All About Eve

Year: 1950
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
Producer: Darryl F Zanuck
Writer: Joseph Mankiewicz
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Marilyn Monroe

Aside from all the other qualities in All About Eve, it makes you realise that in the olden days, moviemaking was still a very close relation to theatre. It might be that writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz intended the movie to be so theatrical because it's about theatre actors, but just look at the exterior scene where Eve (Anne Baxter) and her theatre critic patron Addison (George Sanders) are walking down a street.

They're actually on a treadmill in a studio, sharply lit and in focus, while a rear-projected film on a backdrop behind them depicts a busy street full of bustling people, out of focus and with deep contrast. In an age where even walking outdoors was a special effects shot, there were only two art forms a movie had at its disposal – writing and performance.

That was old Hollywood, and even though by 1950 the industry had been around long enough to mint genuine silver screen stars rather than just actors who crossed over, theatre's styles and approaches were still very entrenched in films.

It's a very different industry today where story and character are amongst the least important elements in most movies, making us pleasantly surprised when we see a movie that has them (even when they're supposed to be what the art form is about).

Bad films that are more than a couple of decades old are simply forgotten, giving us the illusion that old movies were all great because they got character and story right, but while I'm sure there were turkeys that made a hash of it all in the same era, All About Eve isn't one of them. It's the perfect storm of an interesting tale well told with a sharp script and a collection of good actors perfect for their roles.

It's also a very gutsy role for Bette Davis, playing an actress who's just turned 40 in a profession where youth is currency, similar to what she must have been facing at the time in her own life.

She plays star of the New York stage Margo Channing, one of the most fully formed and human characters in the history of storytelling, let alone just films. She's a firecracker wit, a ball of neuroses, sharp tongued and bitchy but who loves her friends and her job, all them coming together in a roiling mass of pure humanity rather than just one-note cyphers we normally see in fictional characters.

Her younger boyfriend Bill (Gary Merill) is a director and puts up with her moods and foibles just as much as he loves her. Her best friend Karen (Celeste Holm) is married to the playwright behind most of her work, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and the four of them have an unshakable and lively bond.

But one night Karen notices the winsome young woman who's seen every performance of Margo's current play and hangs around outside the theatre afterwards, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star. She talks to the young woman, Eve (Anne Baxter), invites her in to meet Margo, and the besotted Eve can only marvel at the whirlwind of personalities and banter in the dressing room as the four friends get together, starstruck nearly to the point of silence.

Gradually Eve's friendship with Margo's inner circle develops and she ends up working for the actress, ingratiating herself into every facet of life and work and seeming to love every minute being around her favourite theatre star.

But the more indispensable Eve becomes in Margo's life, the more distrustful of the younger woman Margo becomes, especially when she sees her talking to Bill or trying on the costume for her play. When she tries to palm Eve off to work for the producer behind the production, Eve instead manages to secure the position of Margo's understudy, making Margo even more uneasy.

The gale force of Margo's fury leaves devastation in its wake (the 'fasten your setbelt, it's gong to be a bumpy night' party scene is a deserved classic), and we're still not sure of Eve's real intentions. But theatre critic Addison DeWitt takes her under his wing, intending to shepherd her to stardom after seeing her perform but who might have a hidden agenda of his own – this is a world where everyone has an angle.

If you want to get philosophical it's a very insightful look at aging and what it means for women in general, not just the youth-obsessed performing arts, about Hollywood and its constant obsession with the next big thing, and so much more.

In fact here's something you might not realise until it's pointed out to you (and I'm not the first viewer to notice). With it's red-in-tooth-and-claw premise of the younger, hotter woman coming up to knock the established star off her precarious perch because of her fading vitality, I wonder how much Paul Verhoeven and Joe Esterhas were thinking of it when they made Showgirls.

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