Wednesday, October 13, 2010
All the world's a stage
By Edward Copeland
Many elements can contribute to a classic film: stylish or revolutionary direction, a unique or powerfully told tale, a performance so great it raises the quality of an entire production. While bits of most of those appear in All About Eve, in the end its status in the stratosphere of cinematic greatness gets set in cement by Joseph L. Mankiewicz's brilliant screenplay and, more specifically, its dialogue. You could close your eyes and just listen to it and be blown away by his work. Maybe it's because I worship the written word that it holds such appeal because All About Eve celebrates the witty rendering of language and does so through the vehicle of some of movie's most memorable characters.
No matter how different all my greatest (or favorite) films are, the singular thing they have in common is that each time I re-watch them, I discover something new. In the case of All About Eve, I put something together for the first time in this visit: several of my very favorite films not only contain voiceover narration but multiple voiceover narrators. Both Henry and Karen Hill narrate portions of Goodfellas. Rashomon tells its tale from several points of view. Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters offers the voices of the three sisters plus Allen and Michael Caine's characters. Citizen Kane's structure consists of interviews with different subjects and, in one case, the reporter reading a witness's papers. Here, in All About Eve, we alternate between the takes of theater star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), her good friend Karen (Celeste Holm) and acerbic theater critic/columnist Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). The technique is not a magic bullet, however, because it only made The Thin Red Line even more unbearable than it already was.
Addison, wonderful wry Addison, bats first in terms of the film's narration and who better to guide us into this backstage drama since he lives and breathes theater, though he does it through his writing, not through any actual participation in the theatrical arts himself. In a way, he's the theatrical version of the title of Howard Cosell's autobiography: I Never Played the Game. Of course, while DeWitt may not act in, write, direct or produce plays, he's definitely into gamesmanship. Toying with those who do contribute to theater, that is Addison's sport of choice.
As All About Eve opens, we watch as Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) receives the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the theater. This event's description that Addison deciphers for us begins with an introductory speech by an older actor of some renown. DeWitt explains, "Being an actor, he'll go on speaking for some time." The camera also pans down to show all the empty spaces where the evening's previous awards used to reside. Addison runs down the meaning of that for us as well as those awards' relative meaninglessness in comparison to the one Eve receives. "The minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is to merely construct a tower so the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it," DeWitt tells us as we briefly see dour-looking playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and sour-looking director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). That night that light belongs to Eve, who Addison informs us, has become the youngest person ever to win the Sarah Siddons honor. Also present in the audience, looking none too pleased at Eve's good fortune, is that great actress Margo. DeWitt informs us that she made her theatrical debut at the age of 4 as a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream when she strode on to the stage stark naked and she's been a star ever since.
It's at the point where Mankiewicz's camera switches its focus to the audience, specifically to Karen Richards (Holm), wife of the playwright and best friend of Margo, that the voiceover narration gets handed over to let Karen tell the beginnings of the story, namely how she's responsible for bringing Eve Harrington into Margo's life in the first place. Karen had noticed the poor, dowdy Eve hanging by the stage door night after night, performance after performance, during the run of Margo's latest hit play. The kind-hearted Karen finally takes it upon herself to ask Eve what she does during the beginning and end of each show and Eve tells her she goes and sees the show, that she hasn't missed a performance of the play yet. Karen finds this so impressive that she decides that Margo just must meet this woman who goes beyond the definition of a mere fan and takes her backstage to meet the star. Knowing how mercurial Margo can be at time, Karen enters alone at first where she finds Margo with her dresser Birdie (the sublime Thelma Ritter) and her husband Lloyd. She's currently haranguing the playwright about plays written about Southern women such as the one she's starring in right now. She wants to know why playwrights insist on depicting all these romantically challenged women in the South. Coming from the region herself, Margo declares, "Love is the one thing we were never starved for in the South." Karen tries to ease in to her introduction of Eve by talking about fans in general, but this only launches Margo into a rant about the mobs waiting for autographs outside the stage door. "Autograph fiends — they're not people," Margo spits. "Those little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes." Karen tries to get Margo more charitable, but she's on a roll and can't be stopped. "They're nobodies! Fans! They're juvenile delinquents! They're mental deficients! They never see a play or movie. They're never inside long enough," Margo's monologue continues. Karen breaks in long enough to tell her there's one of those fans she wants her to meet. When she describes Eve and how she's always there and has seen every performance, Margo knows immediately who Karen is talking about and is game enough to allow her into the dressing room. Eve enters meekly and after prodding, shares her tale about how she lived in San Francisco with her husband who was killed in the war, but she saw Margo give a performance and after a brief detour for a job at a midwest brewery, she came to New York with nothing, just to watch Margo perform. It's as if Channing is The Grateful Dead and Eve is a Deadhead. The entire room is touched except for the suspicious and cynical Birdie who adds at the end of Eve's story that it has "Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end." Margo makes Birdie apologize, though she's the only one whose instincts will be on the mark from the beginning. Unfortunately, at some point in the film, her character just sort of vanishes without explanation, which is too bad because I love Thelma Ritter and it denies Birdie her deserved moment of "I told you so." Sometime during this sequence, they are joined by Bill, who not only directed the play but is Margo's significant other. It also signals that soon we'll be switching to our third narrator, Margo herself.
Something in Eve though appeals to Margo and she invites her to accompany them to dinner after they drop Bill at the airport for his flight to Hollywood to direct his first film. Interestingly enough, Darryl Zanuck, the producer of All About Eve, is named as the producer of Bill's fictional film as well. It's funny to listen to successful Broadway director Bill discuss his shot at directing film as if he's abandoning a medium for the masses for a chance to make movies "which mean something." Was there ever this perception? It's also funny to remember how income tax rates used to be. They don't mention what Bill will make for directing his film, but presumably the salary was a lot lower than directors make today, but it still must have been a heady paycheck. So, the next time you hear a millionaire whining about possibly having to have his tax rate rise 3% to 39% show him All About Eve when Bill tells Eve that "80% of his salary" for directing the movie will go to taxes. Then they can shut the hell up. Since this is the portion of the film where Eve bends over backward to ingratiate herself with her newfound theater companions, she volunteers to check Bill's luggage and then bring his ticket to the gate so that he and Margo can have some private goodbye time. Bill comments that he "forgot they grew them that way." Eve has such a lack of pretense. Margo feels she must watch out for her as if she's "a loose lamb in the jungle." Margo continues to be the narrator and takes Eve under her wing as an all-purpose assistant, though Birdie still remains the sole person with qualms about this "lamb."
As I alluded to at the beginning of the piece, great actors delivering 40-karat dialogue powers my love for All About Eve. As many times as I've seen this film in whole or in part, if you asked me to name a particularly great shot or an interesting camera move than Mankiewicz employs to tell his story, I'd come up blank. This isn't a negative criticism: The film might be chock full of them but the words he wrote produce such magic that I'm mesmerized by them to the exclusion of the technical aspects. The only shot I can really recall is not a good one: it sticks out like a sore thumb. Late in the film, when Eve has landed the lead in a play written by Lloyd and directed by Bill, it's receiving an out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Conn. She and Addison go for a walk on the street from the theater and the marquee can be seen behind them in a horribly obvious back-projection shot that I can't understand the necessity of using. Couldn't the conversation have been staged elsewhere or the theater marquee set up simply somewhere? Still, a minor criticism for a film that's such a verbal masterpiece, even if it's not also the visual wonder that the bounty of other great 1950 releases are such as Wilder's Sunset Blvd., Reed's The Third Man or Huston's The Asphalt Jungle.
Having written about Sunset Blvd., so recently for its 60th anniversary, its interesting what it and All About Eve have in common. Though Bette Davis' Margo Channing isn't insane like Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, both are actresses involved with younger men worrying about their age. Granted, Margo's Bill is only eight years her junior and he's her willing love interest not part of a con that has turned into emotional blackmail such as William Holden's Joe Gillis. Also, Norma is 50, 10 years older than Margo and gave up working when sound came to the movies. Margo, being a creature of the stage, has kept working steadily, but having hit the dreaded 40, worries about her future, especially in regards to future employment. Karen tries to reassure Margo that eight years isn't that big a difference, but Margo tells her that, "Those years stretch as more years go by." It also can be an easy sore to puncture should there be a lovers' spat as when she and Bill fight once and he says, though in a tone indicating he means to be funny, that he always denies the rumor that she was starring in Our American Cousin the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Speaking of age, writer Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out a flaw in All About Eve that I've always chosen to ignore, but that I really couldn't any longer once he wrote his piece "Trash-talking nine classic movies" for Salon. The article wasn't a contrarian view out to tear down classics of cinema — he admits he adores the movie — just that some of the greats bear significant flaws and he finds that Mankiewicz's movie's weakness turns out to be Eve herself. Seitz writes:
"The only weak spot, unfortunately, is the casting of the title character, Eve Harrington. Anne Baxter is a shade too old to be playing the 'girl' or 'kid' described in much of the dialogue (she was 26 when the film was shot), and more damagingly, she's simply not as compelling and imaginative as her fellow actors."
It's hard to argue with his judgment. When I watched the film again for this tribute, frequently stopping the movie to jot down yet another line of dialogue that I loved, not a single one was dialogue that sprang forth from Baxter's lips. Granted, Eve Harrington's scheming requires her to pretend to be mousy and meek, so it would be out of place for her to toss off one of the pithy bon mots that the other characters do with ease. At the same time, the film makes the point from the beginning that Birdie can smell the fraud, how does she so easily fool the rest? During the initial scene where Karen takes Eve into Margo's dressing room, I scrawled the note, "Awfully accommodating to a stalker." Seitz writes further on this point that, "I don't believe that Baxter's version of the dewy-eyed foundling routine could fool so many battle-scarred showbiz veterans, except maybe Celeste Holm's kindhearted Karen." Actually, that is the truth because Karen is the one she ultimately tricks to get what she wants in terms of being Margo's understudy and delaying her on purpose so she'd miss a show and Eve would get her chance on stage. Later, when Eve has dropped the pretense of being the innocent, she uses that information to force Karen to make Lloyd give her the lead in his new play instead of Margo. Karen gets saved by the lucky timing of Margo passing on the part to spend time starting married life with Bill. Karen's relieved laughter is hilarious, even though none of her dining companions know why she's laughing, especially after returning from a meeting Eve had summoned her to in the restaurant's rest room.
Of course, Birdie truthfully isn't the only one who has Eve's number early. Addison knows her game pretty much from the outset, but it's not in his professional interest as a columnist or his personal interest as an asshole to warn anyone about her. Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage" and that's how DeWitt views it. Who is he to interrupt the players before the final curtain falls? The movie's great centerpiece is a party that Margo holds to celebrate Bill's homecoming and a belated birthday bash, but which she really regrets having before it starts because of rising tensions between her and just about everyone. In Margo's narration, she says, "Even before the party started, I could smell disaster in the air." It's the scene where the film's most famous line appears: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." That is just but one of the priceless quotes that fly from the various characters, including an uninvited Addison squiring an aspring actress named Miss Caswell and played by Marilyn Monroe. Even Marilyn gets some laugh lines. When she wants another drink, she calls out, "Waiter!" Addison corrects her that the man is a butler, not a waiter. Miss Caswell suggests that someone could be named Butler and that might cause confusion. "You have a point," DeWitt responds, "an idiotic one — but a point nonetheless." Going back to Seitz's piece, I think another problem with Baxter/Eve comes from the fact that Mankiewicz's screenplay doesn't provide Eve with any levity. She's the film's only humorless character.
Then again, Eve isn't Hannibal Lecter, a villain who should come with his own set of drums to deliver rimshots after each of his lines, so perhaps that's OK because the rest of the cast provides such a bounty of well-delivered dialogue that you can listen to over and over again. As I mentioned before, most of my notes on the film consisted of lines from the film. Now, it would be fairly ridiculous if I just listed them all, especially for those out there who haven't experienced All About Eve. People get all bent out of shape about spoiling a movie's plot twists, but for me it's even a greater sin to ruin all of its magnificent lines, especially when you're dealing with a screenplay as sparkling and crackling with wit as Mankiewicz produced. Still, I'm compelled to single out a few otherwise how can I convince the uninitiated that I'm not selling them a bill of goods? I will list them by the characters who spoke them.
LLOYD: You knew when you came in that the audition was over, that Eve was your understudy, playing that childish little game of cat and mouse.
MARGO: Not mouse, never mouse. If anything rat!
LLOYD: I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind. Just when exactly does an actress decide they're HER words she's speaking and HER thoughts she's expressing?
MARGO: Usually at the point where she has to rewrite and rethink them, to keep the audience from leaving the theater!
LLOYD: What makes you think either Miller or Sherwood would stand for the nonsense I take from you? You'd better stick to Beaumont and Fletcher! They've been dead for three hundred years!
MARGO: ALL playwrights should be dead for three hundred years!
LLOYD: There comes a time that a piano realizes that it has not written a concerto.
Eve would ask Abbott to give her Costello.
The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!
You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.
(To Margo) Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?
Every so often, some elder statesman of the theater or the cinema assures the public that actors and actress are just plain folks, ignoring the fact that their greatest attraction to the public is their complete lack of resemblance to normal human beings.
(To Eve) Is it possible, even conceivable, that you've confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on, that you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?... Look closely, Eve. It's time you did. I am Addison DeWitt. I am nobody's fool, least of all yours.
That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability. But that in itself is probably the reason: You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.
There, I've said too much, but the words that flow from All About Eve are infectious, thanks in no small part to the stellar cast that delivers them. Bette Davis gives what may be her finest work and I'd still place her second that year to Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond. Two of the greatest performances by actresses in the history of film and they both lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. I don't mean to cast aspersions on Holliday, but let's be serious. Thankfully, George Sanders did win his most deserved supporting actor prize as Addison DeWitt, another of filmdom's all-time great characters. Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm both earned nominations for supporting actress but I have to admit that Ritter had better parts (as in Pickup on South Street) and Holm already had an Oscar for being the best part of the terribly creaky Gentleman's Agreement, so I can't argue with Josephine Hull's win for her delightful turn in Harvey, which also turns 60 today. The most amazing achievement though belongs to Mankiewicz who won writing and directing Oscars for two years running, the previous year being for A Letter to Three Wives. There's no disputing the worthiness of that prize for writing, but as much as I love All About Eve, I question his directing win when he was competing against John Huston for The Asphalt Jungle, Billy Wilder for Sunset Blvd. and Carol Reed for The Third Man. Still, slight reservations aside, I always will worship All About Eve, today on its 60th anniversary and on all anniversaries yet to come.