Eve of destruction
Joseph L. Mankiewicz is not a bad director. But he's not a truly great one, either; he's not worthy, anyway, of being the second of only two men to have won a pair of back-to-back Best Director Oscars (John Ford was the first). He didn't, in general, do anything unexpected with his camera; he rarely pushed actors to do work beyond their comfort zone, preferring instead to facilitate them being the very best version of their usual selves. His best directorial instinct, in fact, was to provide the cleanest and most unobtrusive possible frame for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, screenwriter; and that Mankiewicz is the absolute best of the best.
Moreover, that Mankiewicz was never, ever better than when he adapted Mary Orr's 1946 story "The Wisdom of Eve" into 1950's All About Eve, a film in which the art of screen invective finds its absolute all-time pinnacle. Is it a disreputable pleasure, to bask in the bitchy vitriol as talented actors hurl elaborate, poetic insults at each other? Maybe, but the important point is that it's pleasure, and the caustic dialogue in All About Eve is some of the best ever committed to celluloid in Hollywood:
"Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men."
"Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass."
"To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself."
"The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!"
"Does Miss Channing know she ordered domestic gin by mistake?"
"The only thing I ordered by mistake is the guests. They're domestic too, and they don't care what they drink, as long as it burns."
"Everybody has a heart. Except some people."
There's a great deal more to All About Eve than zingers, but I don't think it's unfair to suggest that the dialogue is what makes it truly, deeply special. Lots of movies have great acting. Lots movies have pulpy melodramatic hearts beating vigorously under a veneer of studio shine. Very, very few movies have the facility with language of All About Eve. And it's not just simple pleasure that makes me single out the dialogue, either; for all its florid excess, the dialogue is always insistently functional. This movie is about a cluster of people jockeying for dominance amongst each other; it is a drama of how people assert power, and ultimately - crucially - how they elect not to assert power. The way they speak is intimately linked with all that power struggle, so even if it's utterly beguiling to hear a top-shelf cast spit acidic aphorisms, it's also a sneaky way of constantly pounding on the story's themes.
Having entered the cultural lexicon as a kind of shorthand for greedy protégés targeting aging mentors, I do hope that the basic shape of the thing is familiar: Margo Channing (Bette Davis), 40-year-old goddess of the Broadway stage, has attracted a passionate admirer in the form of 24-year-old Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Everybody takes to Eve, from the moment Margo's best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) ushers her into the star's dressing room: Margo's favorite director and boyfriend, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Margo's favorite writer and Karen's husband, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's blustery producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff). Only Margo's longtime maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) takes an instinctive dislike of Eve and her perfectly-formed tale of woe ("What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end", she grouses in that immaculately grumpy Ritter way); only after taking Eve on as a personal assistant does Margo start to spot the clues that the guileless young woman is, in fact, rather craftier than she seemed, her eagerness to please slowly adopting a sharklike quality.
The film traces two character arcs more or less in tandem: Margo's confrontation with her feelings of self-loathing over getting older, and her eventual realisation that she needs to re-adjust her priorities and be nicer to the people who put up with her; and Eve's insinuation into the world of prestigious theater, aided and guided by the murderously sarcastic newspaper columnist Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). It's reasonably straightforward, as backstage melodramas go; from the moment the film elects to open near its end, with a ceremony giving Eve a tremendously important award while Margo, Karen, Bill, and Lloyd all conspicuously fail to clap for her in a collection of medium shots that perfectly frame the disgust each of those characters feel for her, it's less a matter of wondering what will happen, more wondering how it will happen, and all in the tightly-compressed nine-month frame the film establishes for itself (the only significant misstep in the whole of the writing - it's simply not plausible that Eve could reach the level of national acclaim we're told she enjoys on the strength of only one solitary play that, if we follow the rest of the in film logic, premiered only two or three months earlier).
And here is where I have perhaps been too mean to Mankiewicz the director, who executes the development of that story with a crispness and sophistication that leaves what amounts to a sudsy story of catfighting feeling like the most brainy of psychological dramas. I'm not quite as fond of his directing here as in the previous year's A Letter to Three Wives (for which he won the first of his two consecutive Oscars; Eve, of course, netted him the other - and both resulted in writing Oscars, for good measure), but the casualness and elegance with which he stages scenes and the energy he draws from his unbelievably good cast certainly help the film to be its very best self. Aided with a terrifically airy Alfred Newman Score and some smart, cunningly character-defining costumes by Edith Head and Charles LeMaire, among other talented contributors (there's not anybody involved in the film's creation who isn't doing top-level work), the film is as glamorous as its characters like to think that they are, making the ugliness and snitty sniping and pathos of those characters feel all the more sharp and tense. That mixture between the surface gloss and the psychological brutishness drives the film like a wild horse, and even though, at 138 minutes, it's maddeningly indulgent for a melodrama with so few clearly-defined plot points, my reaction to All About Eve is always surprise when I realise that it's getting ready to wrap up, even though I just started watching it.
The point I was making, anyway, is that there's beautiful clarity to the filmmaking, even if it's not as complex or surgically precise as Sunset Blvd., the film with which it competed for most of its Oscars (and how marvelous and odd is it to think upon one of the most insoluble Oscar battles ever waged - from Best Actress to Art Direction to Picture itself, most of their head-to-head competitions are incredibly difficult to pick a winner - would center on two melodramatic stories about women?). Mankiewicz's style is to first attend to the characters, and let the rest follow, which leads to some phenomenal pieces of subtle filmmaking. There's an early sequence, for example, that finds Eve meeting the rest of the cast; by staging Davis, Holm, and Marlowe in a three-shot that intercuts with Baxter alone in the frame, and shortly thereafter stages the four of them so that Baxter alone is facing the camera, offering a quiet bit of foreshadowing that Eve is somehow, importantly, different than the others; mere minutes later, she expresses her whole sob story in a curiously flat shot as Newman's score cranks itself up into a relentlessly swoony bit of romanticism that feels gaudy compared to everything else in the score, completing the first impression of this young woman as being distinctly, if indefinably, "off".
The focus on characters also means that the film gives a lot of room to its actors, who pay it back fully. That Davis gives one of the great performances of a generation is simply one of those facts everybody knows, and it's hardly worth going into all the little things she does that make it so (but I am especially fond of how matter-of-fact and unapologetic she plays her big "I've realised I was wrong" speech in the back of a car; even at her humblest, Margo is still proud and tough, and Davis isn't about to deny that reality). The quality of her work has tended to overshadow her co-stars, especially Baxter (a co-nominee in Best Actress, but clearly not in the same race to win as Daivs, Gloria Swanson, and eventual victor Judy Holliday). Which is spectacularly unfair; given a more nuanced role, Baxter is very nearly at the same level as her more famous colleague, especially in the opening scenes when the first-time viewer still hasn't quite discovered what's to dislike in the innocent enthusiast. It's nothing short of a miracle that Baxter can play the role to be totally spotless and pure the first time, while also leaving just enough brittle theatricality that you can pick up on it while re-watching; it's such potent stuff that I'm always a little sorry when the film starts to tip its hand that Eve is a nasty little beast, and Baxter starts to retreat into a much simpler - though no less persuasive, portrayal of a deeply self-satisfied cobra, staring with her hard eyes and setting her face like a marble mask. She's a great villain; one of the best of the 1950s.
But really, the best thing about All About Eve is that it doesn't rely on the kind of straightforward morality where "a great villain" even applies. It presents a ruthless, horrible world, where everybody who survives needs to be at least partially a predator (the small, early performance by Marilyn Monroe nails this perfectly; almost nowhere else in her career do we see the calculating menace behind adopting "I'm a busty dumb blonde!" as a strategic weapon. It is some of the best work she ever did, even if it's entirely limited to two scenes). Eve is a symptom, not a cause; and while Margo and friends clearly hate her at the end, they don't actually seem to blame her for being better at playing the game. That's a hell of a lot of cynicism, especially for a 1950s film; thank God, then, for the endless wit that helps the nastiness to go down, and the robust performances that ground it in something human. Because take them all together, and they mean that All About Eve is one of the greatest films of post-WWII Hollywood.