Monday, October 17, 2016
For me, All About Eve was always a “Good for You” movie – critically, academically significant, haloed in that film-worshipping ether and untouchable to anyone who darest say ay nay about its indisputable merits. Sort of like Shakespeare. For that reason, I generally avoided the film until I saw it for a class at NYU, at which point I genuflected, purely out of obligation to my cred, but could hardly say I enjoyed it. I went back to my dorm room, watched Blue Velvet again on my VCR, and said to myself, “Now there’s a real movie.”
Of course, that was nearly 30 years ago, and I like to think I’ve matured since then. In fact, I know I’ve matured since then, and my proof is the fact that I now see how wrong I was about Eve – it’s a deserved classic – not a shiny icon on the mantle but a wonderfully entertaining, vibrant work of cinematic drama that not only contains stellar performances by its six lead actors but also a top-notch screenplay, a work that deserves to be considered as great literature. If at times it creaks a bit, reminding us of its early-50s time period, so be it – a film need not be saturated in postmodern irony or post-Brndo acting styles for it to matter. All the themes in Eve are timeless, and its characters grapple with same kinds of frailties and insecurities as we do.
As we begin, Eve Harrington has just accepted a major theatrical award, and we get a series of voice overs, by the other main characters, flashing us back and explaining what brought us here. Eve was a shy, adoring fan of the legendary Margot Channing (Bette Davis)m but she gets a chance to meet her idol through Karen, wife of the show’s playwright, Lloyd Richards. Eve proceeds to wait on Margot hand and foot, gushing over her with praise and curiousity over her path to success. We learn a bit about Eve too: she had come to New York after a tedious life, working at a brewery, and the recent tragedy of her husband’s death in the war.
But slowly, gradually, Eve edges in on Margot’s turf. The girl seems to more than a little flirtatious with Margot’s fiancé, film and theater director Bill Sampson, and she also steals the ear of influential critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who helps her land rave reviews and facilitate her ascension up the theater world ladder. After becoming Margot’s understudy, even Karen can’t help but be starstruck by the rising star – while on vacation with Margot and Bill she siphon’s out the gas tank, leaving them stranded so Eve can take over the show (a move she instantly regrets). But Lloyd has no regrets about allowing Eve to star in his new show; for him, it’s a feeling of liberation to have a role realized on stage exactly as he wrote it.
But Eve is perhaps the unspoiled flower she had heretofore passed herself off as. Contrite and earnest in public, behind closed doors she is Machievellian, tricking Lyold to coming over at 3 in the morning, and blackmailing Karen into giving her Margot’s big role. Only Addison is onto her, fully aware of her deceptions and invented histories (she had actually been given 500 dollars to leave her hometown). We come back to the present now, with Eve thanking her small circle of friends, all cleary guilt-wracked over their role in helping her. An Addison is still pulling he strings, upset that she’ll miss the after-party but encouraged by the prospect of future roles, further manipulations. When Eve repairs to her apartment she gets a visit from a stranger, Phoebe, who turns out to be just as fawning as she had been with Margot at the beginning of our tale. Eve, meet the new Eve; what comes around, goes around.
This film is so complex, so multifaced, so thematically profound that I’ll just stick to my salient observations, lest we be here all day. The thing I’ll always remember about Eve is how teasing it is – Eve starts out as so pure so fresh, so innocent, that her turn toward the dark side is a complete surprise. So gradual is the revelation that you keep thinking it’s not really happening – she’s still good, isn’t she? But alas, she isn’t; the beauty of the brilliant screenplay is that we’re fooled by her ruse just as much as the other characters. When they squirm out of stupefied guilt at the end during her acceptance speech, so do we.
And that’s the other brilliant element of the film: the conscious role the lead characters play as Eve’s accessories. She, as the grand, subtle manipulator, could almost qualify as the greatest movie villain ever for the way she tricks everybody into helping her. And their complicity gives the film an existentialist subtext – where is the right, where is the wrong when you, yourself think it is right? Even Eve herself, in the film’s coda, is a victim of her own machinations, and so ultimately the film’s truism becomes that greed and deceit are corruptive, ultimately omni-destructive traits, best left to be untouched, untampered with.
And I’ll focus my review of the writing by praising the speeches – oh, those wonderful speeches – starting with Bill’s (Gary Merrill’s) glorious ode to he theater existing anywhere and everywhere, to Davis’s classic bad-party forewarning (“Fasten your seat belts…), to Sander’s’ stinging rebuke to a house-of-cards-toppled Eve. Joe Mankiewicz’s pen must’ve been on a fever pitch scrawling this stuff – it’s the twentieth century’s version of Shakespeare, tragic-hero fall and everything. Only this time, the villain is not at all whom we think it is.
‘Nuff analyzing, eh? Go out and rent this masterpiece. Or better yet, buy the Fox collection I’m blogging about. You’ll have your faith in the beauty, the wonder, the majesty of film reaffirmed in no time at all. Well, at leat the time it takes to watch all these gems.