Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 09 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a successful stage actress concerned about her advancing age. Preying on these insecurities is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a seemingly devoted fan who secretly longs to take Margo’s place on the stage and in her bed with Margo’s boyfriend and director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). Unaware of the depth of Eve’s deviousness and the extent of her machinations, theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Karen (Celeste Holm) unwittingly assist in Margo’s demise. Eventually, everyone opens their eyes to Eve’s treachery and exacts a slow and emotionally painful, though ultimately ineffectual, settling of scores. Eve’s eventual comeuppance is suggested in the film’s chilling final shot.
All About Eve is one of my favorite movies. Of all the movies whose lines I’ve memorized and can parrot back at the screen as I watch, Eve comes second only to Auntie (“Ruining my beautiful play with your lousy Swiss bell-ringing act!”) Mame. The film has a long and convoluted history, recounted marvelously in Sam Staggs’ book, “All About ‘All About Eve.’” Fox should issue a paperback copy of the book with every DVD of the film. Staggs also appears on one of the commentary tracks of Fox’s new Studio Classics DVD and his contribution is informative, endlessly entertaining, and full of juicy gossip.
Even though Claudette Colbert was originally cast in the role of Margo Channing (she dropped out due to a back injury), I can’t imagine anyone else but Bette Davis playing this role. I have, however, daydreamed about a version directed by Russ Meyer starring Susan Hayward as Margo and Jayne Mansfield as Eve. I suppose we’re lucky (so far) that Hollywood has not decided to remake this classic, although Showgirls is sort of the same movie only with more tits and told from the perspective of the usurper. Anyhow, the film could probably never be remade faithfully because nobody cares about the Theatre-with-a-capital-T anymore. It would have to be about the movie biz and it would have to star someone like Elizabeth Shue or Gwyneth Paltrow as Eve and it’s all just too depressing to think about. I’m available for the role of Addison DeWitt, though, in case anyone who’s anyone is reading this.
The director of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, excelled in many fields. In addition to being the only person in the history of motion pictures to win back to back writing and directing Oscars (John Ford is the only other director to win two directing Oscars in a row), he was also a superb producer, responsible for such MGM pictures as Woman of the Year, The Philadelphia Story, and Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades. Still, there is a vocal contingent that believes that Joseph L. Mankiewicz, despite all of his achievements, stands in the shadow of his older brother, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who collaborated with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. Kenneth Geist, the author of a thoroughly trashy yet authorized biography on Joseph L. Mankiewicz, seems to believe that the writer/director’s entire career was motivated by jealousy over his older brother’s achievements, particularly his possession of the Oscar for screenwriting (despite the fact that Joseph received his first Oscar nomination at the age of 22 and more than ten years before Herman received his Oscar). Geist also appears on another of the DVD’s commentary tracks and his comments, like his book, are largely petty, vindictive, shallow, embarrassing, and full of psychoanalytical claptrap. The self-serving bleatings of Geist are only interrupted by the talk therapy confessions of Mankiewicz’s son, Christopher, who at times seems to be trying to one-up Christina Crawford in the battle for worst showbiz childhood. Regardless of the personal or professional shortcomings of its writer and director, despite the similar narrative structure of All About Eve and Citizen Kane, and despite the fact that Mankiewicz wrote and directed a couple of major clunkers, you’ll never convince me that Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a lesser talent than his brother, whose only major accomplishment apart from Citizen Kane is the screenplay for The Pride of the Yankees.
Despite my serious summary that opens this review, the film is a satire — indeed, a very dark and cynical satire. The script is arguably the best-written script ever to come out of the classical Hollywood system, but some people have a problem with the brittle dialogue and arch tone. The film has been called superficial on more than one account, I suppose due to the artificiality and theatricality of the dialogue and the subject matter. There are two problems with this criticism. The first is that the film works as satire precisely because of the artificiality of the dialogue. The characters in the film, especially Margo and Eve, are not living their lives, they are performing them. Margo, for example, expects applause with every emotional diatribe against Eve. With each time she doesn’t get it, the hollowness of her life becomes more apparent to her. Eve, on the other hand, expects to be handed the world every day the way she was on her opening night. When she doesn’t get it, she schemes and manipulates, eventually alienating anyone who ever cared about her. The second problem with calling the film superficial is the underlying sexism of that statement. In spite of the employ of melodramatic tropes such as shifting alliances and power-play seductions, the heart of the film is a woman’s fear of aging. This subject is rarely addressed in any serious fashion in mainstream films or, perhaps, films of any sort, even fifty-plus years later. The film may not come to any profound truths about aging (it’s not an Ozu film after all), but it definitely finds the truth of its characters and exposes their fear and insecurities for themselves and the entire world to see. Margo Channing was a brave role for Bette Davis to play, and the power of her performance and the themes of the film are undiminished today.