It must be pretty easy to be a director. Get your actors in a room, make sure they’ve learnt their lines and shout “action.” So long as the camera’s pointing at the right performer, you can just sit back and relax.
I’m being facetious, of course, but watching All About Eve, it’s hard to shake that accusation. Each actor performs so fabulously, and the script is so wonderful, that helmer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s famously straightforward style is the perfect fit. There’s no need to layer the film with directorial flourishes – keep things simple, and the major players will work their magic.
Queen of the theatre, Margo (Bette Davis) is aging, and she knows it, so when fresh faced Eve (Anne Baxter) naively embeds herself in Margo’s life, the starlet begins to crack. She takes out her frustrations on director boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) and best pals Lloyd and Karen (Hugh Marlowe and Celeste Holm), who revolve around her like an exacerbating solar system of endless caring.
Watching from behind the scenes is sneering theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who has one of the finest names in cinema history. He orchestrates affairs in Shakespearean fashion – manoeuvring the characters like pawns in a game that ensures he remains king.
George Sanders is pitch perfect as full-of-himself newspaper gentry and, while he flirts with base stereotype, deploys the pantomime sneer of DeWitt so mercilessly you can’t help but enjoy every minute he spends on screen.
In the lead role, Bette Davis provides a tour de force. Margo is a prima donna, there’s no denying it, but she’s more than a spoilt star cliché. Davis’ performance reveals nuances that build her into a real person. In candid conversation with the well-meaning Karen or a lovers’ tiff with Bill, Davis builds the insecurities which fuel Margo’s histrionics.
Eve, meanwhile, is the spark that lights Margo’s anxieties. Her character could easily have been just a MacGuffin and, while a youthful Baxter pales a little in Davis’ shadow, she grabs her chance to shine in the final third.
Even the bit-part players in All About Eve are top notch. Screen legend Thelma Ritter trots out her well practised embittered spinster routine, but it’s still a joy to behold. There’s also an early cameo for Marilyn Monroe, in full-on blonde bombshell mode.
Still, all these actors, no matter how accomplished, pale in comparison to the script. It dances gracefully from witty to poignant without ever breaking stride. The performers deliver it well, but the words would be worth ingesting in any form. To take just one example, All About Eve gave birth to the popular call to arms: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
The dialogue manages the almost impossible task of being relentlessly witty without coming off as self-important. The zingers are interspersed with drama via such sleight of hand that you have to be on your toes to catch them. This lack of pretension gives the whole script an air of truth that helps immensely with immersion.
Most breathtaking are the monologues, internal or external, that each major player is given. Among that strong list, the most exhilarating is a surprise piece of gender politics delivered by Margo in the back of a broken down car. “Funny business, a woman’s career,” she begins. “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.”
I can tell you without checking that I am not female, but even I can see how well these words resonate 61 years after the film’s release. To couch something so true in language so poetical is writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s most glorious moment in a film full of his finest work.
All About Eve is a bona fide classic.
The film looks, for a black and white feature over half a century old, surprisingly crisp in its new Blu-ray format. I’ve not seen a less snazzy print, but I imagine this version is a marked improvement over any previous efforts.
If there’s anything you’d like to know about working behind the scenes of All About Eve, the history of the book it was based on, or the life and works of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then this disc has you covered. There are two separate commentaries and five different documentaries all delving into the history of this classic film and its director.
It’s good quality stuff that will keep the curious busy for hours. Film nostalgia fans will probably appreciate the old promo footage of Fox studio newsreels that also feature.
Film:Disc: All About Eve is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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