All About Eve (1950)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders
Synopsis: An ingenue insinuates herself in to the company of an established but aging stage actress and her circle of theater friends.
Not only did All About Eve briefly resurrect the faltering career of 42-year-old actress Bette Davis, it also introduced her to future husband Gary Merrill, whom she married a few weeks after shooting of this film was completed. It was to prove a brief revival for Ms. Davis: three box-office duds – two with Merrill – followed, although of those three only Another Man’s Poison (1952) was a poor movie. Davis’s years as a major movie star were over, it seemed, and in an era when an actress’s ability to secure prominent roles depended on her physical beauty, her fading looks pretty much sealed her fate. The plum role of Margo Channing was one of those rarities – a well-written part that revolved around fading looks and insecurities about ageing.
The Eve of the title is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a plain, mousy girl who lurks in the back entrances of theatres hoping to catch a glimpse of theatrical diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). One evening, Eve approaches Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo’s closest friend, who introduces her to the actress. Margo and her inner circle, Karen, Karen’s husband, playwright Lloyd Richards, and Margo’s fiance Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), are enchanted by Eve, and Margo gives her a job as her personal assistant. It isn’t long however, before Margo, insecure about her advancing age, begins to suspect that Eve is plotting to replace her as the foremost actress in theatre. Her suspicions are originally met with disbelief by her friends, but soon Eve’s true motives become clear, and with the help of the acerbic critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), she launches her attempt to usurp Margo.
All About Eve provided both Bette Davis and George Sanders with career-best roles, and they both made the most of the opportunity given to them. Although she was far from first choice for the role of Margo, it’s difficult to imagine anyone – other than maybe Barbara Stanwyck, who was also considered for the part – inhabiting the role so convincingly. Despite her insecure bitchiness, Margo is infused with an air of vulnerability that makes her a sympathetic character even when she’s in full-on bitch mode. DeWitt is the exact opposite, a man fully at home in a bitchy, back-stabbing world, his ready wit disguising a coldly calculating eye. It’s a role that is perfectly suited for the rather louche George Sanders, who suavely purrs his lines like an alley cat that‘s just spied it‘s next helpless meal. The pivotal role belongs to Anne Baxter as the scheming, manipulative Eve, and with her smoky voice and mock sincerity she gives the character a touch of femme fatale menace, putting her right at home in a world populated by the likes of Margo and DeWitt.
All About Eve’s intelligent and erudite script was written by the film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a man with a distinguished Hollywood career for whom this was arguably the pinnacle. There’s something vaguely unreal about his characters, though – credible in their own rarefied places, they’re nevertheless defined by their environment and would be unbelievable if placed in a world familiar to the rest of us. At the film’s core beats a jaded, cynical heart that offers little hope of redemption for those who subscribe to its way of life and which some might find unpalatable.
(Reviewed 25th August 2012)