Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bette Meets Little Miss Evil

This month TCM Presents offered a theatrical screening of the story of the woman who is #23 (on the Villain side) of the Greatest Heroes and Villains of all time (according to the American Film Institute).  We are speaking, of course, of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (1950)

The event was hosted by TCM's own Ben Mankiewicz.  In his commentary, he spoke briefly about his Uncle Joe, who at the 1951 Oscar ceremony took home two Oscars for the film as Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The was the second year in a row for him to receive the same awards: he had won the previous year, for A Letter to Three Wives, and he remains the only person in Oscar history to accomplish this feat.  All About Eve  was nominated for 14 awards (a record at the time. It has since been tied by Titanic), and won 6, including Best Picture.

Two of the nominations were in the category of Best Actress. Both Bette Davis (Margo Channing) and Anne Baxter vied for the Award (Ms. Baxter was not willing to be nominated in the Supporting Category, since she was the title character).  It's been speculated that they split the vote, resulting in Judy Holliday winning for her performance in Born Yesterday (certainly a worthy winner as well)

If you are not familiar with the story, a few words are in order.  On the evening of the annual Sarah Siddons Society Awards, Broadway actress Eve Harrington is being presented with its highest honor.  From the audience, fellow awardees director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and famed actress Margo Channing look on.  As she watches the action, Karen recalls the night she met Eve, introduced her to Margo, and changed their lives forever.
The film has a fascinating history, and I heartily recommend the book All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs.  The film was based on a short story that appeared in Cosmopolitan. "The Wisdom of Eve" is allegedly based on a real incident involving actress Elisabeth Bergner and her secretary Martina Lawrence, but it has also been speculated that supposed impetus is  a rivalry between Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott, when Scott understudied Bankhead in The Skin of Our Teeth.  Regardless of who was the factual inspiration, the screenplay gives us a portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals - a woman who is just one in a long line of ambitious individuals.

Once you've seen the film, it's hard to imagine anyone but Bette Davis in the role of Margo.  She literally inhabits the character.  However, Ms. Davis stepped in at the last minute when Claudette Colbert severely injured her back, and had to bow out.  At age 42, Davis was fast becoming a has-been - her last part was in Beyond the Forest (1949), after which she and Warner Brothers studio bid each other a not-so-fond farewell.  Beyond the Forest has one major claim to fame - it's the film in which Davis uttered the immortal - and often parodied line - "What a dump."  When  Joseph L. Mankiewicz called and offered her the part, if she could be ready in 10 days, she jumped.  She credited Mankiewicz with "resurrecting her from the dead." (TCM article)

Tallulah Bankhead would claim that the film was "all about" her.  And while Ms. Davis steadfastly denied Ms. Bankhead as an inspiration, some aspects of the role do seem to very much hearken up images of Ms. Bankhead.  When she started filming, Ms. Davis had laryngitis, so she maintained a lower vocal range throughout the film - a voice that closely resembles that of Ms. Bankhead.  The "surprise" curtain call as Margo stands alone on the stage of "Aged in Wood" was also taken directly from Ms. Bankhead, who it was reported used that gimmick when she did her own curtain calls.  And accidentally or not, Ms. Davis' most famous dress in the film looks amazingly like dresses worn by Ms. Bankhead (see below).
About the dress - Edith Head had to quickly alter or remake dresses for her new star.  When Ms. Davis tried on the party dress, Ms. Head was horrified to realize that the dress was too big above the waist.  Davis saved the day by pulling the neckline down around her shoulders, giving the dress a sexy (and coincidentally more Bankhead-like) look.

Ms. Davis' is not the only stellar performance in the film.  Anne Baxter is an impressive Eve, going from wide-eyed innocence to malevolence with the merest flick of an eye. Eve will use anyone and anything to get what she wants, and it is never more apparent than when she sets her cap at Lloyd Richards.  Watch as she sexually manipulates her friend (Randy Stuart) to call Lloyd for her.  There's a hint of  relationship that's more than just friendly between the two.
Marilyn Monroe, in an early role as would-be actress Miss Casswell is quite amusing - the scene in which she sets set her sails to accost Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) after calling him an "unhappy rabbit" is priceless.   And Celeste Holm brings charm and poise to the part of Karen.  But for me, it's the "character" performances that make this film what it is.  Let's start with Thelma Ritter as former vaudevillian, and Margo's dresser, Birdie Coonan.  It sometimes seems that Birdie gets a good portion of the wonderful lines.  For example, after Eve tells the story of her life, Birdie retorts "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."  Or, when Bill asks her what message she would like delivered to Tyrone Power once Bill arrives in Hollywood - "Just give him my phone number; I'll tell him myself."  But more than the lines (and this is a phenomenal script for good lines), it is Ritter's delivery that makes them.  Her Birdie is smart and cagey - she is the first person to spot Eve as a phony.  As always, Thelma Ritter is a gem, and it is always sad for me that Birdie disappears in the last third of the film.

But can any discussion of the perfect delivery of perfect lines be complete without a discussion of George Sanders.  His Addison DeWitt (who may have been based on critic George Jean Nathan - AFI catalog). is a masterpiece of wit and malice.  A theatre critic who describes himself as: "My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater."  We learn quickly that Addison is an impressive judge of people. Without a word, Sanders shows us that Addison, like Birdie, knows that something about Eve is not right. Eve, who has managed to play nearly everyone like a violin, does not realize Addison is not be played.  Sanders is a perfect partner for Eve, and a perfect foil for Bill Sampson and Lloyd Richards, both of whom remain far to oblivious of Eve's manipulations for a very long time.
Claudette Colbert was not the only person considered for Margo - Susan Hayward (deemed too young), Ingrid Bergman (didn't want to leave Italy), Marlene Dietrich, and Gertrude Lawrence were all in the running at one time or another.  Jeanne Crain was also considered for Eve, but her third pregnancy prevented her from getting the role (she and her husband eventually had 7 children).  John Garfield and Ronald Reagan were discussed for Bill, and both Jose Ferrer and Clifton Webb mentioned as Addison.  The film would be performed four times as radio productions (the last one, in 1954 featured Claire Trevor, Ann Blyth, William Conrad and Don Randolph).  It would ultimately be remade as a musical - Applause, which starred Lauren Bacall as Margo in the original cast.  (I saw it after Ms. Bacall left. Her replacement - Anne Baxter!)

As I mentioned before, All About Eve is an awards favorite, and the praise just keeps on coming.  It was #28 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, and in 2014, Richard Brody of the New Yorker discussed the film as a commentary on the difference between film and theatre.  But All About Eve was not just a film that was discovered later in its life.  These reviews in Variety and the New York Times demonstrate that the film was immediately a critical hit.

I'll leave you today with a clip from the film - perhaps the most famous line in the film (though there are others that are just as magnificent).  It was voted #9 in AFI's 100 Greatest Quotes; so here's Ms. Davis warning us to "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night"

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