Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tales Of Broadway Intrigue: All About Eve Illustrates The Foibles Of 1940s Theater.

The Good: Moments of performance, Moments of character, Some great lines, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Melodramatic moments, Story drags at times
The Basics: While All About Eve was initially engaging, it soon became a very typical melodrama, much like those I avoid at the supermarket check-out lines.

I'm not into tabloids. I do not, for example, pay attention to the gossip magazines and the lives of celebrities rarely interest me. Instead, I tend to treat celebrities the way I treat anyone else I meet, though usually when I meet actors from television shows or directors of my favorite movies, I at least have a natural way to begin conversations. I do not mention this at the outset of my review of All About Eve because it contains such celebrities from the 1950s as Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe (which it does) but because the film revolves around personalities in the theater presented with a melodramatic sense of self-importance as tabloid personalities. Given that I do not care so much about celebrities being celebrities, it was quite difficult for me to get into All About Eve.

The winner of the 1950 Best Picture, All About Eve is a biography of actress Eve Harrington and her rise to fame in the stage. But while most consider it one of the best films of all time, it is like a stage play on screen and it uses the cinematic medium in an utterly mediocre way. As well, much of the story is simply told as opposed to shown. Moreover, the story is told with a jumbled narrative technique; while the bulk of the film is told in flashback, the voice-overs that define the flashbacks come from two characters, not one. That makes for a questionable overall story with no clear narrator, because neither Karen Richards nor Addison DeWitt are in every scene. That makes it harder to swallow for those who are detail-oriented.

During an award show, various celebrities reflect upon the guest of honor, Eve Harrington. Through flashbacks, Eve Harrington meets the famous actress Margo Channing on Broadway, introduced by Mrs. Richards, the wife of a playwright. She begins to tell Mrs. Channing of her love of acting as a child and how she became enamored with the theater. Eve then becomes Margo's errand girl and companion, which does not sit so well with her paid assistant. As Margo finds herself over-the-hill playing a twenty-four year old character, Karen maneuvers Eve into the role of Margo's understudy and then creates the circumstances by which Eve gets her big break.

Thus, Eve Harrington ascends as Margo's star fades, remaining humble, though she finds a willing accomplice in Lloyd Richards to advance her career. Karen finds herself in the awkward place of betraying her best friend (Margo) and aiding Eve. As people like critic Addison DeWitt take a shine to Eve's acting, Eve finds herself making enemies inadvertently of her friends and rising faster in the theater. As circumstance and conspiracies interact, events lead up to the award dinner.

All About Eve is plagued by a theatrical sense of melodrama. The movie is largely about small events being blown out of proportion. It is about society folks conniving and conspiring and when Eve has her big break, DeWitt's column helps make her a star. In the process, Margo is criticized and while Karen rallies to her, her own part as an accomplice to the events which allowed Eve to have her break become used as leverage. This is a lot of melodrama and steam without any real importance backing it up. These are the lives of elite theater celebrities, not dictators, politicians or business magnates. My point here is that the lives of celebrities making art are not ultimately consequential outside the art or in this case, the theater. So, when theater stars manipulate directors, writers and critics, the consequences are not the same as when, for example, a president manipulates Congress. All About Eve is about frivolous people acting with frivolity.

This makes it less interesting for those who do not like grocery store tabloids. I found myself frequently bored by the film because the characters did not pop. Eve may begin as naive, but she soon becomes a viper and while DeWitt is spoken of as a master manipulator, she illustrates those qualities quite a bit more frequently. And when Eve makes her play for Lloyd, she loses any sense of character that is unique or pleasant. For all the supposed purity of the 1950s, All About Eve illustrates a very different sense of cultural values than the text books teach us.

As far as acting, All About Eve is plagued by melodrama. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter have over-the-top deliveries that make them seem not like starlets, but the worst types of drama queens. The whole movie has a soap opera quality to it because Davis and Baxter cry, yell and beat their chests in ways that make one wonder if they are attempting to be a parody of the type of character they are playing. Outside a troubling penchant for melodrama and 1950s gender roles (like DeWitt slapping Eve to get her attention) the acting in All About Eve often seems like a joke wherein all performers and theater technicians are subtly mocked.

Similarly, the casting is inspired for those looking back. Marilyn Monroe has a cameo as a ditzy blonde and Bette Davis is cast as an aging starlet over the peak of her career. The men, most notably Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlow (director Bill Sampson, Margo's beau and Lloyd, respectively) are manly men, archetypes of unflinching strength. The performances are more monolithic and there is a strange, bland quality to them.

So, for example, while George Sanders won Best Actor for his role of Addison DeWitt, his performance and character were virtually identical to that of his role in Rebecca (reviewed here!). Given that I have only seen George Sanders in the two films, that his performance - almost unvarying from the other one - in this was considered noteworthy is disappointing. Sanders's role is far more the function of inspired casting as opposed to great acting. Writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz uses Sanders well, but not with a sense of originality.

On DVD, All About Eve comes with a lavish two-disc presentation. The film quality is quite good and the film has clearly been cleaned up for the DVD presentation. On the main disc, there are two separate commentary tracks that allow viewers to learn more about the production and reaction to the film. As well, viewers may play the score to the film without the dialogue track. The second disc is packed with featurettes on Mankiewicz's works, the story upon which All About Eve was actually based, and the original theatrical trailer. As well, the Academy decently provided the coverage All About Eve received at the award's ceremony in 1950. In all, it is a pretty remarkable restoration and presentation of the film and those who enjoy the source material will undoubtedly love the bonus features.

However, as one with little interest in gossip magazines or celebrity infighting, All About Eve is an overblown biography of manipulators and witless accomplices told with little regard to universal emotions or circumstances. This makes it far easier to pass by than I would have initially suspected.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available here! Please check it out!]

For other works pertaining to the behind-the-scenes happenings of performers, please check out my reviews of:
The Runaways
Gods And Monsters
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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