Friday, February 24, 2017

LIZ SMITH: All About Eve

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"All About Eve" — a movie that really deserved 14 Oscar nominations!

“DON’T get up.  And please stop acting if I was the queen mother.”

“Outside of a beehive, I don’t see your actions as either queenly or motherly.”

“We’re in a beehive, or haven’t you noticed?  We’re all busy little bees making honey day and night, aren’t we honey?

“Margo, really!”
“Please don’t play governess, Karen.  I don’t have your unyielding good taste.  I wish I could have gone to Radcliffe too, but father wouldn’t hear of it, he needed help behind the notions counter.  I’m being rude now, aren’t I?  Or should I say ‘ain’t I?’”

“You’re maudlin and full of self pity, you’re magnificent.”

“I think it’s a good time to go home.”

“And you call yourself a playwright; a situation pregnant with possibilities and all you can think of is everybody go home.”
“I for one, think it’s an excellent idea.”

“Happy little housewife.”

“Now, let’s not get into a big hassle.”

“I think it’s about time we did.  I think it about time Margo realized that what is attractive on the stage is not necessarily attractive off.”

“All right!  I’m going upstairs.”
“Would you like some help?”

“For what?  Take my clothes off, tuck me in, turn out the light, tip toe out?  Eve would, wouldn’t you Eve?”

“If you like.”

“I wouldn’t like.”
SO IT went between Bette Davis, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm and Anne Baxter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic movie about theater folks, “All About Eve.” 
I’ve been thinking a lot about “Eve” ever since the Oscar nominations. Okay! — I probably think about “Eve” about once a week, for one reason or another.  But the film has been on my mind even more because it is tied with the current “La La Land” for Academy Award nominations — 14 in all!  (“Eve” won six.) 1997's “Titanic” also nabbed 14 Oscar nods, for reasons that still remain utterly mysterious to me.  (In terms of emotion and dramatic impact, 1953’s “Titanic” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, is far superior. Webb’s final scenes with Stanwyck and young Harper Carter who played his son, as the great ships sinks, are the finest dramatic moments of his career.)
Clifton Webb, with Harper Carter, and Barbara Stanwyck in the final scenes of “Titanic.”
AS ALL good movie fans know, Bette Davis was not the first choice to play the fiery, insecure stage star, Margo Channing.  It was Claudette Colbert’s role, and she was ready to go, until she broke her back just before shooting began. Davis, free of her home studio Warner Bros. and somewhat in the doldrums, career-wise, was available. Although Mank was warned against her (“she’ll eat you up and spit you out!”) he had no choice.  She was hired, quickly fitted for costumes and leapt into the film. Once she’d read Mank’s script, nothing on earth could have stopped her from the taking the role anyway.
Davis and Mank.
Now, today, we simply cannot imagine that the role hadn’t been tailor-made for Davis, or for Tallulah Bankhead, who Davis seemed to channel on some level.

The truth was, Davis just happened to be wearing her hair long, in a similar style to Bankhead, and a cold had temporarily deepened her voice. Once recovered, Bette kept the harsher tone, for continuity sake. But comparisons to the flamboyant, husky/whisky-toned Bankhead were inevitable, especially as she’d just come off a highly successful revival of “Private Lives” and was a big deal on radio, at the time.  Bankhead herself took advantage of the situation, referring to the film as “All About Me.”
BUT, WHAT if Colbert hadn’t broken her back?  What if she’d been Margo?  Colbert was deft and delicious, and certainly would have made her own kind of fine meal out of the priceless dialogue.  But Colbert had a lighter touch, sly, silky, insinuating.  Davis didn’t insinuate, she declared — from the rooftops and to balconies in China! Colbert glided.  Davis pounced and gestured, like “grand opera without the music” as one critic of the time opined.
Claudette Colbert as Mrs. Agnes Newton Keith in "Three Came Home," where she sustained her back injury.
Also — and this is important — Colbert was exquisitely well-maintained physically, looking younger than her years.  Davis, at 42, playing 40, looked, every second of her age, and perhaps a few more.  Never vain, she didn’t care. Colbert was so well put together, so tidy, so concerned about her “good side” — would Margo’s insecurity about aging have been as convincing from Colbert?  (Although, in one of the surreal aspects of the film, as a stage actor, with the advantage of distance and lights and makeup, Margo’s concerns were more appropriate to a screen star, who can never escape the pitiless close-up, or the inevitable disappointment of those “wonderful people in the dark,” as Norma Desmond put it, who fell in love with the youthful image.)
Colbert, crica 1950.
And that brings us to the most surreal aspect of “Eve” — Anne Baxter.  She had already been cast, and that made some sense. She bore a slight resemblance to Colbert, and her own manner was not dissimilar. So, in terms of being Colbert’s rival and usurper, onstage  and off, it fit. But, Baxter was nothing like Bette Davis — they were total opposites.  It didn’t seem possible that Baxter could ever be Davis’ competition or heir to the Broadway throne.  For one thing, we never actually see Baxter perform — we only hear from others how brilliant she is supposed to be.
However, the talk of her talent is undercut by her “performance” as Eve. We already know, right from the first scene, that Eve is a villain of sorts, and either by her own design or Mank’s direction, Baxter plays it obviously. She is so patently insincere, so clearly a phony, it seems insane that anyone falls for her. Only Margo’s devoted maid, Birdie, played by the great Thelma Ritter sees right through her, as does critic Addison DeWitt, when they finally meet. (“Please don’t confuse me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on” he murmurs to her threateningly in their final showdown.)  Not that Baxter was against slicing the ham, as all fans of “The Ten Commandments” and “The Razor’s Edge” know.
Also, one senses — for all of Margo’s childish antics — the artist beneath the star. Baxter’s Eve never speaks of art, only “applause” (hence, the title of the Broadway musical version.)  She seems too shallow to be the great, moving actress we are told she is.

So Baxter, now miscast against Davis, throws the film deliriously, wonderfully off-center.  She is also rather, shall we say — butch?  Her severe hairstyle was stylish for the time, but Baxter wears it like a confirmed "bachelor girl."  There is also her general physicality — in the fur-covered bed that looked like “a dead animal act” with Celeste Holm, a brief scene with a female roommate, and at the end, with her own “Eve” — she is distinctly rough, if as clueless as Margo had been, at the beginning.
It’s been made clear that Eve was willing to sleep with the director, the playwright, the columnist and had made her way to New York via her use of men. (“Life at the brewery wasn’t as dull as you implied. Weren’t you paid to get out of town?!” Addison demands of Eve, as he unmasks her.)  If Miss Harrington’s ambition was so towering; why not women? A ladder to success has no gender.

I am not one to find a gay subtext in everything — that drives me crazy.  But I’ve always thought there was an intended ambiguity in Eve.  If the drive for “applause” is so powerful, very little stands in the way.
In any case, “All About Eve” remains one of the greatest films ever, divinely cast, brilliantly written, endlessly entertaining, as fresh funny and trenchant as it was over half a century ago. 

As for “La La Land” we shall see what we shall see, Sunday night. If it wins all 14 Oscars, so be it.  It’s only a movie and we have bigger fish to fry right now.  Although I do hope they are not cooked endlessly onstage. 

I’d like a break from Agent Orange, if you get my drift. 
SPEAKING OF that, it's good to know that the President of the United States has gone to the Academy Awards at least seven times in the past. (I guess that was when he was still in show business.) Every time, according The Hollywood Reporter, he pronounced the Oscars "really boring" or "terrible" or "really bad production" or "Bette Midler sucked!"

According to an analysis by Ph.D. Keith Campbell, the Presidential critic displays "a yearning to be taken seriously by Hollywood," while he displays "narcissism, ego, hostility" and "his usual hyperbolic way."

Aw, come on! He's only been trying to make the Oscars great again.
Foretelling? Donald and Melania at the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001.
Contact Liz here.