From the internet blurb, All About Eve I knew it was a “classic” from the 1950’s. I’ve been trying to educate myself film-wise (like renting and watching every Hitchcock movie – that’s going to take me a while). But just from the title, I was worried this was some kind of romantic chick flick full of sentimental bullshit. Now, I love a good chick flick (10 Things I Hate About You, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) but I was still wary. Fortunately for me, All About Eve was bereft of any false sentimentality and full of genuine emotion, sharp dialogue, better acting and a beautiful story. Essentially, it was, and is, a “classic.”
The movie begins with an awards ceremony and a majestic voice over by George Sanders (the man who voiced Shere Khanin The Jungle Book), a movie star of the 40’s and 50’s who won an Oscar for his Addison DeWitt role in this film. Most modern movie viewers will probably never see a movie with this fine actor in it but his sharp cynicism and blue blood English veneer served him very well in several turns as heavies and noble characters. He even – His characters always seemed above it all and he carried this belief into his real life. He killed himself and left the following note: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” This guy is a pleasure to watch. And he looks a lot like Brent Spiner (Star Trek’s “Data”).
Sanders points out the speaker at the presentation with what is probably the best description of actors EVER: “The distinguished looking gentleman is an extremely old actor. Being an actor he will go on speaking for a long time. It is not important that you hear what he says.”
He goes on to slash the Hollywood hierarchy: “The minor awards as you can see have already been presented. Minor awards as for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”
The light of course is the actor. Light as you know is not solid. It has no substance. This is not an accidental characterization.
Eve (Anne Baxter) is on top of theatre world. She is the biggest and brightest light in the whole land. But the camera’s movements focus on the crowd and we can see that the brightest light is not loved by her colleagues in the audience. The brightest in the crowd is Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis). Sanders describes her as someone who will always be “a star.” She doesn’t look that she loves Eve any more than anyone else in the gathering. Sanders speaks well of Karen Davis (played by Celeste Holm), the writer’s wife, but her expression for Eve is not one of love.
The question, of course, is why? That is the story we are about to see in All About Eve. Is Eve simply a bitch? Are they all just jealous? I’ve already said this is a classic and with that statement, you should know that the explanation is nothing simple or easy.
Time flashes back to Margo Channing’s dressing room. It’s occupied by her writer, Lloyd Richards (played by Hugh Marlowe), her “assistant” Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) and Karen Richards. They are eventually joined by Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s man. The Richards’ convince Margo to take an audience with Eve, a fan who has been to every performance of her current show. She is Margo’s biggest fan. Margo’s accent and demeanor change when Eve is admitted to her dressing room. She was once sassy and colorful but she becomes haughty and uppercrust in her fan’s presence.
Typical Star bullshit.
But Bette Davis plays it well. This was the first Bette Davis movie I ever saw. Or at least the first one I saw when she was in her prime. Maybe she played some supporting role in some movie I saw later on but I didn’t know who she was. All I knew of her was the famous Kim Carnes hit: “Bette Davis Eyes“. At one point in the movie, she is being held down while she is freaking out. Only after seeing her struggle can you really understand what that song meant. Her eyes are like people in and of themselves. They seem to want to jump out of her head and tell you a story or choke you to death. They aren’t necessarily pretty but they are something powerful.
Eve tells the room a sob story about her dead husband and her grief and how the only thing that made her happy was Margo’s acting. The room buys her story and Margo does the amazing thing of taking in this young fan.
Eve moves in with Margo and begins to dress like her and talk like her and act like her. She takes care of Margo’s every whim. Birdie, her wise, rough-edged assistant (how come there’s a wise country character in every movie with sage, old home wisdom and a nose for trouble?), begins to think Eve is more than she shows. Even Margo begins to feel wary about Eve even though nothing concrete ever happens that would paint Eve in a poor light.
It’s soon clear that Eve wants to be Margo. She wants to be a star of the theatre because Margo is a star of the theatre. She despises the Hollywood movie movement because Margo despises the Hollywood movie movement. She questions Bill Sampson for his decision to leave Margo so that he can direct a movie in Hollywood. He fires back with what, in my mind, is the finest defense ever of Hollywood and pop culture in general:
“You know what the theatre is? The theatre is a flea circus…it may not be your theatre but its theatre for somebody, somewhere.” As long as it makes you happy, it is still valid entertainment. This attack on art elitism and theatre snobbery is fantastic. A Tolstoy novel is no better or worse than a Mad Magazine issue. It’s the reader who is the only judge that counts.
Eve’s dream starts to come true when Margo is not able to make her performance due to mysterious car trouble while she is out on holiday with the Richards. Eve has already become Margo’s understudy, with the slick help of Addison De Witt, a theatre critic with not one hint of decency in him. Eve wows the audience and her timing cannot be better. In an AMAZING coincidence, all of the major New York theatre critics are on hand to see her substitute for Margo.
After this, it should be clear that the grief stricken country girl is much more than she is letting on. This kind of coincidence peaks Addison’s wily mind and it should alert the audience as well. The critics love Eve’s performance and Addison is front and center as the leader of her new fan club. They quickly develop a sinister friendship.
Margo can’t stand the ingénue’s meteoric rise and completely loses it at her own birthday party. It is another fantastic Bette Davis scene. She’s drunk, emotional and spilling the truth in ridiculously melodramatic spitfires.
Even her trusted writer, Lloyd Richards, begins to fall under her spell. He grows tired of Margo’s diva behavior and leaves the set. Margo screams after him “All playwrights should be dead for 300 years.” Lloyd replies “That wouldn’t solve their problems because actresses never die…its about time the piano realize that it has not written the concerto.”
As a wannabe writer, nothing made my heart sing more than that line. Our society celebrates the glowing flame of actors but relegates writers, the ones who provided the match and the wood and the oxygen, to the rear.
An interesting guest at her party is none other than Miss Caswell, a buxom blonde with big tits, platinum blonde hair and a face for sin. You guessed it. Marilyn Monroe has a small role as this flighty up and coming actress. I don’t think she had to stretch very far for that role but it is one of her first significant parts. Max, the rich producer, says of her character’s kindness towards him: “She loves me a like a father. Also, she’s loaded.”
There is no better summary of the chemically enhanced emotion that the Hollywood inhabitants describe as love.
Eve finally abandons Margo sets off to complete her rise to stardom. Along the way, Addison, a man who will not be bested when it comes to deception, delivers unto her a severe comeuppance.
The movie ends back where it begins. At the lovely awards banquet in Eve’s honor, Margo notices her all chummy with Addison and questions “I dont see why she hasn’t given Addison heartburn.” Bill Sampson replies “No heart to burn.”
I know I’ve quoted some great lines here but this movie is full of daring dialogue. It takes risks all the time with words and nearly always lands on its feet. It is a verbal masterpiece.
The movie closes with the cycle starting again. A young member of Eve’s fan club arrives at her door with a sanguine story of admiration and love. Eve takes her in just as Margo took her in. And the moebius strip of sychophantism continues unabated.
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