Yesterday I was lucky enough to catch a Cineplex Classic Films presentation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, and I’m still buzzing about it. It energized me in the way few movies do, and reminded me why I love cinema so much.
The film begins at a stuffy awards dinner where the titular Eve is receiving a prestigious acting award. Our narrator, an acerbic theatre critic, introduces us to the two leads: Eve Harrington, a rising star, and Margo Channing, a falling star. The film then jumps backwards nine months to Eve’s first meeting with Margo. Eve’s in a shabby coat and hat, waiting in the alleyway behind the theatre, when Margo’s best friend, Karen, takes pity on her and brings her backstage to meet her idol. This was all I knew about the movie going into it, having viewed the opening scene in a film class, and that’s all anyone should know about the plot going in. Where this film goes in nine months is too fantastic a series of surprises to spoil.
All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards in 1950 (winning six, including Best Picture), and it’s not hard to see why. It’s the only film in history to receive four acting nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in the Best Actress category, and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress. There are male characters, and they are very well cast, particularly George Sanders as the critic/narrator, but this is a movie about women, starring women.
Margo is played by Bette Davis, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Something I’ve always been fascinated by is how much of an actor’s reality bleeds into their performances. Watching Sean Maguire endure bottomless sorrow in Good Will Hunting is made all the more heart wrenching knowing just the how much Robin Williams was hurting in real life. In All About Eve, when Margo sits in a car with Karen and slowly reveals how awful it is being an actress in her 40s, we understand that this isn’t just Margo speaking, or even just her and Bette Davis; it’s the countless women of Hollywood and Broadway whose leading roles start disappearing far too early. This isn’t to imply that Davis’s performance isn’t a monumental feat of acting. Margo lives a life of facades, and watching Davis play the woman underneath the disguise, a woman that Margo isn’t even sure she knows, is truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on screen.
Anne Baxter plays Eve, and to say too much about her character would ruin the fun of piecing together who she is, and what her motivations are. Suffice to say, Baxter immediately steals our hearts with an achingly honest monologue detailing her tragic past. She endears herself so completely to the audience that everything she does throughout the course of the story always seems more innocent than it perhaps is. Again, it’s tough to talk too much about her character without spoilers, but I honestly can’t choose a favourite leading performance in this movie.
Celeste Holm is Karen; she’s good, but is slightly overshadowed by the other actresses in the film. Thelma Ritter gives a hilarious performance as Margo’s maid, and Marilyn Monroe appears in a small role as another aspiring actress, who is far too innocent for the cutthroat business she’s trying to get into. It’s easy to see why she became such a star – in just a handful of lines she establishes her character’s charm, wit, and vulnerability, with, as it turned out, was just as autobiographical a performance as Bette Davis’s.
The plot of the film is ambiguous in whom it sympathises with, but, as with all great screenplays, the audience sympathises with, or at least understands, everyone. There isn’t a character in All About Eve that ever feels like a construct. There is also a great deal of humour in the film, and every joke is earned. There’s a wonderful moment when Margo is forcing the pianist at a party to play the same mournful tune over and over again. Her boyfriend approaches, and says dryly, “Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?” Margo, who is beginning to fully feel the effects of aging in show business, as well as her fifth martinee, slurs, “It hasn’t been laid out – we haven’t finished with the embalming.”
This film is often compared to Sunset Boulevard, which came out the same year and is also about an aging starlet. While I respect that film, and acknowledge that Billy Wilder is a staggeringly talented director, its version of Margo Channing, Norma Desmond, is a significantly crueler characterization. We sympathise with her, but she feels more archetypal, satirical even, compared with Margo’s heartbreaking humanity. I like Sunset Boulevard, but I adore All About Eve. It’s one of those movies that you hear is one the best ever made, watch it, and say “Well that’s one of the best movies ever made.” Films like this remind me that there is entire world of cinema beyond the confines of my lifetime. All too often I favour the new over the old, which is something Margo Channing understands better than anyone.