It’s difficult to transport readers into the moment when All About Eve was a raging Hollywood success, garnering 14 Academy Award nominations and six wins. It’s difficult to explain how Marilyn Monroe was a relative unknown who was already stealing her scenes with a few well-cast asides. It’s even harder to explain to audiences who have forgotten the great Bette Davis and that her name was actually pronounced Bett-ee, although Bette Midler is named after her. All About Eve is all of these forgotten calculations, combined with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever, and dialogue fit to tie Aaron Sorkin. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy review!
At the center of All About Eve we have Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. Eve is poised on the brink of success. In the opening scene, we meet her just as she wins an award, gaining her entrance into theatrical society. Eve is not the only person we run into. We encounter Addison Dewitt, the sly and snarky reporter played by George Sanders, and we begin to see Eve through his eyes and through what has been caught on film. To the camera, the newly successful Ms. Harrington is fresh-faced and flushing with gratitude, glad to be accepted in an audience of her peers.
It’s just another old camera trick. According to Mr. Dewitt, Eve’s antics are a complete façade, and while we might want to disagree with the grumpy, middle-aged codger, a cut-to shot of a group of women and men who befriended her before being used by her stare ahead in disinterested disdain. Suddenly, the truth in Mr. Dewitt’s words are highlighted, but we find ourselves missing the story, and wanting more.
Enter Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, who is a middle-aged actress just recently beginning to falter from the top of her game. Margo is nearly 40, and knows it. She’s always been the muse of a well-thought-of playwright named Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), but that could change. Channing does have a cushion -- Richards is married to Channing’s best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm). Complicating these finicky matters is Margo’s complex relationship with 32-year-old Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and the impromptu appearance of Ms. Harrington in all of their lives. It becomes apparent rather quickly that Eve Harrington is a horrid weasel of a woman, but maybe that’s just because my bullshit detector is set on high.
Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), also has a sensitive bullshit detector, because she dislikes Eve immediately. I bring her up not for her B.S.-sniffing skills, but for her comedic timing. Unfortunately, no one else is on board with Birdie, and so it takes several despicable machinations from Eve before the group of friends truly catch wind of her desperate behavior. We see her try to cheat on husbands, we see her scheme for roles, we see her lie, blackmail, and falsely accuse. If it sounds intriguing, it is, and even more so because so many voices have their moments.
All About Eve is a long film, but as slow as the pacing goes, the dialogue is quick and requires careful attention. Even today, this dialogue will be hard for many to follow, especially among those who are interested in quick punch lines and superficial ideas flung across screens between action shots. Even if we are used to Sorkin-style dialogue and a rampant exchange of heavier ideas, nothing compares with the archaic cadence of language in films as old as All About Eve. Sometimes, conversations are hard to hear, in the same way as when a person encounters a new language for the first time. If you can get beyond the weird wording and spend a minute in the dialogue, you’ll find an ensemble film based around many character studies. Throughout the narrative, you hear from many of the main characters, who give impressions of various situations in their own unique fashions. Oft compared to Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve is not a sweeping narrative ripe with images, it is one of many words.
All About Eve is a film where men play second fiddle, and are less complicated because of it. Neither Bill nor Lloyd are given complex feelings or motivations, and because of this, both men's decision-making processes could be followed by a complete dolt. Even Addison Dewitt, who is supposedly both evil and smarmy, never ends up coming across as more than a slight cocksucker, because he has only one motivation: to herald truth, if only to his own ends. It’s true that some of the women in the film, like Karen, Birdie, and Miss Casswell (Monroe), are characters like their men, but it is Margo Channing and Eve Harrington who are fleshed out into intricate webs.
There’s an exercise that kids will sometimes do at meet and greets. They’ll get in a circle and one kid will hold the end of a ball of yarn and toss it to another child. The child who catches the yarn will toss it to yet another child, and so on and so forth until eventually there is a web of yarn leading back to the child who both holds the beginning and the end. Then, the kids try to untangle themselves. If they succeed, they will end in a unified circle. This is what All About Eve does to Ms. Channing and Ms. Harrington. It builds them up, faults and all, together, and then entangles them until they are practically choking on their own bullshit. If Margo and Eve were younger, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz might let them try to untangle. But he doesn’t bother, he just lets go of the strings.
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has given us the gift of All About Eve in a beautiful Blu-Ray format, complete with a movie that looks gloriously brand new, or at least very well revitalized. Packagers went to great lengths to create a look that was reminiscent of the past but still had a new feel. One of the most interesting features is a 24-page booklet chock full of facts, information, and pictures. This booklet totally would have been the highlight of special features 20 years ago, and I’d guess older audiences would eat this shit up. If only the print weren’t too small to read.
The commentary is not great, just because it’s mostly hearsay, with random ideas from Celeste Holm -- the last living actress from the film -- interspersed. The people doing the commentary are on the outside of the film, because nearly everyone involved with All About Eve is now dead. So, there is commentary from writer Sam Staggs, who is known for writing on Sunset Boulevard, from Joseph Mankiewicz’s son, and from Ken Geist, who wrote a biography on Mankiewicz.
Other extras are jam-packed with information. There are two featurettes on Mankiewicz and his directorial efforts, there is AMC backstory on All About Eve, and a segment called “The Real Eve” that discusses some real-life people Baxter and Davis based their characters on. At one point, Mary Orr, the woman who wrote the story All About Eve is based on, gets into an extended catfight with Martina Lawrence, who supposedly is the woman Eve was based on. Next, there is a piece called “The Secret of Sarah Siddons” that tells the story of the real Sarah Siddons and her importance to the British Theater. There’s a lot of historical information fielded in quick cut-to interview shots, and it brings some nice closure to many of the ideas in the film. I would, however, suggest a serious interest to get through them.
The final features include a theatrical trailer, some Fox Movietone news segments from various awards events in 1951, and a couple of vintage promotional segments. The latter special features are nice for the sheer fact the footage has been kept in good shape for so long. Ultimately, for most of us, there’s no nostalgia involved, so they are worth a glance and not much more. Fox really gave as much as they could give. Unfortunately, it just comes too late to be truly enthralling.