81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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All About Eve

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments · 1950, Adaptation, All About Eve, Bette Davis, Black and White, Composer: Alfred Newman, Drama, Inciting Incident, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Marilyn Monroe, Mid-Point, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Screenplay Structure, Smoking, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

All About Eve Before I perused the listing for this film on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), I had no idea that Marilyn Monroe is one of the stars in it. Her part can’t be very big, though. This was 1950. And she wasn’t yet the legendary blonde bombshell that she would quickly become. So it’ll be fun to watch for her and see if she’s as charismatic in a small role as she was in the larger ones to follow.

Someone named “Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” wrote a nicely worded plot summary on IMDB for All About Eve: The ambitious Eve Harrington gets close to the great and temperamental stage artist Margo Channing and her friends Karen Richards and her husband, the play-writer Lloyd Richards; her boyfriend and director Bill Simpson; and the producer Max Fabian. Everybody, except the cynical critic Addison DeWitt, believes that Eve is only a naive, humble and simple obsessed fan of Margo and they try to help her. However, Eve is indeed a cynical and manipulative snake that uses the lives of Margo and her friends to reach her objectives in the theater business.

So this movie is about a backstabbing, fame-hungry actress who will do anything to claw her way to the top.

Can you say “catfight”?

One thing worth nothing at the outset is that this is NOT an adaptation. This movie was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993), of whom IMDB writes, “…Mankiewicz [w]as a witty dialoguist, a master in the use of flashback and a talented actors’ director (he favored English actors and had in Rex Harrison a kind of alter-ego on the screen.”

Hey! I was wrong. I watched the Backstory featurette about the movie and I discovered that Joseph L. Mankiewicz based his movie on a short story called “The Wisdom of Eve.” From the Wiki enry:

The Wisdom of Eve is a short story by Mary Orr. The story formed the basis for the Academy Award winning film All About Eve. The nine-page story first appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in May, 1946. The story was loosely based upon a woman who had been the secretary of Viennese actress Elisabeth Bergner.

This means, with All About Eve, Hollywood has chosen an adaptation as Best Picture 69.56% (okay, let’s just call it 70%) of the time. In other words, nearly 3/4 of the movies named Best Picture are based on other works (novels, short stories, plays, characters)!

All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards (!) and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor.

History of the Academy Award WinnersFrom the book History of the Academy Award Winners by Nathalie Fredrik and Auriel Douglas:

All About Eve is one of the best back-stage comedy films ever made. A wry comedy, it had an expert, mult-star cast, and it sparkled with crisp, sophisticated dialogue. The picture also put new life into the bogged-down career of Bette Davis, and it introduced her to the man who became her fourth husband – actor Gary Merrill, with whom she had some sizzling romantic scenes.

The Academy AwardsFrom the book The Academy Awards: A Pictorial History by Paul Michael:

“All About Eve” was a film which pierced the hard shell of Broadway’s armor and laid bare the pulse and heartbeat of the people who inhabit the world of the theatre. The penetrating story of an older actress near the end of her fabulous career, doing battle with a calculating and treacherous newcomer, is really the age-old story of every woman’s dread of an adversary who has the advantage of being fresher and younger.

Time to roll film…

I only wish I could. You see, our DVD player is one of those that resumes play from last stop. And if the last stop was playing the commentary track, that’s what comes up. And if the commentary track on the DVD doesn’t have an “Off” setting, then the commentary track plays, essentially, forever. Every time the DVD is popped into the player. It took us 15 minutes of futzing to figure out there’s a “reset” setting in one of the obtuse icons on the DVD player’s menu.

Finally…

Time to roll film…

The movie opens with two voiceovers, one — spoken by actor George Sanders (1906-1972) as theatre critic Addison DeWitt. I’ve always liked George Sanders’ voice. So droll. So British. He was great in Rebecca.

Addison introduces the players and sets the stage. The opening scene shows Eve accepting the theatre’s highest award for her performance. The scene plucked from the end of the telling of the story, which means the audience is treated to a healthy dose of dramatic irony. (Incidentally, George Sanders, according to his bio on IMDB, committed suicide: Sanders told David Niven in 1937, that he intended to commit suicide when he got older. In 1972, he fulfilled his promise, leaving this note: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”)

Then, the movie steps back in time via a voiceover spoken by actor Celeste Holm (1917- ) as Karen. She introduces viewers to Eve, played by Anne Baxter (1923-1985). Eve is the disingenuous, social-climbing actress who worms her way into the circle of famous-actor friends.

More importantly, twelve minutes and forty-eight seconds into the movie, Karen introduces Eve to aging actress Margot Channing, played by Bette Davis (1908-1989). That’s gotta be the Inciting Incident, the event that sets the entire movie in motion.

You know what’s really noticeable in these old movies? The smoking. In All About Eve, especially. I don’t think there’s a picture in the making-of featurette or any scene in the movie in which Miss Davis doesn’t smoke her fool head off.

The writing is crisp. It’s intelligent. It’s not like Billy Wilder’s dialogue, which is somehow more clever (to my ears) than Mankiewicz’s dialogue, which is urbane and witty, yes. Don’t get me wrong. Mankiewicz is leagues ahead of what passes for good dialogue today.

After Karen passes off Eve to Margot’s entourage, Margot takes up the voiceover narration, making audible the thoughts inside her head that wouldn’t normally (obviously) be known to the audience.

For those keeping track, here’s Plot Point I: In voiceover narration, Margot (about 27:38 into the film) says, “That same night we sent for Eve’s things, her few pitiful possessions. She moved into the little guest room on the top floor. The next three weeks were out of a fairy tale and I was Cinderella in the last act. Eve became my sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist, and cop. The honeymoon was on.”

Why is that Plot Point I? Because it spins the movie off into another direction, pushes the action into Act II, causes the audience to wonder, “Hmm. I wonder how that’s going to work out?” or “I wonder if Eve is really as sincere and naive as she seems to be. What’s going to happen next?”

Marilyn MonroeMarilyn Monroe (1926-1962) enters the scene at 45:42 and looks as stunning as she is young. She glows on screen, all platinum blonde and wispy-voiced. She is Addison’s date for the evening. (Where’s that Wayback Machine? After visiting Clara Bow and Olivia de Havilland, I’d like to make a quick stop to say Hi to Marilyn circa 1950-1954.)

It appears the Mid Point of the movie is when Eve, as Margot’s understudy, reads with Marilyn Monroe’s character, Miss Casswell. Eve turns in a performance, according to critic Addison, full of fire and music. This infuriates Margot who has arrived late to the audition only to be told that Eve filled in for her – and stole the show. Margot listens to Addison rave about Eve’s performance, then storms into the theatre pretending to be ready for the read. She announces to Bill Simpson (played by Gary Merrill, 1915-1990), and Lloyd Richards (played by Hugh Marlowe, 1911-1982) that she’s ready.

“It’s all over,” says Bill Simpson.
“What’s all over?” answers Margot.
“The audition,” Bill replies.

What a great Mid Point! “It’s all over” is more than a statement regarding the read; it’s a pronouncement on Margot’s career. From this point forward, with Eve’s star on the rise, and Margot’s on the decline, the movie will take a different turn. (Incidentally, “It’s all over” occurs at about one hour and six minutes into this two hour and eighteen-minute movie, which puts it virtually at the perfect mid-way point.)

Shortly after this scene, Karen (Celeste Holm) launches into another voice-over explanation of what she’s thinking and what she’s about to do. I don’t recall ever seeing a movie in which so many characters within the movie offered voice-over narration.

Then, in a scene a few minutes later, Addison offers more voiceover dialogue, just before he eavesdrops on an intimate conversation between Eve and Bill Simpson. Eve plays her hand too soon when she attempts to steal Bill away from Margot. After Bill leaves the room, Addison encourages Eve to blow her own horn, shed her false modesty. Then he makes a pass at her.

All About Eve CastPlot Point II must be when Addison decides to champion Eve’s cause, write articles about her – to, in effect, make her a star. This occurs at one hour and thirty minutes into the movie, which is just about the place where a Plot Point II would occur.

A funny line, spoken by Addison to Karen as he hands her a newspaper: “Why don’t you read my column to pass the time? The minutes will fly like hours.”

It’s not long after this that Karen realizes Eve has wormed her way into Addison’s favor, if not his bed, and has planted a knife squarely in Margot’s back.

Eve really is a despicable character. She’s so melodramatic, slick, and conniving, and – dare I say it? – a bitch with a capital B. Her true colors came about at the one hour, forty-five minute mark. She tells Karen in no uncertain terms that the part in her (Karen’s) husband’s play is one she wants – badly, resorting to blackmail to get it.

Karen’s voiceover again. She talks about Eve in her husband’s play, and about how Lloyd and Bill argue, uncharacteristically, because of Eve.

I wonder when married couples will get to sleep in the same bed? This movie was released in 1950 – and yet Lloyd and Karen Richards sleep in twin beds, nearly on opposite sides of the room.

More voiceover from Addison. Then, he visits Eve in her hotel room. They get to talking.

“There never was and never will be another like you,” Addison tells Eve. “You’re an improbable person, Eve. And so am I. We have that in common. And also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition. And talent. We deserve each other.”

Bette DavisBette Davis, in her 1987 memoir titled This ‘N That, writes,

All About Eve became a cult picture. Edward Albee told me there was a theater in Greenwich Village that kept bringing it back, and you could never hear one word I said because the people in the audience knew every one of my lines and would say them out loud along with me.

Many of my films I would not need more than a sentence to describe, and that only because it is hard to describe a movie in less than a sentence. But Eve is the only one I would pick if I needed to prepare a textbook. All the ingredients were there: a brilliant script, perfectly cast and directed, with a chemistry between the leading man and lady that must have been obvious to the entire crew.

All About Eve is a superb movie. And I agree with Miss Davis. The performances are remarkable. The dialogue is intelligent. The direction is brisk. The ending is an ironic twist. Another young actress wannabe appears on the scene, this time to topple the new star in town, Eve Harrington. Ah, life in the theatre. It goes ever on.

Well, for some more than others, it seems.

It’s interesting to note that the young girl at the movie’s end (a character named Phoebe) was played by Barbara Bates (1925-1969). Like George Sanders, Bates committed suicide later in her life. Plus, if Marilyn Monroe’s demise is to be believed (suicide rather than murder), Monroe would be the third person appearing in this film to commit suicide. That seems an extremely high number to me. And from a movie about the capriciousness of stardom.

Art truly does imitate life, doesn’t it?

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