' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: All About Eve

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: All About Eve

It is the 40th birthday party of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the larger than life Broadway star, and she is angry, depressed, and growing suspicious of this young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who has imbued her way into Margo's inner circle. Margo's guests see what is going on with her. "We know you, we've seen you like this before. Is it over? Or just beginning?" asks one. At this question Margo inhales her martini, strides up the nearby stairs, turns, and then lets loose that hydrogen bomb of dialogue: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." I mean, damn, when you see it, when you finally see it, the whole thing, in its proper context, what a moment!

Made in 1950, written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, the legendary "All About Eve" is a story about love, deception, greed, lust and unbridled enthusiasm. At the conclusion of a performance Margo's friend Karen (Celeste Holm), the wife of author of the play in which Margo headlines, ushers a seemingly unsuspecting young fawn named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) backstage to meet her heroine, her idol, her paramour, and instantly Eve begins showering Margo with flattery. Need I say Margo eats it up? That's what the biggest and brightest stars do, after all, and in no time at all Eve has wormed her way into Margo's inner circle, charming the proverbial pants off just about everyone, save for Margo's mandatory and curmudgeonly maid (Thelma Ritter), becoming Margo's "assistant" and then her "understudy" and eventually, by scheming and wheeling and dealing and using the various men in Margo's life, as well as gaining crucial assistance from legendary theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the Perez Hilton of his day, supplanting Margo atop the theater food chain.

This is the synopsis. This synopsis is pointless. "All About Eve" puts pedal to metal and not only does it not take prisoners, it actively grabs hold of its would-have-been prisoners and hurls them over the nearest cliff to the jagged rocks below. This film simply must be seen to be believed and even when you see the performance of Bette Davis you might not still believe it.

Hyperbole is my trait but seriously, man, Davis in "All About Eve" has got to go down in the annals as one of the great screen performances of all time. She lays it on thick with every line but never overdoes it, she turns up the volume but never blows out the speakers. Within the film's story she may get suckered but Davis herself does not, lording over the twats all around with an expression that more often than not suggests "F--- you, I'm Bette Davis." She was Kobe Bryant before Kobe Bryant. Just jaw dropping stuff. Well, except for when Marilyn Monroe turns up.

Wait, what? Marilyn Monroe? Yes, she's in this movie. Did you know she was in this movie? I sure didn't, not the first time I watched it, at least, but suddenly, miraculously there she was in the same manner as the fetching new girl at school who sashays through the lunch room and unwittingly causes every guy there to swoon as every other girl eyes her with contempt. "I don't want to make trouble," she coos. "All I want is a drink." And she says it so innocently, so devoid of showmanship, and all the while looking like, well, you know, Marilyn Monroe. Many actors and actresses have stolen scenes but none of them ever stole one with such ease and grace.

"Lloyd says Margo compensates for underplaying on the stage by overplaying reality." - Karen 

If Monroe's casual virtue represents a world of entertainment when everyone looked at the entertainers without the entertainers having to scream "LOOK AT ME!" then Bette Davis and Anne Baxter represent the coming world of entertainment where everyone looks at the entertainers because usually the entertainers are screaming "LOOK AT ME!" Forty two years before MTV showed what happens when people stopped being polite and started getting "real" there was "All About Eve." Margo Channing and Eve Harrington were L.C. and Heidi way before L.C. and Heidi. (Wait, did I just reference L.C. and Heidi? O.M.G.)

Margo and Eve are always flopping histrionically onto beds and crying to ensure that other people see and/or hear them cry. They both often talk in this way where they are not looking directly at the person they are addressing as if they do not particularly care what that person thinks even though all the while they are watching that person from the corner of their eye because, in reality, they care a whole lot about what that person thinks. The only time we really see Margo let down her guard is when she is stranded in a car on a backroad with Karen and no one else is around to see it. Margo lets Eve into her inner circle to be nice, maybe, kinda, but really she lets her in because she totally digs this young fawn lavishing her with attention, catering to her whims, and generally treating her like a goddess. But, of course, in truth Eve is doin' it for The Fame because she's got a taste for champagne and endless fortune.

Most crucially, though, when the time comes for Eve's star-making turn on the stage the movie refrains from actually showing us the performance. To repeat, the performance given by this future award winning actress is not even shown which suggests that the peformance itself is less important than the fact she has achieved celebrity. What she has done matters not at all compared to what she has become. Status is the end game for Eve Harrington.

Patrick Goldstein, critic for the L.A. Times, has written that "Bonnie and Clyde" was "the first modern American movie." Not to disparage the award-winning Goldstein - or "Bonnie and Clyde", a movie which I love fervently, a movie whose poster I have on my home office wall - but I politely beg to differ.


Andrew K. said...

My brain is mush at the moment, but I'm commenting before I forget. This is great, this movie is great, Marilyn gives my favourite performance of hers. Celeste should have won the Oscar. Bette and Anne do brilliant work opposite each other. Anne is my best in show. Umm. Yeah.

And this post is

Nick Prigge said...

This post is what? THIS POST IS WHAT?! GAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHH! Cliffhangers!

Andrew K. said...

Umm sorry, I was really sleepy when I wrote that last night...and now I can't remember what I was going to say.

This post is...it just is.