eve. It's a great, multi-layered  performance, and I probably would have been happy had she won. Surprisingly, the great character actress Thelma Ritter got the first of her six Oscar nominations as Birdie, Margo's loyal assistant. It's a small role, and while Ritter excels in it, it is not an award-worthy role. Both Holm and Ritter lost the award to stage actress Josephine Hull in Harvey, another movie that I need to see. (Other nominees were Hope Emerson, who was excellent as a brutal prison matron in Caged, and Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd.)

While Davis, Baxter, Holm, and Ritter all lost the Oscar for All About Eve, supporting actor George Sanders won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic with the poison pen who can make or break careers.  While I haven't seen any of his fellow nominees, it is hard to see how any of them could be better than Sanders, who inhabits his role perfectly. It's a magnificent performance in a great role.

All About Eve won Best Picture, Best Director for Mankiewicz, and a Best Screenplay Oscar for Mankiewicz's excellent screenplay.  Edith Head won the Best Costumes award, and the film won an award for Best Sound Recording.

A few more thoughts on the film. Marilyn Monroe has an early supporting role in in this movie, and she acquits herself nicely.  I thought Gary Merrill as the play's director and Hugh Marlowe as the playwright were too similar in type to share so many scenes together. Mankiewicz's screenplay and direction are extremely first-rate.

Is this Davis's best screen work? It could well be -- though I'm terribly fond of her roles in The Letter and The Little Foxes. I don't think I've ever seen Holm or Sanders quite as good as they are in All About Eve.

All About Eve perfectly depicts the theater world with colorful characters and insightful dialogue. I wish Baxter's portrayal of Eve didn't pale when viewed next to Davis's Margo. Baxter's casting weakened the film for me (I think Donna Reed could have pulled it off.) Therefore, instead of a perfect classic, I have to deem it a very good one instead.  Grade: B+.

I watched All About Eve on Netflix Streaming on Sunday, May 4, 2014.

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