THOROUGHLY MODERN 'EVE'
A half-century later, the still-potent Broadway malady 'All About Eve' stands as one of the jewels of American cinema.
by Colin Covert, Staff Writer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), December 1,
2000 page 28
Looking at "All About Eve" on its 50th anniversary, you can't help being struck by how thoroughly modern it is.
Most Eisenhower-era movies about Broadway were sentimental Doris Day fluff.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's poison-pen
letter to the theater world is literate, darkly ironic and intelligent. Virtually every character is using pretense and manipulation to
reach unworthy goals. Deception, the lifeblood of professional make-believe, taints every relationship. Decades before "The
Player," "All About Eve" gave audiences a deliciously sardonic backstage tour of show-business life.
The film opens at an opulent theater-awards ceremony. Our guide, narrating
offscreen, is viper-tongued critic Addison De
Witt (George Sanders).
"The minor awards have already been presented," he explains in arch and condescending tones. "Minor awards are 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. And no brighter light has ever dazzled the eye than Eve Harrington."
The master of ceremonies constructs Eve a mountain of praise. ("We know her humility, her devotion, her loyalty to her art,
her love, her deep and abiding love for us.") Most of those attending are misty-eyed with delight. But one table of four is
conspicuously reserved. The narrator introduces us to Margo Channing (Bette
Davis), an aging star apparently envious of her
rival's success. At her side is her director and lover Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh
and his wife, Karen (Celeste
Holm), who achieved "the lowest form of celebrity" by marrying into the theater.
As the new star reaches regally for her prize, the film flashes back a year to tell us all about Eve
We'd probably call Eve a stalker today. How else would you describe someone who attends every performance of her
favorite actress's play and lurks by the stage door just to glimpse her passing by? In those more innocent times she was
classified as an "autograph fiend." Margo distrusts the type: "Little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes." But Karen,
intrigued by the unpretentious girl, invites her into Margo's dressing room. Jealous of her friend's fame and her claim on her
husband's attention, Karen engineers a meeting intended to annoy Margo. The passive-aggressive subterfuge sets off a power
struggle that will change all of their lives.
Her face swabbed in age-defying cold cream, Margo greets her adoring fan with regal indulgence. She fills the room with a
megastar's presence. But when wide-eyed innocent Eve appeals to her vanity with endless praise, and to her love of drama with
the story of her hard-luck life, Margo relents. Only the actress's wardrobe woman, Birdie
(Thelma Ritter), is skeptical of the
earnest newcomer: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
Frightened of losing her youth, desirability and audience, Margo drinks in Eve's adoration and casts the girl in the supporting
role of friend and confidante. Eve swiftly becomes part of Margo's entourage, then her understudy, then her bitter, manipulative
rival, stealing away her director and playwright.
It's a measure of the film's craftsmanship that it stands up solidly on repeated viewings. The characters' true motivations _
even the ones they conceal from themselves _ become ever clearer.
Sampson, the theater director, is given to fulsome speeches and broad gestures, but like his Biblical namesake, he can be
rendered helpless by a woman's guile. Playwright Lloyd Richards is a drab fellow who enjoys actors' glamour but hates their
impertinent ad-libbing. "It's about time the piano realized it didn't compose the concerto," he shouts at Margo. Karen, a trophy
wife, resents Margo's fame and smilingly undermines her at every turn. Margo herself is a force of nature, an unstable compound
of talent, paranoia, neediness and will. "I despise cheap sentiment," she snaps, but she's suckered by Eve's sob stories.
Both Davis and Baxter were nominated for Best Actress Oscars; they split the vote and
Judy Holliday won for "Born
Yesterday." They are perfectly matched. If it had come down to a contest between them, I'd be hard-pressed to say who was
more deserving. Davis is larger than life, acting onstage and off, and we instantly understand every eloquent glance of those
immense eyes. Baxter is measured, calculating and cool; watching her guileless-kid sham, you despise her, but you've got to
admit she's a convincing performer.
Mankiewicz, working from his own endlessly quotable script, peppers the film with wonderful directorial touches. He
consistently shows theaters empty, making the "waves of love" actors receive from applause ring hollow. He cast the unknown
Marilyn Monroe as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art," determined to shimmy her way into big roles. Eve
delivers her fulsome awards acceptance speech about "what I have yet to accomplish" framed by two dueling pistols mounted
on the wall behind her.
And when Eve herself acquires an ambitious disciple, the new girl practices her bows before an infinity of mirrors, putting her
all alone in the center of an illusory crowd. The sparkling image is the crowning irony of a jewel-like film.
ALL ABOUT EVE
Four stars out of four stars
The setup: Flattering fan gains the confidence of aging Broadway star and schemes to replace her.
What works: Sparkling dialogue and polished direction.
What doesn't: Aside from a couple of obvious rear-projection shots, it's flawless.
Great line: Margo Channing on the career/lifestyle dilemma: "Nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner
or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a
book full of clippings but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end."
Rating: Not rated.
© 2000 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)