Best Picture: All About Eve (1950)
By Witney Seibold on July 21, 2014
The 23rd film to win Best Picture is one of Witney’s favorites. Please forgive the following few paragraphs of shameless gushing.
I said in my review of Casablanca that it was probably the best film to have won Best Picture. Now that we’re rounding the corning into the 1950s, we immediately encounter a film that is easily one of my favorites. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ All About Eve is a rich, impeccably written, gunshot sharp black comedy about an aging actress, the go-getter who seeks to supplant her, and the heaping pile of carefully fostered artisanal bitchiness that they construct. It’s the bitchiness that keeps coming back. The people in this film snipe at one another as if they’ve been waiting to use their verbal barbs for many weeks – in the case of the put-upon playwright, it’s probably true.
If the 1930s were a time for Best Pictures that worked with epic melodrama, and the 1940s were a time of increased naturalism and excellent Old Hollywood acting, then the 1950s were a more scattered and more dubiously enjoyable time. By 1950, the Studio System was pretty much dead, and a large portion of Old World Hollywood was almost immediately moribund. The 1950s, then, were a mixed time for movies. Independent movie theaters began booking whatever local cheapie movies they could, and Z-grade genre pictures became the word of the day. What’s more, television eventually began cutting into cinema’s vitality, offering free entertainment at home.
As such, the Best Picture winners from this decade began to scatter in genre and quality. On the one hand, there are some excellent “social problem” films in this decade (only a few more weeks before we get to On the Waterfront), and a few throwback epics (Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur are also nearby), but on the other hand, we have a lot of frothy musicals and spectacle pictures that are, at least according to some critics, the worst films to have won Best Picture. Indeed, 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth is often listed as the very worst. We’ll see where I stand in two weeks.
Luckily, the decade started well with All About Eve. Oh, Eve. How do I love thee?
All About Eve is a showcase for the immortal Bette Davis. Davis had previously been, as a young woman, something of a glamorous shrinking violet. She was often the blonde ingenue in 1930s melodramas. As she aged, however, and her girlish voice evolved into a passionate rasp, Davis turned into a much sassier and appealing screen presence; her dark passions for her craft became more apparent. As Roger Ebert once observed: Getting older was a good career move for her. In All About Eve, Davis plays a stage actress named Margo Channing who is deathly afraid of aging out. She’s 40, constantly asked to play younger women and dating a younger man (Gary Merrill). Her entire life is devoted to eschewing her age. She has a quiet, weary, winking acknowledgment of her age, and she only discusses her personal anxiety with her best friend Karen (Celeste Holm from Gentleman’s Agreement).
Into Margo’s life floats the sob-story pixie Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the ultimate fangirl. Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s retinue, upsetting Margo’s pseudo-Sapphic relationship with her current assistant (Thelma Ritter). Eve eventually begins taking over Margo’s life in an insidiously innocent way. Margo loves the attention, but her worries are compounded by this young, pretty flower constantly being around. Eventually, of course, it will be revealed that Eve is not the innocent she says she is. Indeed, Eve has been cozying up to Margo with the very specific intent of supplanting her. Margo’s suspicions were, it turns out, justified. A long series of snipes, back-stabbings, intentional misunderstandings, and ever-growing resentments ensue.
All About Eve is narrated by an erudite and snotty theater critic named Addison DeWitt (George Sanders from Rebecca, and the only cast member to win an Oscar for this film). Addison behaves like a self-fancying Noel Coward, eager to tear down the people next to him, all so he can show off how smart he is. It’s Addison who will see entirely through Eve, resist her charms, and find himself enjoying how weak she is when her lies are exposed. Addison is the type of social sadist you wish you had never met at that party. He’s the professor who pray you don’t get. He adds to the overall tone of cynical, theatrical wit. It’s that cynical theatrical wit – not to mention the rather strong lesbian undercurrents – that has ensured All About Eve a canonized place in the LGBT community.
I could continue for pages and pages (indeed, I already did that way back in 2007), so I will leave you with this thought: If you’re an aspiring actor, a lover of cinema, a soap opera fan, a theater baby, or a human being, then you should watch All About Eve. It’s funny, dark, brisk, bitchy, and amazing.
Join me next time for An American in Paris.