Wednesday 23 September 2015

Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)

The story of jealousy, backstabbing, ageing and the desperate climb to the top among Broadway's elite actresses, All About Eve is a breathlessly magnificent view of the raw human desire to succeed, often by knocking others out of the way.

The film starts with Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the latest sensational star of the theatre world, accepting the distinguished industry award for best actress under the watchful eye of caustic critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). In flashback, the story of Eve's remarkable rise to the top is revealed.

Just eight months previously, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is the reigning queen of Broadway, although age is catching up with her. Margo is starring in the latest hit play produced by Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), written by celebrated playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and directed by Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), who is romancing Margo. A dedicated fan, Eve attends the play every day to study Margo's performance.

Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who is also Margo's close friend, notices Eve outside the theatre and eventually brings her into the dressing room to meet Margo. Eve's story of humble Wisconsin origins, dedication to the theatre, and losing her husband to the war touches Margo, who takes Eve in as her dedicated assistant, although Margo's helper and confidant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is skeptical.

Lloyd (about Eve): I like that girl, that quality of quiet graciousness.

Eve quickly proves herself extremely capable, organizes every detail of Margo's schedule, and becomes an indispensable and essential part of her life. But Eve's behaviour also borders on obsessive and controlling, and she does not hesitate to flirt with Bill, fanning the flames of jealousy within Margo. When Eve manipulates Karen to gain the part of Margo's understudy, the hostilities break out into the open, with Margo feeling deeply threatened while Bill, Lloyd and Karen are caught between loyalty to Margo and the sparkle of Eve's undoubted talent. The patiently observant Addison, meanwhile, tries to manage the situation to his advantage.

Addison: We all have abnormality in common. We're a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk; we are the original displaced personalities.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve boasts a sharp wit, a spry pace, and a prickly attitude. The film drops in on a small group of characters and exposes the destruction caused when naked ambition collides with self-doubt. It's a breathtaking jaunt through the world of Broadway's elite, where the rarefied air only serves to heighten the tension between those seeking a way up and those clinging on with their fingernails to avoid sliding down.

Margo: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

Mankiewicz's dialogue is filled with legendary zingers. Whether fuelled by alcohol, spite, or in the case of Addison DeWitt, a self-applied sense of supremacy, the characters are children of the theatre, and they don't hold back. Whether the insults are veiled or explicit, they are delivered with zeal. Only Karen, being the semi-outsider, resents Margo's frequent descent into verbal prickliness. Lloyd and Bill are not only used to it, they depend on it. In the cocktail party scene to celebrate Bill's return from a Hollywood trip, Mankiewicz creates a legendary piece of cinema, a prolonged battlefield where words are bullets, attitudes are fortifications, and visible emotions are deployed as chemical weapons.

Margo: 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.

While there are at least three important male characters in the cast, the heart of the movie is all about women, as suggested by the title. Mankiewicz creates a triangle consisting of Margo the queen, Eve the plotter, and Karen the unwitting enabler. (The three do parallel Caesar, Cassius and Brutus). The film rides on the energy of three ladies fighting intertwining battles, Margo for survival, Eve for power and Karen for friendship. It's a fascinating conflict, and through it Mankiewicz comments on what really constitutes success, the sacrifices to stay at the top, the insecurities that come with professional ambition, and the price that has to be paid in stressed and ruined relationships.

Margo: Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.

The performances in All About Eve are mythical in their greatness. In her storied career, it is doubtful whether Bette Davis ever had a role as good as Margo Channing, and she bites into it with absolute relish. This was also likely Anne Baxter's finest moment, and she is simply chilling as the innocent-looking schemer, always about 10 steps ahead in a brutal game of chess, while disarming all around her with an innocuous attitude.

Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe and Gary Merrill also find career peaks in the jungle of the theatre world. Thelma Ritter plays her typical self, before surprisingly disappearing from the second half of the film. Marilyn Monroe gets her first significant role as wannabe actress Miss Casswell, hovering around the edges of the elite crowd, looking for a break.

Eve: If nothing else, there's applause... like waves of love pouring over the footlights and wrapping you up.

Shining with the timeless bright lights of Broadway, All About Eve is an absolute gem of an achievement.

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