Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watch Out for Apples

Film: All About Eve
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin' flatscreen.

A common complaint in Hollywood is that there aren’t very many good roles for women. There’s some truth to that, and the Bechdel Test offers a reason why. But there certainly are some good roles for women out there, and 1950’s All About Eve is proof positive that they’ve existed for some time. This film is the first, last, and only example of a film with so many good female roles that four of them were Academy nominated—two each for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Like many a film of the day, All About Eve is told in a sort of flashback. We start with an awards banquet where a young actress named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being given the highest award. We then look back at how this particular turn of events happened, which is interesting because at this point, we don’t really know anything about Eve, or why there’s a particular turn of events that gets us to this point.

No matter. We’re introduced to an earlier form of Eve, a woman who evidently lives for the theater. More specifically, she lives for the performances of Margo Channing (Bette Davis). She claims to go to every performance of her latest play, and waits outside the theater for a glimpse of her heroine every night. Channing’s best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), who is married to the playwright of Channing’s latest play, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), takes pity on Eve and brings her back stage. Here Eve relates her story—a life defined by a marriage terminated by her husband’s death in World War II, and solace in the theater and the performances of her idol. Taking pity on her, Eve takes her in as an assistant, much to the disapproval of her other assistant, Birdie (Thelma Ritter, who is easily the most entertaining and level-headed character in the film).

While it takes us a little time to get there, it turns out the Birdie had the measure of Eve Harrington all along; she’s no poor, pitiable woman, but a vicious predator who wants nothing less than to usurp Margo Channing’s position, life, success, and lifestyle. She starts early at the birthday party of Channing’s beau, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). She convinces Karen to get her the job as Margo’s understudy in the next play, and then works to get Margo to miss a performance. She further invites all of the press to the performance that Margo misses and she plays, getting rave reviews.

Her plots continue, of course, but are so interesting, well-planned, devious, and coldly executed that spoiling them would be criminal. This is a film to be watched and experienced first-hand, not ruined on a blog.

The plot here is a timeless one, about age and aging, competitiveness, jealousy, and betrayal. Eve’s plot works in no small part because of Margo’s obsession with her own aging and what that means to her career. She’s a threat because she is young, pretty, and talented, but she is mostly a threat because she is young. Like many a person in a profession that glorifies youth and vitality, Margo Channing is necessarily worried about her own position as a leading woman on the stage, knowing that the years are passing rapidly, and that those choice lead parts written for women of ages she can still play will be out of reach for her soon enough.

What’s interesting to me here is not the plot though, although it is a good one and expertly scripted and acted. It’s the women characters themselves. Many films, including a good number of films today, feature female roles that are essentially window dressing for the men. The women exist only to stand behind the men and look pretty rather than actually having much to do with the film itself. Here, it’s the reverse. The men are much more the background characters while the women truly take center stage and control all of the action. These are not women who are looking to please the man in their lives or to stay home and bake turkey dinners. No, these are powerful, forceful women who act in ways to further their own ends. They have control of their own lives and push themselves for more control.

I’ll be blunt: this is one hell of a film. This is a sort of film that everyone really should watch, and should watch soon. How good is this film? How strong are the performances? Marilyn Monroe is in this film and is an afterthought.

I also very much like that the narration of Eve's story switches from person to person. Each part of the story is essentially told through the memories of one of the characters, and this person switches periodically through the film, giving us a much more well-rounded and complete view of exactly the sort of person Eve Harrington is, and what she does to those around her. It's a brilliant tactic.

I’ve never been a huge Bette Davis fan, but I’m going to change that opinion based on this film. I will admit to having liked her in other films, but not seeing why she was thought of so highly. No longer. I’m a fan now.

Why to watch All About Eve: Hollywood skewers itself by proxy.
Why not to watch: If you’re one of those people who hates Bette Davis, there’s not much here for you.


  1. While the strong female leads and themes do make All About Eve a rich film, the reason why I always return to it is for the fantastic script and superb dialogue. It makes it an easy and fun watch today.

    I think in many ways, Hollywood has reduced strong female roles throughout the years. I think back on major milestone films like Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz that focused on determined, strong willed females and I can't think of too many modern equivalents in Hollywood cinema.

  2. That's a good point. Perhaps in retrospect I shouldn't be too surprised at great women's roles from 60 years ago.

    The only way that strong female roles will come back is if people demand them. We need a bunch of successful films with powerful female characters.

  3. Such a fantastic film, and one that I watched very recently for the first time too. This was my first experience with Bette Davis and I was very impressed by her performance (and the rest of the cast for that matter). I was captivated purely by the screenplay and the dialogue, as James said. The fact that this film is also polished with such fine lighting and editing makes it a classic that remains just as watchable and recommendable today.

  4. This was my first viewing of this film as well, and I was quite taken with it. It's a great character study, and a great "type of character" study. It really is very much a film that translates into today and still plays in a modern world. Some films age like vinegar, but this one ages not like wine, but like a diamond. It's still as valuable and beautiful today as it was 60 years ago.

  5. I struggled to get into All About Eve, maybe I need to give this classic a 2nd chance one day.

    Aging and what that means to an actress' career was also examined in Billy Wilder's Sunset boulevard, evidently a hot topic that year in 1950?

  6. Maybe it's like when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out in the same year. Or Volcano/Dante's Peak. Or The Sixth Sense/Stir of Echoes. Or...

  7. Right on the money with this review. You seem to be a review who is, if not hard to please, then hard to amaze or really impress. But no matter how hard someone is to please I can't see how anyone could give this less than a 10/10 (except Squish, don't know what's up with him). Looking on Wikipedia, it seems that despite the fact that this film had so many strong roles for women, many view this film as anti-feminist, because career-minded women are looked down upon and married women are praised and viewed as happy (Eve is evil, Margo is only happy when she goes lax on her career and focuses on her man). I said in my own review that I think there's some truth and falsehood to that idea, but I was wondering what you think. Does this film present an anti-feminist message?

  8. a difficult question. I see that reading of the film, but also can see a feminist interpretation as well. Margo is happy only when she concentrates on making herself happy instead of making others happy. Eve is evil not because she is career minded, but because she damages others. I think I prefer to think of it that way, and that the women presented are strong. So I'll go with a positive, feminist message rather than the opposite.

  9. This is an awesome review, Steve. You got is pat-down and I just cry Yes, I wish I had written that.
    This is a very intelligent movie with a first class script but is borne to dazzling height by stellar performances all round. This has as you say som first class female leading roles and they all fill out the shoes and more. Amazing that none of them won the Oscar.

    1. It kind of is that no one won an acting Oscar for this film. I've done Best Actress from 1950. It's the only time that I considered four of the five nominees legitimate candidates for winning.

  10. So many of the elements just fell into place for this to achieve the mastery that it does. The script is there as is Mankiewicz who showed his command of this sort of material the previous year with A Letter to Three Wives, so no matter the casting it should have been solidly entertaining.

    But so much of the quality of the picture comes from the exactly right actress & in one particular case actor in each part. Claudette Colbert had to drop out at the last minute when she suffered a back injury, she would have been a facile, charming Margo and wouldn’t have hurt the movie but she was without the Davis grit-a vital piece of making her work which couldn’t have been on the page.

    The first of the two who make the mind reel though is Jeanne Crain who Zanuck was pushing on Mankiewicz as Eve! A lovely but extremely limited mechanical actress she simply didn’t have the depth for the vicious Eve, fortunately she had to drop out due to pregnancy and Anne Baxter, again faultless, was cast due to a resemblance to Colbert.

    But even worse is the thought of what the smug Jose Ferrer would have wrought on Addison DeWitt. Thankfully he turned the part down. You mentioned that the men are secondary in the film and mostly that’s so but the exception is the acid Addison and having seen him I can’t imagine anyone else but George Sanders in the role. His performance is my favorite Best Supporting Actor win in the category’s history. He obviously understood exactly the read Addison needed and every line and gesture is inimitable.

    Not to take anything away from Celeste Holm who is flawless but of all those originally thought of Alexis Smith is the only performer I can see equaling the performance given. Obviously she would have been slightly different but she had the proper demeanor, intelligence, grace and softness to make Karen work. But good though Alexis might have been Holm and her tinkling piano laugh makes the role her own.

    Thelma Ritter of course is divine, I just wish she hadn't disappeared in the middle of the film.

    I’ve read about that supposed anti-feminist slant and think it’s a bunch of crap. Margo doesn’t long for just some man to take her away from her big bad career. She realizes she’s at a crossroads, is in love with Bill and wants to build a life with him. She’s not abandoning anything but working towards something she sees as worthwhile. And as you said Eve isn’t evil because she’s ambitious but because she’s a merciless bitch who will step on anyone and destroy anything she feels necessary to get what she wants.

    A great film with many levels.

    1. As you can no doubt tell by the end of this review, I watched this early on in my exploration of classic film. I am, of course, fully a fan of Bette Davis these days. I hadn't been much exposed to her when I started this project.

      This is a near-perfect film. As it happens, this turned out to be a great year in film in general, especially for women.