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All About Eve (1950)

September 27th, 2006 · No Comments

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Academy Award winner of Best Picture for 1950 opens with the toast of Broadway, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), being bestowed the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. Also at the awards ceremony is Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of a playwright, who recalls the night Eve was nothing more than a starving fan waiting outside the theatre to catch a glimpse of her idol, the toast of Broadway, Margo Channing.

In flashback, Karen brings Eve backstage to meet Margo, played by Bette Davis with a vinegar wit on the verge of a full blown tantrum at all times. Eve ingratiates the actress with a sob story about her past and her love of the theatre, and proves eager to handle any chore, no matter how menial, for the star, slowly working her way into Margo’s life.

Margo’s assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is suspicious of the manner in which Eve seems to be studying Margo. When the job of Margo’s understudy in a new play becomes available, Eve asks Karen to put in a good word for her. Dismayed by Margo’s increasing outbursts toward her husband (Hugh Marlowe) and prima donna fits, Karen maneuvers Eve into the job in the hopes it will give Margo a reality check. Sparks fly.

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Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who adapted Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve and is said to have been inspired by his relationship with his brother Herman, distinguished screenwriter of Citizen Kane, whose wit and intelligence had always eclipsed Joe’s. As drinking, gambling and age began to take their toll on Herman’s career, Joe’s began to ascend.

He won coveted Oscars for writing and directing A Letter To Three Wives in 1949, and though he had no firsthand knowledge of the theatre, All About Eve is considered his best film. For many, it ranks alongside Citizen Kane in film history for its take on behind the scenes intrigue. In 1998, it was ranked #16 on that AFI List of 100 Best American Movies of All Time.

Language and character behavior are the featured assets here, and few if any movies of the period were as devoted to them as this one. Mankiewicz was no visual stylist, and there’s virtually nothing in the look of this film that calls attention to itself. Instead, Mankiewicz was obsessed with what made women tick, and with psychoanalysis, to the point where he gave his scripts to a particular therapist to approve for accuracy.

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Along with Bette Davis, who brings just the right amount of acidic indignity to her role of aging superstar without descending into camp, Thelma Ritter is equally terrific. Though she disappears an hour into the film, Birdie functions as a voice for the audience, making deadpan observances in her Brooklyn brogue, like the bedroom full of mink coats at a party she announces “Looks like a dead animal act.”

In a sly way, the film comments on the fickle nature of stardom, or how the people we stab on our way up will be the ones we trip over as we’re falling down. It’s a good schematic on the nature of war between women, although, I didn’t feel Anne Baxter was playing one of the great villains of all time. The stakes didn’t seem all that high to me. I liked Billy Wilder’s take on show business released the same year- Sunset Boulevard – for its macabre quality. In that film, lack of a career really was murder.

All About Eve holds the record for the number of actresses nominated for an Academy Award in one picture (4). None of them won a prize, but George Sanders did, playing a pompous lord of theatre critique, who provides wicked running commentary throughout. The film features one of the better known lines, when a Bette Davis with a long list of slights and grievances announces to her party guests, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Tags: Famous line · Master and pupil

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