If you make a movie that offers relevant and smart comments about celebrity culture then you are a good filmmaker. If your movie was made 64 years ago and it is still relevant today, then you are some kind of genius. Joseph L. Mankiewicz was definitely on to something when he wrote and directed All About Eve because even though it was released in1950 and deals with a fading theatre actress and an obsessive fan who may or may not be after her career, it may as well be about Hollywood today.
Lately I have realized that if I was to watch one film a week off Empire Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time it might take me decades to get through the list. A lot of these movies are hard to find, however since I signed up on Netflix I now have access to quite a few of them. I would prefer it if watching them for the first them was more of an event, such as seeing them at a festival or something like that but you can’t force a moment. So for the next couple of weeks, instead of writing how there was a special moment when I first saw The Big Lebowski in South America and laughed my ass off with my brother, I might just write about watching Fatal Attraction off Netflix by myself in Lloydminster, Alberta. I think I will still hold for Lawrence of Arabia though, even if is available online. I heard that movie is just too beautiful to watch on a laptop.
All About Eve on the other hand is a black and white classic that is more about the story and the performances, so I watched it as a double feature last week off Netflix with The Third Man, which was made in the same era although they deal with vastly different subjects. Told in flashbacks, All About Eve is as the title says the story of theatre actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who has just won a prestigious award in front of her peers. But as duplicitous theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) explains there is more here than meets the eye.
A year before Eve was just an obsessive fan of the work of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a Broadway star who is very well aware she has just turned 40. Margo’s friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) sees Eve waiting in the rain outside the theatre and invites her in to meet her idol. In the dressing room Eve is delighted to make the acquaintance of not just Margo, but also Karen’s husband and Margo’s playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and Margo’s boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) who is also a stage director. After telling the group her sad life story and the joy she gets from watching Margo perform on stage every night, Eve gets a job as Margo’s assistant. And just like that, she joins the inner circle.
As time goes by Eve becomes the world’s best assistant, arranging everything perfectly in Margo’s house, setting up phone calls between Margo and Bill, and making sure her expensive dresses are ready for special occasions. But Margo’s faithful and patient maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is suspicious. Is Eve too perfect? Does she have an ulterior motive? After Birdie voices her concerns, Margo begins to have some suspicions of her own, especially after a big birthday party in which Eve seems very interested in talking to the right people about becoming Margo’s understudy.
One of the ways in which the film is so great is that for a long time you don’t know what are Eve’s true motivations. Is she just a true fan who wants a fair chance at having what Margo has, or is she some Machiavellian schemer who will not hesitate to push everyone out of the way to get to the spotlight? When Margo suggests option two to her friends, everyone blames it on paranoia and her very heavy drinking. To be fair, she has a few reasonable reasons to be drinking. She is in her forties and has been playing 20-year-old characters for a while now and is afraid both her playwright friend and her boyfriend the director will decide to replace her with an actress of Eve’s age. The fact that her boyfriend is eight years younger than her makes her worried she could get replaced by Eve in more ways than one.
The movie won six academy awards, and is so far the only movie to receive four female Oscar nominations. It is truly deserved, as everyone here is top notch, especially Davis and Baxter. The role of Margo Channing could have been one-dimensional, with a focus solely on her ego and her drinking. Yet there are quite a few scenes where Bette Davis shows the humanity beneath the star and how she truly wishes to hang on to her boyfriend.
Meanwhile Anne Baxter gives a many-layered performance, first playing Eve as a shy and sad person who you would gladly invite into your home. Then as time goes by, more layers are peeled back and you realize there might something unsavoury beneath, but you are not quite sure until the end.
Speaking of which, the ending is simply perfect. I will try not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but All About Eve finishes off with an image that both closes the story’s circle and serves as a warning for anyone who becomes in love with the idea of being loved by the crowd. They should show this movie to anyone considering moving to Hollywood.