Thursday, June 16, 2016

AFI Top 100: #28 "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter & Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

Sometimes there's nothing better than two bad-ass bitches facing off while decked out in pearls. AFI's #28 film, All About Eve, may be the closest Old Hollywood ever got to a dragged-out library read, all thanks to perennial leading lady and the original movie Queen, Bette Davis. This popular and infamous gem hearkens back to one of my favorite lines from any Hollywood movie: "There's always somebody younger and hungrier coming down the stairs behind you."

Ah yes, thank you, Showgirls, for paying homage to this classic tale of stage ambition. You two are comparable in oh-so-many ways. Not the least of which is a cat-fight for the ages, and subversive backstage manipulations rivaled by none. Needless to say, though, it wasn't Showgirls that was nominated for 14 Oscars—a record that, to this day, has yet to be beat (only met). All About Eve has prevailed as perhaps more iconic and influential than it even deserves. But that's the beauty of cinema: there is no telling what will stay with audiences throughout the years. And Margo Channing certainly stuck.

Fresh off the train from the Mid-West, young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is enamored with the glamour of the Broadway stage—not to mention her growing fascination with its biggest star, the seasoned and temperamental Margo Channing (Davis). When Even is spotted for the umpteenth time outside the stage door for Margo's current production, the actress's close friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) takes Eve under her wing, bringing the girl into their inner circle of friends. Many take pity on Eve, particularly the men, including Karen's husband, playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's boyfriend and frequent director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and eccentric producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), all curiously noting her youth, naivete, and harmless obsession with Margo. Margo, however, begins to notice the girl's curious behavior as she manipulates her way into every crevice of their work—and their lives. Only Margo and her friend, critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), see Eve for what she is: a woman who will stop at nothing to be a success.

This is a delicious soap opera full of ferocious female talent (you'll even notice a young Marilyn Monroe appearing in a suitably cast role). I don't know that there's another way to describe it. The plot lines showcase the subversive nature of show business, particularly highlighting the women who find comfort in defining themselves as divas. Nobody embodies that like Bette Davis, and there is something perverse about watching someone try to knock her down permanently off that high horse. As viewers, we understand that Margo Channing may indeed be a performer in need of a reality check about her own greatness and importance, but that doesn't mean that we we're ready to see her go. That's what director Joseph L. Mankiewicz does so well, balancing our alliances by creating an underdog in Eve, only to reveal her as a frightening, an arch-browed devil.

The film doesn't try to deal an even deck between Margo and Eve—you are simply never on Eve's side, despite seeing the flaws in Margo. It doesn't take long before you realize that you're incapable of giving Eve the benefit of the doubt. Baxter is one committed broad, because this is one tough role to play. Eve is unapologetically destructive. She slithers into Margo's life and infects it like a cancer—benign though she might appear. It never even occurs to most of the Broadway veterans that this nobody farm-girl could be anything other than harmless. That's really why Baxter is so effective in this part, and why the development of her character is so unnerving. And it isn't subtle. At all. She's strange and creepy, hovering around Margo and staring with a glaze in her eyes—this is some serious Single White Female material, and Anne Baxter delivers a hair-raising performance.

Margo Channing and her pals are major #squadgoals. There's a fear that curdles inside you as Eve weaves her way into the hard-set mechanics of this close-knit group of friends and lovers—that somehow, she might indeed tear them all apart. One of my biggest "plot device" pet peeves is when problems between people—in this case, Margo and her friends—could easily be solved if they'd only talk to each other, but they never do, so everything disintegrates into chaos. All About Eve gets dangerously close to suffering from that... but then something magical happens. It doesn't.

The characters aren't as easily manipulated as they might seem, and there is a loyalty that rears up in defense of Margo that brings a glint of hope to your eye and a rally-cry of "Get that bitch!" to your lips. As heightened as the drama feels, it also is unflinchingly relatable. Everyone has had friendships tested by the influence of outside forces, or even new friends. The progression of their dismissals of Even to their united front against her touches on all those desires for personal justice we've ever craved to see.

There is nothing delicate about this film; no clear nuances that need to be rehashed and interpreted. The action plays out in clear black and white, and that is what makes All About Eve so easily (and frequently) emulated. This isn't to say that it's simplistic or juvenile in its execution—not in the least. In fact, Mankiewicz is a true master in his creation of an evergreen story. It's as seedy a tale as you may expect, which for me, keeps it just out of reach of perfection.

The movie is showy and over-dramatized, the characters continuously spouting poetically as if they are in their own little play. The definition of scenery chewing. Such exaggeration surely is magnificent to watch, particularly with a group of catty friends—but the roots of the story, Eve's long-game infiltration and the perpetual back-stabbing, are what make this film truly memorable and deserving of accolades.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #27 on the list, High Noon — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. Oh man. "All About Eve" is one of those movies you think couldn't possibly be as good as all the hype, but then it really, really is. It's been forever since I've seen it; this makes me wanna revisit it, but I'd be sad not to enjoy it with a good, strong Manhattan or something equally as classic. It's too glamorous and dramatic to not get a little boozy during. ;) Maybe when this baby is finally born I'll make a night out of it!


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