Thursday, December 24, 2015

All About Showbiz Evil

Making it to the top of the heap in the show business world requires guts, stamina, talent, and above all, determination and ambition. Is it any wonder that All About Eve is the quintessential Bette Davis movie, as well as the ultimate backstage soap opera? 

Merrill, Davis, Sanders, Baxter, Marlowe and Holm—a powerhouse cast

Based on a 1946 Cosmopolitan magazine article, “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr and reportedly inspired by true events, All About Eve has a simple and timeless plotline: A mature actress’s career and relationships are threatened by the machinations of a scheming young acolyte.  

It’s incredible that Davis was not the first choice to play Margo Channing. Indeed, the great Claudette Colbert had signed on to play the role, but she fractured her back and was unable to rise to the occasion. But it’s hard to imagine the calm, cool and collected Colbert performing Margo’s iconic set pieces-- getting drunk and belligerent at her own cocktail party, or screaming like a fishwife at her younger director paramour. With Claudette, it would have been a different character and film entirely, and we can assume writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tailored the role to suit the talents of the more histrionic Davis. 

Bette Davis as Margo Channing
Colbert’s misfortune was a big break for Davis, whose career had recently hit the skids after more than 15 years as reigning queen of the Warner Brothers lot. By the late 1940s, the choicest female roles were now being offered to Warners newcomer Joan Crawford. (Davis had actually turned down the role of Mildred Pierce.) 1949 had been a nadir. After appearing in the tepid melodrama Beyond the Forest (in a black fright wig, no less), Bette’s best days seemed to be behind her. Until Eve--and the glorious Margo Channing. 

Anne faces off with Bette, as Marilyn, Hugh and company look on

Bette imbues the role of Margo with her own unique brand of piss and vinegar. Like Davis herself, Margo is a tough broad, a big personality, but she just as successfully reveals her character’s vulnerability and neuroses in her multi-layered performance. In every scene, Davis dominates, pulling out all the stops to give this iconic, tour-de-force performance. (In fact, poor Anne Baxter, playing the title role, sort of fades into the background in her few face-to-face scenes with Davis.)

Eve revitalized Bette’s career, but she did not win the Oscar that year. Davis was nominated opposite costar Anne Baxter and Gloria Swanson’s acclaimed comeback role in Sunset Boulevard, but despite (or maybe because of) all this dramatic star power, the Oscar ultimately went to comedienne Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. (Eleanor Parker was nominated that year, too, for Caged, not that anyone remembers!)

But Bette did not triumph alone. All the leading performances in Eve are essayed by skilled actors in their prime and pack a powerhouse punch, bringing writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sparkling screenplay to life. 

Chilly: Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo (Bette Davis) and Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe)

Celeste Holm brings warmth and humanity to the film as Karen Richards, wife of celebrated playwright Lloyd, with “no talent to offer, except for loving her husband.” Though Holm was well-known to be something of a grand diva herself, here she’s down to earth as Margo’s best friend. (Davis and Holm were not at all friendly in real life, despite their onscreen chemistry. According to Holm, her cheery “good mornings” to Davis on the set would always be met with stony silence.)

B movie actor Hugh Marlowe (who years later found a home on television on the long-running soap opera Another World) enjoys his most high-profile film role as playwright Lloyd Richards. His shouting match with Bette Davis across the theater is one of the film’s most well-written and well-played scenes: “All playwrights should be dead for two hundred years!”

Gary Merrill is perfect as the passionate theater director who espouses a high-minded philosophy of show business and the peculiar breed of people attracted to it: “All of the religions of the world rolled into one.” During the filming, Davis and Merrill fell in love offscreen, too, and were married for 10 tempestuous years. (Like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the Davis-Merrills couldn’t seem to stop playing the argumentative characters they had perfected even when the cameras weren’t turning.)

Addison (George Sanders) advises Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe)

The ever soigné George Sanders won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as the cynical and acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt, who lacerates his opponents with his inimitable brand of erudite male bitchery. (Unhappy George, once married to an effervescent young Zsa Zsa Gabor, suffered from crippling depression and alcoholism, and took his own life in 1972.)

Anne Baxter—after the understudy's performance

Though the picture belongs in many respects to Miss Bette Davis, Anne Baxter does indeed have some unforgettable and well-played moments as the two-faced Eve Harrington (née Gertrude Slovinsky). Her best scene is in the powder room of the Cub Room with Celeste Holm, where Eve starts by apologizing tearfully but ends by attempting to blackmail Karen into giving her the starring role in Lloyd’s new play. Baxter also scores in her face-off with Addison DeWitt near the end of the film, sparring verbally with her acid-tongued benefactor before collapsing in a crumbling heap at his feet. 

The unforgettable Thelma Ritter as Birdie

Even the smallest roles are beautifully drawn and well-cast by Mankiewicz. The redoubtable Thelma Ritter is unforgettable as the sarcastic maid who is wise to Eve’s overweening ambition, stealing every scene she’s in. Gregory Ratoff is deliciously comic as the hypochondriacal producer Max Fabian. And in a small but showy early role, superstar-to-be Marilyn Monroe displays impeccable comic timing as the talentless but enterprising showgirl Addison DeWitt uses for arm candy. 

Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Eve is the film by which director/writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz will be forever remembered. A true film artist, he can be described as an undoubtedly straight man with a gay sensibility. (Indeed, he had a passionate affair with gay icon Judy Garland, who married two or three gay men herself.) He had a flair for bitchy, witty dialogue and strong female characters, and was as much a “woman’s director” as was the effete George Cukor. Mankiewicz brought out the best in every actress he worked with (including elevating Elizabeth Taylor to goddess status in Cleopatra). Some of his best films include A Letter to Three Wives, The Barefoot Contessa and Suddenly Last Summer. But All About Eve is his finest of all. 

Lauren Bacall as Margo, on Broadway in Applause
In 1970, the film was adapted into a Broadway musical called Applause, which won Lauren Bacall a Tony Award for her contemporary “mod” interpretation of Margo Channing. But Eve’s basic plotline, the ambitious newcomer out to supplant the established star, is still an archetypal trope pregnant with dramatic possibilities and can be seen in dozens of other films and plays of yesterday and today, from Valley of the Dolls to Showgirls, from All About My Mother to Black Swan.

Oh, I can’t wait to watch it...again. “Fasten your’s going to be a bumpy night…”