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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve

The story of three ambitious women (and their men).
March 29, 1951, the Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, California--three actresses held their breath as the winner of the Best Actress Academy Award was about to be announced. Gloria Swanson (for her role in Sunset Boulevard) was the oldest of the three major nominees at fifty-one. Bette Davis (for her role as Margo Channing in All About Eve), was forty-two; while the youngest of the three Anne Baxter (for her title role as Eve Harrington, also in All About Eve), was twenty-seven. All three smiled in anticipation of hearing their name called. Each stirred in her seat. A moment later, their smiles faded. "And the winner is, Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday." Judy was twenty-nine. It was that kind of night. All About Eve had been nominated for a record fourteen Oscars (a record which stood for some forty-seven years until tied by James Cameron's Titanic in 1997). All About Eve won six, including Best Picture.
Two kingpins from Hollywood's "golden days"
(before TV).
"Fasten your seatbelts, it's
going to be a bumpy night."
All About Eve began with as a simple anecdote told to the writer, Mary Orr, by the European actress, Elisabeth Bergner. While performing in The Two Mrs. Carrolls during 1943 and 1944, Bergner recounted how a young fan had become part of her household, employed by her as an as-sistant. Later she regretted her generosity when the woman attempted to undermine her. Orr, used the incident as the basis for a short story "The Wisdom of Eve" pub-lished in 1946. In the story, Orr gives the girl a more ruthless character and allows her to succeed in stealing the older actress' career. In 1949, Hollywood film writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was consid-ering a story about an aging actress. He read "The Wisdom of Eve" and felt the conniving girl would be a useful added element. He sent a memo to 20th-Century Fox president, Darryl F. Zanuck, sug-gesting Eve to be a superb starring role for Susan Hayward. Mankiewicz later presented a film treatment of the combined stories under the title Best Performance. He changed the main character's name from Margola Cranston to Margo Channing while retaining most of Orr's characters, including Eve Harrington, Lloyd and Karen Richards, and Miss Casswell. Zanuck was enthusiastic and ordered a script while at the same time providing numerous suggestions for improving the screenplay. Zanuck reduced the screenplay by about 50 pages and chose a new tile from the opening scene in which the Broadway critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), says he will soon tell, "...more of Eve...all about Eve, in fact."

Confrontation--the old and the young. Anne Baxter
proved to be no competition for Bette Davis.
While the movie is technically "all about Eve," it could be far more accurately termed "all about Margo Channing," (Bette Davis) the aging Broadway diva who literally "steals the show" in competition with her nemesis, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Not only did the two end up competing for the same Academy Award, but all along the way, from the first day of shooting to the Hollywood premier, October 13, 1950, the two female stars vied for supremacy for the lead roles in which they'd been cast. The Hollywood press reported a bitter feud on the set while in fact, there was no literal or figurative "catfight," only a subtle competition, written into the script, as well as their personal and professional relationships. Today we'd call it chemistry, or perhaps life imitating art. Bette Davis, with a longtime reputation as being "difficult to work with" was in no way contrary. She knew a great script when she saw it, and beyond that, recognized a superb role that would extend and enhance her faltering career as she slipped past the devastating age of forty when even exceptional actresses like herself (having been nominated for six Academy Awards during her career), fade into a background of character roles much like that of Margo's assistant, Birdie, played by Thelma Ritter.

A perfect cast, a perfect script, Academy Award-winning writing and direction, can only yield a superb film. The critics have long been nearly unanimous in praising All About Eve.
While many Hollywood critics often resort to industry stereotypes, All About Eve presents audiences with a cast of divergent and multifaceted characters. For example, Bill Sampson (Merrill) provides Margo with the emotional and career support that she needs, yet he still holds her accountable for her mistakes. He is able to walk the fine line between good natured and cynical as he sees the world around him for what it is, yet maintains a positive outlook. Margo’s playwright, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and his wife, Karen (Holm), possess an equally realistic relationship as they struggle to maintain their marriage amid the temptations and suspicions of celebrity life. The only characters that are reduced to types are Eve (Baxter), whose gradually emerging villainy and ambition know no bounds, and theater critic, Addison (Sanders), whose life seems to hold no purpose other than damaging others’ careers as a means of inflating his own ego. Despite their stereotyping, the performances of Anne Baxter and George Sanders are nuanced enough to ensure their characters’ believability.

Recognize her? The role of the innocent starlet,
Miss Casswell, is played by a very young and
inexperienced Marilyn Monroe.


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