17 May 2011

Everyone has a heart, except some people

All About Eve, 1950
The 1950s saw the release of some of the greatest films ever made. It was a time when things in the movie industry were changing. The studio system was beginning to crumble, audience's preferences were changing, and a new group of actors and actresses ushered in a new style of acting. 

Audiences wanted stories that were grittier and truer to real life. Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman, and actresses like Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor were the ones bringing these stories to life. The stars that the public had so loved and admired just a decade earlier were now forgotten. Bette Davis, who had been the number one actress in America during the 1940s, was now considered washed up and a has been. That is, until Joseph L. Mankiewicz  wrote a screenplay based on a short story from Cosmopolitan Magazine. The story was called The Wisdom of Eve, and that screenplay became All About Eve. 

Margo Channing is the grande dame of the theater.  Although she is adored by the public, she is nearly forty and terrified of losing her career. Enter Eve Harrington, a young aspiring actress who idolizes Margo. Flattered, Margo moves Eve into her home and makes her her personal secretary. As the plot thickens, Margo wonders if Eve really is just a nice young girl, or if there are ulterior motives involved.
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington
Anne Baxter plays Eve. Shy at first, once she is included into Margo's inner circle, she opens up and, little by little, her true colors are revealed.  I can't think of anyone else who could have played her so well. Her transition to mousy girl to viper is astounding. It really is a wonderful performance. 

Bette Davis as Margo Channing
Of course, it really is Bette Davis as Margo Channing who dominates the movie. As incredible as the rest of the cast is, Davis stands above the rest. Which is really saying something, because the whole cast is flawless. But Davis brings something extra to the table here.  She plays Margo not just as a selfish diva, but also as a frightened woman, nervous about aging, losing her career, and the man she loves to a younger, more attractive woman. It's almost as if Davis were channeling her own fears and anxieties out through Margo. At the time of this film, Davis was 42 years old, and considered a has been. She had everything riding on this part, and she knew that if she didn't succeed in it, she would be finished. She also knew that she was not the first choice for the role. The role of Margo Channing was originally written for Claudette Colbert, but she had to back out due to a back injury sustained in a previous film. Mankiewicz then had a stroke of genius when he suggested Bette Davis for the role, and that, as they say, was that.

I believe that had any actress other than Davis been given the role of Margo, she would have been the campiest character in the history of film. (Granted, she has become quite campy anyway, but I think that's more due to the fact that she was played by Davis). As mentioned earlier, Davis manages to evoke sympathy and caring for a rather unsympathetic character. 

I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours
Another performance of interest is George Sanders, playing the acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt. Along with Margo's assistant Birdie (who will be discussed shortly) he is the only one who suspects that Eve is not all that she seems, and that her intentions may not be honest. He definitely has the best lines in the film, and his interactions with a young, up-and-coming actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe are pure gold.  When he tells her to go introduce herself to a theater producer at a party, she sighs and asks, "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?" He responds, "Because that's what they are."  And another hilarious scene is when Marilyn is trying in vain to get herself a drink.  

Monroe: Oh, waiter...
Sanders: That's not a waiter,my dear, that's a butler. 
Monroe: Well, I can't yell Oh butler can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler.
Sanders: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.
Monroe: I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.

My favorite character, however, is Margo's assistant, Birdie Coonan, played by one of my favorite character actresses, Thelma Ritter. She figures Eve out from the word go. She is cynical and sarcastic, but it's obvious that she cares for Margo and is only trying to look out for her and trying to keep her from getting hurt. When Eve relates the story of how she came to be such a fan of Margo's, everyone is moved by her story of misfortune. Birdie however, sees it as a sob story and muses, "What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." 
And when she is introduced to Eve by Margo as "My dear friend and companion, Miss Birdie Coonan" Birdie responds with "Oh, brother. When she gets like this, all of a sudden she's playing Hamlet's mother." 

Rounding out the cast is Celeste Holm as Karen Richards, Margo's best friend. She is the catalyst for the film's conflict taking place, as she was the one who found Eve and introduced her to Margo. She also seems to be the last person involved who can't see Eve for what she really is. 
It's unfortunate that George Sanders is the only really good male lead in this film. Gary Merrill plays Bill Samson, Margo's fiance, and Hugh Marlowe plays Lloyd Richards, Karen's husband. 
Despite the failure to cast decent male leads, All About Eve is a flawless film, the ultimate backstage story, and boasts incredible performances by the majority of the cast. George Sanders won Best Actor for his performance, and it won Best Picture at the 1950 Academy Awards. However, Davis lost the Best Actress Oscar to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday (some say because Anne Baxter, who was also nominated for Best Actress, refused to accept a Best Supporting Actress nomination, therefore splitting the votes). I envy those when they see it for the first time, and I would love to show it to somebody and watch their reactions throughout. It's a great roller coaster ride of a film, and it really is a thrill to watch.

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