Sunday, May 6, 2012

All About Eve

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"--Margo Channing (All About Eve, 1950)
I didn't know what to expect from this film, and I still don't.  I think it needs many more viewings before I can fully understand it.  There's some great acting, and really strong female characters.  In fact, it is only the women that can see clearly, whereas the men are blind to the action going on around them (except for the most effeminate man).  I liked it, but I feel a little muddled.  Can I see Bette David scream at people again?

The Plot
The film opens with a prestigious theater award ceremony at the "Sara Siddons Society."  Theater critic Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders, introduces the main characters who are attending the banquet, nonplussed, while the award recipient, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, waits in the wings.  He claims that he will explain "more of Eve, later. All about Eve, in fact."  Around the table are playwright Llyod Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) and famous dramatic actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Karen, watching her introduction, flashes back to when she first met Eve...

Addison DeWitt at Eve's Awards dinner
It's a dark, rainy night and Karen gets out of a cab, hurrying to get in to see her husband and their friends, who are recouping after a long show.  Eve, who is huddled in a doorway, approaches Karen and mentions she has been to every performance.  Karen takes pity on her and invites her in to see the play's star, Margo Channing.  Eve meets everyone backstage, and proceeds to tell them of her poor childhood in the mid-west and subsequent marriage to Eddie, an Air Force technician who died in the war.  Eve claims she first saw Margo perform in San Francisco and was so enraptured she followed the performance to New York.

Bill, Eve, and Margot at the airport.
Director Bill Sampson, Margo's younger boyfriend, comes to say goodbye before he leaves to direct a film for Hollywood.  Eve accompanies them to the airport and captures Margo's affection, who them hires her to work as her assistant.  Eve does a remarkable job but still earns the enmity of Margo's maid, retired vaudevillian Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter). Soon however, Margo begins to distrust Eve and suspect she is trying to supplant her.

Birdie and Eve
Eve plans a welcome home party for Bill and doesn't inform Margo until Bill says something.  Margo quarrels with Bill when she catches him entertaining Eve with jokes, and he accuses her of insecurity because of her age.  The night goes downhill as Margo drinks and picks fights with her guests.  Max Fabian takes Margo aside and admits he has agreed to audition Addison DeWitt's stunningly beautiful protegee Miss Casswell (played by a very young Marilyn Monroe).  Margo agrees to read with Miss Casswell but asks that Max get Eve a job as an administrative assistant in his office.  At the same time, Eve asks Karen for a shot at replacing Margo's pregnant 
understudy. Karen agrees to help, but warns Eve that Margo always performs.

Eve and Margot at the party.
Margo shows up late to read, only to hear from Addison DeWitt that Eve is her new understudy and has already read with Miss Casswell--brilliantly.  Margo storms into the theater and fights with Bill and Llyod, accusing them of rehearsing Eve behind her back.  Bill follows her backstage, and asks Margo to marry him, as he has many times before.  Still fearful that he will one day leave her because of her age, Margo declines and Bill leaves her.  Lloyd come home to Karen and raves about Eve's performance.  He then tells Karen he longs to teach Margo a lesson and finally put the diva in her place.  Karen remembers that she, Llyod, Margo, and Bill have planned to go to the country together that week and then calls Eve to hatch a plan to finally get back at Margo.

Karen and Margo in the car
After a tense weekend with Margo (Bill not having shown up) Llyod and Karen drive Margo to the train so that she can make her performance.  Suddenly the car runs out of gas inexplicably and Llyod goes for help.  Margo takes the time then to apologize to Karen, explaining that her fear of aging and her illustrious career have done so much to hold her back in love and life.  
Funny business, a woman's career - the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.
Karen forgives her and apologizes that Margo is going to miss her train.  As Margo asks her why she's apologizing, and scoffs that it isn't like she poked holes in the fuel tank, the camera pans out on Karen's guilty face.

Eve attempts to seduce Bill
Eve performs that night, and somehow, all the literary critics in town end up invited to the show, including Addison DeWitt.  After the show, Addison goes backstage and happens to overhear Eve making a pass at Bill, who rejects her.  After he leaves, Addison comes in and offers to help her with her career.  As he questions her back-story about discovering the theater in San Francisco, he starts to realize everything isn't as it seems.  Even so he writes a column the next day praising Eve's performance while making comments about "mature" actresses in youthful roles.  Bill returns to Margo's side to comfort her and Karen agrees that Eve was manipulative to be a party to that article.

Margot reads Karen's note.
Lloyd later tells Karen he would like to start on his next play right away, rather than wait until this one ends.  He explains he would like to cast Eve as "Cora" a role that was originally designed for Margo.  He claims that Addison manipulated a naive young girl and that Eve is truly sorry.  Karen is beginning to suspect the truth about Eve and tells Lloyd he'll give Eve that part over her dead body.  That night Lloyd and Karen join Margo and Bill at the Cub Room, and Bill announces that he and Margo are finally engaged.  With Margo gushing happiness, Karen suddenly receives a note that Eve wishes to speak with her in the ladies room.  The rest of the table encourages her to go, and so Karen goes to listen to Eve's apology, filled with chagrin at how Addison had used her and manipulated her words.  When Karen doesn't buy it, Eve turns nasty and threatens to reveal in Addison's column just how Margo had managed to miss that performance unless Karen endorses Eve as "Cora" in Lloyd's new play.

Karen remembers meeting Eve.
Horrified and a little shaky, Karen returns to the table.  Before she can speak, Margo announces that she does not want to play "Cora" in Lloyd's next play.  She and Bill are going to get married in city hall, after which she wants to spend some time at home with him.  Karen bursts into hysterical laughter, to the surprise of her friends.  In Karen's voiceover, she claims that as it turned out, Lloyd didn't need her permission, and ends up casting Eve.  Bill at first refuses to direct her, but at Margo's urging, finally agrees.  Karen claims that she never knew Bill and Lloyd to fight as much as they did over this play, but Eve always played peacemaker.  Karen decided she didn't need to be a rehearsals as much anymore.  The middle of the night before the premiere, Karen gets a call from Eve's roommate, claiming she is seriously ill.  Lloyd rushes right over, leaving Karen at home.  As the roommate hangs up, she exchanges a smile with the very healthy Eve.

Eve and Addison.
The night of the premiere in New Haven, Addison greets Eve before her performance in her suite.  Eve gloatingly informs him that Lloyd is going to leave Karen and marry her.  Her plan is that they will become a power theater couple, with her as his muse.  Addison listens, then coldly vetoes her plan.  He tells her that he owns her.  Addison has discovered her scandalous past, which includes sleeping with her married boss.  Eve's story is both more sordid and less interesting than she has told the world.  Eve falls to her bed in tears; Addison tells her she better perform the best she's ever done, and then leaves.

Eve accepts her award.
Back at the awards banquet, Eve accepts the award for the performance she gave that night and subsequent nights as "Cora."  She gives a humble speech, and then promises to return to the theater after her upcoming role in Hollywood.  She thanks her "friends" who have attended the banquet and who are staring coldly back at her.  After the banquet, she leaves in a taxi with Addison, declaring that she is too tired for the after-party in her honor and just wishes to go home.  Addison leaves her at her apartment, and, tired and depressed, she fixes herself a drink, only to see a young girl asleep in her apartment.  It is the president of one of her fan clubs, who, after taking the train from Brooklyn, snuck into Eve's apartment in the hopes of meeting her.  Although initially terrified, Eve allows the girl to take care of her, and to answer the doorbell.  It is Addison, who has come to return the award Eve left in the cab.  The girl introduces herself as Phoebe, and Addison gives her the award, telling her to ask Eve how to become a famous actress.

Eve returns home.
Phoebe lies to Eve and says the taxi driver brought the award, and then takes it into Eve's bedroom.  She tries on Eve's cape and poses in front of the mirror with the award, a determined glint in her eye.

Phoebe is the next Eve.
The History
The original story, "The Wisdom of Eve," by Mary Orr, appeared in "Cosmopolitan" magazine in 1946 and was based on a real life incident involving Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner in the early 1940s.  It was then produced as a radio drama for NBC, but no studio thought it a worthy film project until Fox eventually bought the rights for a small amount of money and no credit stipulations. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz combined the story with one he was writing about an actress who remembers her career while she is accepting an award.  Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and his pet director, Mankiewicz, considered Marlene DietrichTallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Ingrid Bergman, and Jeanne Crain as possibilities for the starring roles.  In the end they settled on Claudette Colbert as Margo and Fox's recent award winners Anne Baxter and Celeste Holm as Eve and Karen, respectively.  They edited the script to make Eve's conniving less apparent until later on in the film and to add some ambiguity to the characters before production began.

Production still for All About Eve
Right before filming, however, Colbert injured her back in a skiing accident and could no longer be in the picture.  Mankiewicz had to come up with an actress, fast, and so Bette Davis stepped in.  Although she and Zanuck disliked each other, Davis was perfect for the role--even going to so far as to fall in love with Gary Merrill, who played Bill.  They would later marry and adopt a daughter, Margot (they got divorced in 1960).  Although Mankiewicz had been warned that Bette Davis would be a terror to work for, she knew a great script when she saw one and had little to say to Mankiewicz, who described her as "one of the most agreeable and professional actresses" he had ever worked with.  Not so for Celeste Holm, who was also at loggerheads with Zanuck.  Holm claims she arrived on set and greeted Davis, who then responded with "Oh shit, good manners."  Holm never spoke to Davis again.  Davis recalls that everyone on set was a pleasure to work with, and the only "bitch in the cast" was Holm.  Davis herself was going through a tough time--she had burst a blood vessel in her throat from screaming at her current husband, William Grant Sherry, who she was in the process of divorcing.  Mankiewicz decided he liked the raspy quality of her voice and kept it.

Marilyn Monroe's early role.
Marilyn Monroe would have one of her first small film performances in the role of Miss Casswell--and was so nervous in front of the great Bette Davis she had to repeat her scenes several times before she got them right.  Margo's famous cocktail dress was made by Edith Head, but at the last minute didn't fit Davis's shoulders.  To make it fit, Davis simply slipped it off her shoulders. Zanuck changed the film's working title "Best Performance" to "All About Eve" after he heard Addison DeWitt's opening lines.  The film opened to glowing reviews from the critics.  Bette Davis won her first New York Film Critics Award and told Mankiewicz "You resurrected me from the dead."

Sketches by Edith Head
But All About Eve would be fighting against a few other popular films that year.  Long time Oscar winner Billy Wilder had started on a new film that he took care to hide from the studio execs until the last minute--going so far as to lock the script up every night before leaving the studio.  The project was Sunset Boulevard staring Gloria Swanson as a middle-aged silent movie star losing touch with reality.  The project was a hit with the critics, although Louis B. Mayer felt slighted to be kept in the dark, telling Wilder "You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!"  Also vying for the award would be the story of a dumb blonde trying to better herself in Born Yesterday.  Although he had to be talked into it, Columbia boss Harry Cohn would later hire the young actress who had played the part on Broadway, Judy Holliday--or as he put it "that fat Jewish broad."  He released it on Christmas Day, just in time for the Oscars; it made a ton of money and Judy Holliday a star.    Last in contention was former Best Supporting Actor nominee Jose Ferrer, who took a chance and starred in the surprising hit Shakespearean film, Cyrano de Bergerac.  Everyone was gearing up for the awards.  And yet, HUAC cast a pall over everything, investigating both Judy Holliday and Jose Ferrer.

Gloria Swanson, Jose Ferrar, and Judy Holliday
Despite the vigorous race, many of the nominees would not be able to be present at the awards.  Bette Davis was filming a British movie, Another Man's Poison, on the Yorkshire moors.  Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer were both staring in a Broadway revival of Twentieth Century in New York.  Jose Ferrer decided that he was hosting a birthday part for his co-star on Oscar night, and rented out the La Zambra restaurant.  New Yorkers Judy Holliday, Celeste Holm, and Sam Jaffe (a Best Supporting Actor Nominee) decided to join him.  The Academy quickly set up a radio hookup in New York, should any of those actors win.

Marilyn Monroe presents "Best Sound Recording" to Thomas T. Molton
Fred Astaire was this year's host at the Pantages theater, and the show opened with a lavish medley of all the songs nominated that year, including Cinderella's "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."  Backstage, newcomer Marilyn Monroe was preparing herself for her Awards show debut as a presenter.  She suddenly noticed that her dress was torn, however, and promptly burst into tears, claiming she couldn't go on.  Her fellow starlets consoled her while a fashion attendant worked some magic.  She pulled herself together and went onstage but barely managed to look up from the podium the entire time.  This would be the last time Marilyn Monroe would attend the Oscars.  Louis B. Mayer would win an honorary Award for "distinguished service to the motion picture industry."  Mayer would be forced out of MGM a few months later after a bitter dispute with their parent company, Lowes, Inc.

George Sanders and Mercedes McCambridge
All About Eve received a record breaking 14 nominations, 1 more than Gone with the Wind.  Only Titanic would equal this record, 47 years later.  Of that 14, the film won six awards, "Best Costume Design," "Best Sound Recording," "Best Writing, Screenplay," "Best Director," "Best Supporting Actor," and "Best Picture."  When George Sanders, who played the cynical Addison DeWitt, won his award he sobbed backstage. "I can't help it," he claimed, "This has unnerved me."  Mankiewicz was a two-time award winning director who had won both the Director and Screenplay Awards two years in a row.

Best Costumes, Black and White, is awarded to All About Eve
Though Anne Baxter is credited with lobbying to be in the Best Actress category (rather than supporting) and thus splitting the vote to ensure both she and Bette Davis would lose---in actuality this was a scheme developed by Zanuck himself.  Gloria Swanson and Judy Holliday sat at the same table in New York, and when Holliday won she couldn't stop sobbing.  The much older Swanson handled herself well and gave Judy a hug.  But she couldn't help but say, "Darling, why couldn't you have waited till next year?"  It seemed HUAC was beaten--and Best Actor winner Jose Ferrer joyfully said, "This is a direct rebuke to the people who tried maliciously to affect the voting by things that are (a) beside the point and (b) untrue."  Unfortunately, columnist Florabel Muir stated, "I didn't cast my vote to vindicate you on the charges that you may have failed to be a good American citizen.  As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on that category."

Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" 
All About Eve was #16 on  AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies in 1998, and #28 in the new list in 2007.  Eve Harrington is #23 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains, and the above mentioned quote is #9 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes.  In addition it won various awards in the Golden Globes, NY Film Critics Awards, Director's Guild of America Awards, Cannes Film Festival, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.  More recently, in 1990, All About Eve was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  The film received in 1997 a placement on the Producers Guild of America Hall of Fame. The film also earns a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It still enjoys revivals in indie movie houses, Bette Davis exhibits, TCM and AMC.  It is a certified classic that helped solidify Bette Davis an eternal movie star.

Bette Davis and Gary Merrill
The Verdict?
This is a movie with strongly written female characters, something that is not always common in this time period.  However, they work as a cautionary tale against women who deviate from the reinforced female stereotype of the 1950s.  Post-war America faced a labor problem.  During the war, women had been encouraged to join the workforce and replace the men who had gone to war to protect them.  Images of strong, patriotic women like Rosie the Riveter were used as propaganda to propel women to leave home and go to work in armament factories.  But when the men returned, women were expected to go back home and leave the jobs to the returning war veterans.  If they didn't, America was facing a high unemployment rate and possibly another economic depression, especially with the war factories now being deemed unnecessary.  Some women did indeed go home,  but some were still their family's breadwinners and couldn't afford to.  Thus the propaganda against working women began in the 1950s.

Birdie and Eve first meet.
All About Eve delves into the roles of women as different versions of the classic Eve, the symbol of femininity.  In a deeper sense, Eve, Karen, and Margot represent the virgin, the wife, and the crone (unfortunately), the three phases of women dating from the Ancient Greeks.  But each woman runs into problems because they are unable (or unwilling) to adhere to their archetypes.  We discover Eve is neither an innocent girl or a virgin, as she is treated in the first half of the film but in fact a manipulative, promiscuous woman who uses her femininity as a weapon.  Karen is a wife, but not a mother, perhaps the most important part of her role.  And Margot is fighting her age by pretending to be a young girl on stage, heavily wigged, costumed, and made up.  Each violates the roles they are supposed to fulfill.

Margot with Max and Bill
In a simpler sense, all three women come to grief because they fight the proper female roles that have been assigned to them by society.  Popular culture, society, even the government, want women to settle down, abandon their careers, and become "happy little housewives" as Margot once calls Karen early on.  Margot is a drunken, raging, unhappy bitch until the end of the film, when she decides to settle down and marry Bill.  She comes to the realization that she is not a women if she does not have a man.  After that, Margot, one of the most powerful women in the film, becomes silent and generic.  She must abandon her career (she couldn't be a star by playing an older woman!) and play house with Bill.

Margot watches Eve receive her award.
Karen is happy in the beginning of the film, and actually only comes to grief when she attempts to meddle in her husband's affairs without consulting him.  Her husband straying from her is a natural consequence of Karen taking an active role in her married life, rather than a passive one.  And Eve is perhaps the most cautionary tale of all.  She is perceived as sweet and unassuming until she goes after a career and attempts to usurp Margot.  She might have been able to escape her fate, but as the villain, is kept from marrying and settling down by Addision DeWitt, who unnaturally insists she remain single and further her career.  Although she has gotten what she wants, she is depressed and downtrodden by the end of the film.

Margot after a performance
In addition to the reinforcement of female roles is the emphasis on heterosexual relationships.  Both Addison and Eve have homosexual leanings, and this just reinforces their villainous natures.  They are an unnatural, unhappy pair, as apposed to Bill and Margot and Karen and Lloyd.

Margot at the cocktail party.
Despite this negative view of femininity, it is only the women in the film who can actually see what is going on.  All the men, with the exception of Addison, are ignorantly in the dark, being led by the nose by their respective women.  Addison is able to remain in control because of his effeminate leanings, but as it is a warped femininity it can only be used for evil, rather than good.  In All About Eve, women are both in control and powerless.  It is the dominant, masculine side of Addison that finally conquers Eve.  These women are all Eve--they've eaten the apple, but must pretend they haven't.

"Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."
All in all,  this film is a complicated exploration of women, and something I must watch again and again to understand.  And from this film I plunge into something that will seriously confuse my gender assumptions---An American in Paris.  God help me...
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