For a movie regarded as the best ever made about the theater, the
surprise is how little of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 classic All About Eve
takes place onstage. It's always hard for movies to convey the greatness of
stage performers, because the intimacy of film clashes with the larger
scale of theatrical acting. Mankiewicz spared us what usually passes for
great theater in the movies--garish overwriting, hammy acting, absurdly
elaborate sets--and shrewdly placed the action backstage. To compensate, he
made his frame a proscenium arch and allowed his characters to perform
constantly--in duets, in quartets, even in the full ensemble.
But All About Eve isn't just a great movie about the theater,
it's a great movie about talent. Talent has nothing to do with being
a nice person; if it did, Celeste Holm's long-suffering wife would be
center stage, not catty Margo Channing. It used to be, in old musicals, the
snooty star would break her foot, and the sweet, plucky understudy would be
vaulted to stardom. Mankiewicz's tale is a variation on that chestnut--in
this case the ingenue, Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington, is a snake, and she
still gets pretty much what she wants.
The reason? She may not be good, but she's good at what she does.
Ability beats virtue any day. Which is why Mankiewicz can't bring himself
to punish Bette Davis' glorious Margo for her ego, her temper, and her
insecurity. As George Sanders' deliciously wicked theater critic Addison
DeWitt tells her, "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're
Even if you've seen All About Eve a dozen times, there's always
something new to catch in Mankiewicz's sumptuous, spiked plum pudding of a
script--the knowing banter between Margo and her director boyfriend Bill
(Gary Merrill), the way Margo smirks at hateful Addison before chomping
down hard on a stalk of celery. Every character has been blessed
with a viper's tongue, down to Margo's skeptical maid (the perpetually
underrated Thelma Ritter), and it's a pleasure to hear them bicker: No
other movie makes being smart and cynical look like more fun.
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