All About Eve, which won the 1950 best picture Oscar and the identical prizes of the New York film critics and the British film academy, has few detractors, and a good many people place it among the greatest American films. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Oscars for both writing and directing it, just as he won Oscars, the year before, for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives. It is a commonplace that the script for All About Eve is the best one ever written for a U.S. film.
But it isn’t so. The script is flawed. Its dovetailed reminiscences by various characters have people recounting things they could not possibly know, and no psychological probing of any of the individuals accompanies his or her voiceover. Mankiewicz has fashioned his elaborate network of recollections purely as a narrative strategy. That’s superficial. The famous dialogue, for sure, is brilliant—as witty and as entertaining as film dialogue gets. But there is more to a script than that.
I do not say this to dismiss a film that most everyone cherishes but to suggest most humbly, terrific though it is, All About Eve is no masterpiece. It is, really, less art than entertainment.
Based on a short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” which the author, Mary Orr, also transformed into a radio play, All About Eve is too famous to require a plot synopsis. Suffice it to say that the film involves a group of theatrical people—a Broadway star, her playwright, her director, who is also her lover, her producer, and so forth. The star, Margo Channing, has turned forty and is made all the more anxious about her mature age by the fact that Bill Sampson, her lover, is eight years younger. An ambitious young amateur, Eve Harrington, insinuates herself into Channing’s life, hoping to harvest for herself the “waves of love” with which she identifies an audience’s applause. When Sampson turns down her romantic overtures, Eve sets to work on getting Lloyd Richards, Channing’s longtime playwright and the husband of Channing’s best friend, Karen.
The film is a study of evil, with one of the characters, the ascerbic Broadway columnist Addison DeWitt, noting that (in 1950) the history of the world in the past twenty years has been like a stage melodrama. Eve Harrington is Hitlerian, a grand manipulator and a pathological liar. Margo Channing is humanity, scarred, scared, vulnerable, and pressed by the passage of time.
What greatness that All About Eve possesses is due less to Mankiewicz’s dry, impersonal contributions than to the celebrated performance given by the magnificent actress who plays Margo Channing: Bette Davis. It is a bold, naked performance, one that is as passionate and full-force as it is delicately nuanced. I have read that Davis herself, without any instruction from Mankiewicz, created the revelatory gesture with which she establishes her character in Channing’s first appearance in the film, at an awards dinner. Channing genially though decisively fends off someone else’s attempt to dilute her drink. It’s Margo. Davis, who is both profoundly moving and hilariously bitchy, was named best actress at Cannes and by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. She herself felt that Judith Traherne in Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939) and Margo were her two greatest roles.
There isn’t much filmmaking to speak of in the film, given that Mankiewicz was the sort to rely instead on the script. He had little grasp of cinema. Nevertheless, he comes up with a few niceties, including a freeze frame that is later set back into motion, a finale that realizes English poet William Blake’s vision of the endless self-generation of evil (an amazing shot into which the whole film thematically pours), and an unexpected camera movement that is all the more powerful for Mankiewicz’s tendency not to bother to devise meaningful uses for the camera. The scene is the ladies’ lounge in a restaurant. Karen Richards is there to meet Eve, who will blackmail her in order to secure the lead part (away from Channing) in Lloyd’s new play. The camera is tightly focused on Karen, who is shown full-body. Karen doesn’t see Eve, nor do we. Suddenly Karen feels Eve’s presence. She turns her eyes to the left (that is, screen-right), and the camera pans to reveal Harrington seated, waiting. Nothing in the film more vividly conveys the magnetic power of evil, with even a hint of Karen’s repressed attraction to Eve, that is, to evil (perhaps a revelation about us all). This is the finest moment of Mankiewicz’s career—a suggestion of the artist that he might have been.
However, dialogue, not shots, reign supreme in this film. Downing a drink, for example, Margo famously announces at a party she is throwing where conflicts lie in wait, “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
Anne Baxter is superb as Eve,* while Celeste Holm is dreadful, as usual, as Karen Richards. Gary Merrill is okay as Bill Sampson, but William Holden is always the “better-than-Merrill” for me, and I would have preferred to see Holden in the part.** (That same year, Holden was wonderful on screen in the part that Merrill originated onstage in Born Yesterday.) As it happens, John Garfield preceded Merrill as a possibility for the role, and his Jewishness might have sharpened the film’s anti-fascist theme. As it also happens, Davis and Merrill fell in love during the shoot and married almost immediately after its completion.
George Sanders won an Oscar as Addison DeWitt, the sort of a person whose emotional emptiness permits fascism to flood in in order to fill the void. He is excellent, but he was even better once before All About Eve and once after, in Jean Renoir’s anti-fascist This Land Is Mine (1943) and Roberto Rossellini’s marital diary, Voyage in Italy (1953).
Mankiewicz once said that All About Eve isn’t about the theater, that its comedy-drama might have unfolded in any setting. But only the theatrical setting it possesses could have contained such wonderful dialogue as this between Bill Sampson and an inebriated Margo Channing:
Margo: But the evil that men do—how does that go, groom?—something about the good they leave behind. I played it once in rep[ertory summer stock] in Wilkes Barre.
Bill: You have that backwards, even for Wilkes Barre.
How many American films have such dialogue—dialogue to die for?
* In the Broadway musical Applause, which is based on All About Eve, Baxter years later played Margo. Coming backstage after a performance, Bette Davis greeted her with open arms, crying out, “It’s Margo!”
** Holden, starring opposite Ginger Rogers in Forever Female (Irving Rapper, 1953), more or less got a crack at the Bill Sampson role. I adore Ginger Rogers, but Davis and Holden—now that’s the stuff that dreams are made on. Alas, it never happened.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.