Thursday, February 13, 2014

Queen Margo: "All About Eve" (1950)

It's infamous, now, the film with the classic line "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," but this 1950 look at an aging actress and the people who surround her is just as fresh and fun as the day it was released.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) has passed forty years of age. She is THE star of a Broadway play, and her every need is catered to by Birdie (the acidic and always excellent Thelma Ritter). She has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with her play's director, Bill (Gary Merrill), and is best friends with the playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and especially his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). On the periphery is the theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who has made himself a part of the theater community despite what he writes about it.

But the title is "All About Eve," and Anne Baxter's Eve is very important. She is a naive homeless waif from Wisconsin who watches Margo onstage every night. She is brought backstage to meet her idol, by Karen, and everyone's lives change. The film opens with Eve receiving a grand theatrical award, so right away we know she not only succeeds in becoming an actress, but we watch as her presence upsets the star routine Margo and her circle of friends have become accustomed to.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz has written a flawless screenplay. The film is so full of memorable quotes and double entendres, you can barely keep up. Hollywood, television, and even other well-known actors and actresses are hung out to dry by these theater people. His direction is great. This could easily be adapted into a stage play, there are certainly many memorable set-pieces that would transfer very well. However, Mankiewicz opens it up, and his final shot of an actress standing in front of a bunch of mirrors gave me the chills. I kept hearing strains of "Gone With the Wind" in Alfred Newman's musical score, but other than that and a badly shot sidewalk scene, the technical side is first-rate.

What can I say about the cast that has not already been said? Of the twenty acting Academy Award nominations in the year 1950, this film had five performers nominated (Baxter, Davis, Holm, and Ritter, and the Supporting Actor win to Sanders). The film's fourteen Oscar nominations is still a record today (shared with 1997's "Titanic"). Anne Baxter can change from a pie-eyed starstruck fan into a scheming ingenue, and back again, at the drop of a hat. Marlowe and Merrill are also excellent in two very ignored performances. Holm is wonderful, she has a scene in a broken-down car with Davis that is incredible. I wished Ritter was in this more often, she always brings a comforting shot to a role. Marilyn Monroe, in a small role here, is fantastic. Funny, sexy, and you can tell she was going to be a star. Actors and directors alike should study the belated birthday party for Bill scene. Davis delivers her most famous line here, but the entire sequence is an exercise in how to act in a film. Not one bad performance or line to be seen or heard.

Judy Holliday beat out Bette Davis for the Oscar that year, but more people remember Davis' performance today. It is flawless. Since I am going through the same middle age issues Channing is going through (she laments that Bill is EIGHT years younger!), maybe Davis' lines and expressions meant more to me now. She is excellent- bitchy, fragile, Holm remarks in the film, I'm going to run out of adjectives.

Theater people will especially get a kick out of "All About Eve," and the backstage drama behind the onstage drama. There are still people like this around today, in theaters and real life. This isn't a slam against theater, it's a factual statement. Another factual statement is that this film is one of the best of the 1950's, featuring perhaps the best female film performance of all-time. (* * * * *) out of five stars.