Today's edition of The Great Media takes a little turn. Instead of a movie I've seen a dozen times, or an album I've heard a hundred times, or a book I've read two or three times, I am profiling a movie I have seen once. I saw it yesterday while convalescing at home. This edition is the 1950 drama starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, All About Eve.
I had been wanting to watch it for years, but just hadn't gotten around to it. When I finally saw it yesterday afternoon (it was Tivo'd from TCM in the morning), it did not at all disappoint. It was, if anything, better than I expected. The characters were complex. The dialogue was impossibly intelligent and witty. The story was a familiar one, but done very well.
The movie centers around two women, aging Broadway star Margo Channing played by Bette Davis, and her claimed admirer Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. Channing has an excellent reputation as an actress, but is getting too old to play the young romantic leads on stage. She knows this, and hates herself and everyone around her for it. Eve Harrington wants nothing more than to bask in the greatness of Channing, and maybe, just maybe, develop an acting career for herself.
With Channing, what you see is what you get, but with Eve, there are multiple layers of deception at play. It is no accident that Eve is named for the world's first sinner, and it's no accident that it turns out Eve is a name she chose for herself, rather than one she was given by her parents.
More after the break.
The story opens with Eve receiving a coveted theater acting award, and with Margo Channing and her friends looking on in disgust. The story is then told in flashback, as we first meet Eve, who is ostensibly a mousy girl with an infatuation with Margo Channing. We know, from the opening scene, that there is much more to her, but it is revealed in stages.
Eve meets Margo's best friend Karen. Karen recognizes Eve as the girl who has been to every one of Margo's performances of the play they are going to. She takes Eve to meet Margo, and Eve attaches herself to Margo as a personal assistant with her story as a Navy widow who first saw Margo in a San Francisco theater and then became a great admirer. While working for Margo, Eve studies her every move to learn how to be an actress, both on stage and off. Only Margo's wardrobe lady sees through Eve's veneer of being a sycophantic fan and realizes that Eve is actually a predator. Eve connives her way into the role of Margo's understudy, and then takes advantage when Margo cannot make it to a performance.
Eve's performance replacing Margo is well-received, and her career is started. A career is started, but a facade is torn down. With real power now, Eve becomes bolder, blackmailing Karen into convincing her playwright husband into approving Eve for the lead in a play instead of Margo. She delivers thinly veiled insults at Margo in a magazine interview where she criticizes directors' choices to cast "mature" women in parts much younger than they really are.
Her only misstep is when she clumsily tries to seduce Margo's lover Bill by acting just as sultry and exotic as Margo. Bill knows her however, and knows it's an act, and the attempt fails.
It is eventually revealed that Eve Harrington is not Eve Harrington. It is a made-up name and hers is a made-up life. She has deliberately stolen much of Margo Channing's life and career, and now she is on her way to stardom.
The final scene of the movie shows another, younger actress, starting on her own mission to steal Eve's life.
The acting in this movie is first-rate, and it is amazing to consider that neither Bette Davis nor Anne Baxter were the producers' first choices for their respective roles, and some of the supporting roles went to alternates as well. It is especially strange to think that Ronald Reagan and his future wife Nancy were considered for two of the supporting roles. The role of Margo Channing was to be played by Claudette Colbert, who had to pull out because of a back injury, and Eve Harrington was to be played by Jeanne Crain, who became pregnant.
It is difficult to imagine these roles played by other actresses, particularly the role of Margo played by Bette Davis. Davis was aging, but was able to bring the right amount of bitchiness to the role. Margo may be the victim of this movie, but she made Eve's task all the easier by being a neurotic, difficult person who was hard to like.
The screenplay, by Joseph Mankiewicz who also directed, is first rate. It's as good, in its own way, as Chinatown. Its witty repartee is like a female, theater set version of Pulp fiction. Each character is intelligent, but no character knows everything. Each is flawed, but none are irredeemably bad people, including Eve.
If you haven't seen this gem, you should definitely check it out. It comes on Turner Classic Movies in somewhat regular rotation.