Monday, February 21, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "All About Eve"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following the fourth installment (2010's "Black Swan"), I now present ~

All About Eve 1950 / Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

SYNOPSIS Though still the toast of the New York theater scene, veteran stage legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is insecure about her age. Her playwright friend Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and director/boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) insist that her "ageless" talent and beauty make her fit to portray twentysomething women, but Margo isn't so sure. As Bill heads to Hollywood for a movie directing gig, she secretly worries about losing him to a younger woman. Her concerns are temporarily allayed when Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm) introduces her to Eve (Anne Baxter), an adoring superfan who has seen every performance of Margo's current Broadway hit "Aged in Wood". Flattered by Eve's idolatry and impressed with her excellent, unassuming manners, Margo takes the young lady under her wing and adopts her as a live-in personal assistant. When Margo learns that Eve has been casually corresponding with Bill in anticipation of his "Welcome Home" party, her fears resurface, especially when her wisecracking maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) admits to finding Eve creepy. Margo's infamous diva-like temper explodes at the party, and she manages to humiliate Bill, Lloyd, Karen and Eve all at once - much to the amusement of acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). As Margo becomes increasingly suspicious of Eve in the days following the party, her obsessive paranoia further alienates her from the people she loves, leading to disastrous results.

I'm not sure if I've watched "All About Eve" more than any other movie, but I can't think of another film I've studied more intensely. I think it's brilliant and so it's a bit difficult for me to keep from writing about it hyper-analytically, even academically.* But that sort of piece could be interesting only to those who've already seen it, and one of my main reasons for engaging in this Bitchfest series is to make readers want to watch these great movies. So, if you've seen "All About Eve" and you're curious about my theory of the backstage crate that says "Handle With Care," let me know; otherwise, I will stick to answering the question, what makes this Bitchfest film so special?

Let's begin with writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's unconventional script. Commonly known as The Bitchiest Film Ever Made, "All About Eve" is undoubtedly the gem of this genre and yet it upends all of the character types that we recognize in films like "The Women", "Mean Girls", "Chicago" and "Black Swan". Margo, our protagonist, is the common definition of a bitch. She's pushy, temperamental, inconsiderate and sometimes downright mean. The antagonist is polite and endlessly gracious. Without revealing too much, I'll concede that Eve isn't what she initially seems. And granted, the seemingly-good-but-secretly-bad girl is not a new sort of character, even in 1950. But unlike most Bitchfest films, in which the protagonist adopts the antagonists' tendencies in an effort to defeat her, Margo remains true to herself, while Eve does the aping in an attempt to overcome her adversary. Karen, who we would assume to be Margo's more sensible sidekick (and in most films, would serve to teach her ill-behaved pal a stern but positive lesson), is a self-unaware fool who does immeasurable harm by unwittingly unleashing Eve upon her friends. And perhaps most unusual is that the biggest bitch of all is Addison, a man.

But as Addison himself so snidely observes in the film's opening scene, the function of the writer and director is "merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it." Witty as Mankiewicz's script is, only a seasoned and sympathetic pro like Bette Davis could be capable of delivering his heroine's words so deftly; this is arguably her signature film. Despite her bitchiness, we root for Margo, for the same reason we root for those no-good "Chicago" girls - she's entertaining, hurling bitter, hilarious barbs at both the innocent and the deserving with equal finesse. Take, for instance, when a justifiably incensed Bill complains that she's going to make him miss his flight to L.A. and his meeting with Darryl Zanuck (real-life Twentieth Century Fox exec and producer of "All About Eve" - so meta!). Margo merely replies in mocking sing-song fashion, "Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck. What are you two - lovers?"

Unlike "Chicago's" Roxie or Velma, Margo is also vulnerable, and Davis conveys this tenderness so convincingly that you almost believe she's playing herself. In one of her best scenes, she wearily confesses to Karen, "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 go back to being a woman." Davis could have just as easily been describing her various failed marriages in light of her own lengthy career. In the course of this monologue, her character also reveals a keen self-awareness that sets her apart from most of the other principal players, especially when she admits, "Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure - or unloved." Ultimately, this cognizance is more important to Margo's personal success than either her assertiveness or her occasional willingness to be kind. Again, this is not the typical characterization of a "good girl".

Anne Baxter's portrayal of "bad girl" Eve is certainly less nuanced, just as her character bears fewer layers than our protagonist. Yet, Baxter does a great job of making us queasy about Eve long before she reveals her true nature. From her melodramatically delivered introductory monologue (a young widow's sob story that would suit reality TV perfectly) to her stoic poise in the face of Margo's most brutal tantrum, Baxter's portrayal throughout the first half of the film is a series of subtly unsettling alarms. Though her acting in the latter half verges on campy, it is certainly amusing, even rewarding. After all, we don't really want Eve to be as virtuous as she seems.

The other true star of the film - portraying a character who is a far more formidable force than Eve - is George Sanders. If Margo is correct in her initial observation that Eve considers the theater "all the religions in the world rolled into one, and we're Gods and Goddesses," then Sanders's Addison is certainly the Devil. Like Billy Flynn from "Chicago," he's the manipulator who can't be baited by any Bitchfest lady. But unlike Flynn, nothing so worldly as money interests Addison. His only love is the theater and his only desire is to control it by somehow possessing its stars. His love/hate relationship with Margo (which is all hate on her end) is a powerful dramatic undercurrent that becomes more apparent throughout the film, though Sanders is constantly foreshadowing. The opening scene (set months after the bulk of the action), in which he presents all of the major character via voice over narration, is the film's greatest gift to a repeat viewer and it gets better with every successive screening. As his eyes dart from a heavy-hearted Karen to a glowering Margo, Sanders's sneering expression says everything that his narrative refuses to divulge. But it's Sanders's outstanding, dulcet-toned delivery that perfectly complements Mankiewicz's biting dialog, especially in this scene with a very young Marilyn Monroe -

Though Bette Davis unfortunately lost the Best Actress Oscar (to a very deserving Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday"; since Baxter was also nominated, it is commonly believed that she and Davis cancelled each other out), Sanders was rightly awarded Best Supporting Actor, his only nomination from the Academy.

In the spirit of recognizing great acting, I must give a shout-out to Thelma Ritter, whom you saw descending the staircase with the enormous sable in hand. Ritter was one of Hollywood's best character actors, the perennial wise-ass servant (you may recall her as Jimmy Stewart's macabre nurse in "Rear Window"). With her thick New York accent and salty manner, she brought the silver screen down to earth and helped millions of viewers suspend their disbelief. Her Birdie, the "fifth rate vaudevillian" turned maid, is no less important to this film. She connects us to the improbable world of "the thee-uh-TUHH" and, as the most prescient observer of Eve, she helps us accept that people this crazy can and do exist.

On a completely different note, "All About Eve" stands out amongst other Bitchfest films as an insightful study of jealousy. Margo's billowing resentment toward her rival is an irresistible train wreck. Her extreme, outward hostility only feeds Eve's popularity, which in turn fosters a more potent, self-defeating envy. I think that just about any woman (or man) who has engaged in catty behavior can relate to that experience. But while so many Bitchfest narratives reward jealous heroines by returning to them the "thing" (a guy, usually) that the bad girl somehow stole, that isn't Margo's path to redemption. As infantile as she can be, Margo is a grown-up and like real-life grown-ups, she eventually figures out that her jealousy is a manifestation of her insecurity. It doesn't matter if she's right or wrong about Eve. She must find her peace in the only place it could possibly be found - within herself.

*Honestly, the only thing I miss about college is writing ridiculously detailed, five page shot analyses for highfalutin theory classes.

1 comment:

  1. "[P]erennial wise-ass". Typically wonderful way with words. If I ever get a blurb, I want that in it.