Monday, October 11, 2010

One of the Greats

One helpful way to get better while restricted to bed and/or a chair is to return to your favorite entertainments. The other afternoon I watched Joseph Mankiewicz' masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE. This 1950 serious comedy scours the New York theater scene, its divas, its traditions, and even its fans. But basically, Broadway theater is a stand-in for the follies and shenanigans of Hollywood, an even better target. It would take Billy Wilder to face the extremes of fame and desire with SUNSET BOULEVARD in the same year. These two films produced two of the most memorable performances in screen history--Bette Davis as the age-fearing diva in ALL ABOUT EVE and Gloria Swanson as the silent star Norma Desmond, desparate for a come-back in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

ALL ABOUT EVE set the record for Oscar nominations, 14 in all, and won six including Best Film, Direction, Screen Play, and George Sanders for Best Supporting Actor. The film often makes top ten lists of all American films and deservedly so. The writing, acting, pace, and depth of a film whose subject seems so flimsy are astounding, since Mankiewicz and crew make it entertaining and profound at the same time.
The plot centers on a young ingenue (Eve, Anne Baxter) who insinuates herself into the inner circle of Margo Channing, a brilliant but insecure actress facing her age. Before long it is obvious that Eve is after more than shelter. She wants it all--Margo's talent, her roles, her boy friend, anything--Eve becomes an insatiable monster whose sweetness turns to poison. And she has a strong ally in the acidic critic Addison de Witt, played with withering precision by George Sanders.

Much of the joy in ALL ABOUT EVE comes from Mankiewicz' dialogue bandied about by some of the best actors in the business. It is difficult to pick the "best" scene in this film, but three loom large. First there is the cocktail sequence which begins with a battle between Margo and her much younger boy friend (Gary Merrill). Striding through the room, hands on her hips, Davis puffs away and picks up a chocolate, puts it down again and finally pops it her mouth as she finishes her argument. And then there is her most quoted line: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." In a later scene, Addison tells Eve that she is his because he knows the truth about her background. This is surely the scene that won that Oscar for Sanders. And then there is the closing scene. SPOILER ALERT. Eve has won her award but lost all her friends. She returns to her apartment to discover a beautiful high school student asleep on her couch. Soon the girl has insinuated herself into Eve's life. The last shots show Phoebe donning Eve's evening cape and standing before a multiple mirror holding the award. As the music swells ironically and majestically, we see multiple images of the next Eve. This is an ending without words that is much more powerful than any clever line.

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