In All About Eve, the ego-driven world of “the theatre” is put under writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s witty, beautifully balanced microscope and provides a vehicle for the ensemble cast to shine, bicker, deceive, laugh, cry and marry at will.
The storytelling techniques are worthy of an Oscar on their own. Having several of the principals variously provide narration adds a welcome variety of tone and points of view. Letting cinematographer Milton Krasner’s all-seeing lens linger on the faces of the cast—either solo, or memorably in a group during the oh-so-revealing staircase scene—allows these masters of subtle visage to underscore the drama with looks that most certainly could kill.
Alfred Newman’s symphonic score provides the requisite broad scope suitable for Broadway’s larger-than-life atmosphere both on and off the stage. Better still, the discreet employment of well-known favourites (Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3” as piano solo providing a wonderfully sombre backdrop as too many martinis loosen lips—its instrumental encore much later on the radio is a musical payoff that few filmmakers ever utilize, much less pull off so discreetly; “Stormy Weather” is also slipped in just as the verbal fisticuffs seem to be subsiding.
Bette Davis is most certainly at the top of her game playing the crowd favourite Margo Channing, going full circle from jealous diva to—finally—allowing herself the gift of aging gracefully, then discovering there’s much more to life than curtain calls. Self-described in one of her many rants as “a body with a voice,” once she realizes that a body with a heart pays far greater dividends she morphs beautifully into sage star rather than insecure youth hater.
Playing opposite as up-and-comer (at any cost!) Eve Harrington, Anne Baxter also produces an unforgettable performance as, bit by bit, her incredibly conniving nature is unmasked. And none better to put the ambitious actor in his place than theatre critic extraordinaire Addison DeWitt (just ask him: “I am essential to the theatre,” he confides to viewers while introducing the principals and setting up the drama to come). George Sanders is superb in the role despite the fact that he is more up close and personal with the subjects of his columns than any professional reviewer should. (Our usual mantra: be friendly but not friends.) Indeed, that “intimacy” along with always being in the right place at the right time is the script’s only flaw.
Rounding out the players, Celeste Holm is a finely nuanced outsider playing Karen Richardson, while her playwright husband, Lloyd, is given quite a believable turn by Hugh Marlowe. Gary Merrill more than holds his own in his love/hate relationship with Davis, bringing his character—director, Bill Simpson—into the ring of acrimony and love with just the right mix of devotion and despair.
In the early going, Thelma Ritter is a caustic hoot as Birdie, Channing’s right-hand woman (more’s the pity she’s not given an encore after the runtime is about one third over) while Marilyn Munroe positively sizzles in her brief appearance as actress wannabe, Miss Casswell (she doesn’t get cast but has no problem at all securing an audition!).
Of course, this Best Picture (1950) is fiction. Thespians in the 21st century would never stoop so low to get a part that only they (just ask them) can play. JWR