Thursday, October 24, 2013

Classics: A Review of All About Eve By Lauren Ennis

Fasten your seatbelts; its going to be a bumpy night

Acidic theater critic Addison Dewitt remarks that Eve Harrington is “the golden girl, the girl next door, the girl on the moon” before going on to tell viewers all about the Broadway starlet. Despite the implications of the film’s title, All About Eve is about far more than the manipulations of an ambitious fan turned stage sensation. Instead, the film is an endlessly witty critique of stardom, artists, and traditional gender roles. Over sixty years later, the film’s insights still resonate and its numerous barbs remain as sharp and quotable as ever, making All About Eve a classic in the truest sense of the word.

The film begins as Eve (Anne Baxter) receives top honors at the Sillerton Awards (a fictional stand in for the Tony Awards) before relating the story of her over-night success through a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks reveal that prior to her stage career, Eve was just another fan waiting for an autograph from previous toast of the town, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). After anxiously approaching Margo’s best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), Eve is brought backstage and introduced to Margo and her circle of theater associates. Eve reluctantly relates her sad story to Margo, explaining that she is a poverty stricken war-widow and that Margo’s performances have been the one outlet keeping her going. Touched by Eve’s seeming modesty and tragic story, Margo takes Eve under her wing, offering Eve a job as her personal assistant and a room in her expansive penthouse. Although she initially appears to be a dedicated friend and humble assistant, Eve quickly sets to work using the connections in Margo’s life to her advantage. Distracted by the problems in her relationship with her boyfriend and director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and the effects of reaching middle age upon her career, Margo fails to recognize Eve’s duplicitous nature. After she successfully schemes to win a part originally written for Margo and attempts to seduce Bill, Margo realizes that Eve is not the innocent ingénue that she appears to be. Despite Margo’s warnings, her friends refuse to see Eve for what she really is, and unwittingly aid her in her quest for success at any cost. Over the course of the film, Eve lies, cheats, and sleeps her way to the height of Broadway success, leaving emotional devastation in her wake.

While the film follows the well-worn path of critiquing the acting profession, it does so by using a refreshingly realistic approach. For instance, while films such as Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane show aging actresses obsessing over their past successes as they descend into madness, All About Eve regards Margo in a lovingly critical manner. Although she does worry about the effects of aging on her looks, she is far more concerned with its weightier implications such as the way in which her age will limit the roles that she can play and alter her relationship with her younger boyfriend. Similarly, her fiery temper and theatrical mannerisms reveal Margo to be a constant showman hiding behind the safety of her larger than life persona, rather than delusional and unable to differentiate between her public persona and her personal self. The film also resists the temptation to utilize over the top plot devices and storylines to make its point, instead using the absurdities of the theater and its inhabitants to their full potential.

While many Hollywood critiques often resort to industry stereotypes, All About Eve presents audiences with a cast of divergent and multifaceted characters. For instance, Bill provides Margo with the emotional and career support that she needs, while still holding her accountable for her mistakes. He is also able to walk the line between good natured and cynical as he sees the world around him for what it is, but still maintains a positive outlook. Margo’s playwright, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and his wife, Karen, possess an equally realistic relationship as they struggle to maintain their marriage amidst the temptations and suspicions of celebrity life.  The only characters that are reduced to types are Eve, whose villainy and ambition know no bounds, and theater critic Addison (George Sanders), whose life seems to hold no purpose other than damaging others’ careers in order to inflate his own ego. Fortunately, the performances of Anne Baxter and George Sanders are nuanced enough to ensure their characters’ believability.
Why do producers always look like sad rabbits?

The film’s critiques of artists and stardom are by turns hilarious and sobering. While Margo and her friends believe themselves to be elevated beyond the reach of the “little people” upon whom their careers depend, it only takes one fan to throw their lives completely out of focus. It is this same lack of awareness that creates many of the film’s misunderstandings and confrontations. For instance, Margo’s fixation on her age leads her to immediately suspect that Bill’s interests in Eve are more than professional, despite evidence to the contrary. Similarly, Lloyd’s need for praise and recognition makes him all too easy prey for manipulative Eve, and nearly costs him his marriage. Sophisticated Addison falls into this same trap when he takes Eve on as his protégée after failing to admit that a ‘mere actress’ could possibly match wits with him. Even Karen, who consistently provides the story with a voice of reason, lets her resentment towards Margo blind her to Eve’s increasingly obvious avarice.

One of the most daring aspects of the film is the way in which it calls traditional gender roles into question. While all of the male characters are interesting and intelligent people, it is the ladies who move the film’s action. The arc of the story is propelled by the juxtaposed ascent of Eve’s career and the corresponding descent of Margo’s career and the changes that both women undergo. The story’s plot relies just as heavily upon its leading ladies; besides Eve’s constant machinations, there is also Karen’s attempts at behind the scenes assistance that  set much of the film’s plot into motion. The film defies the mores of the 1950’s by portraying each of its female characters as independent and successful people, regardless of their looks or marital status. It also calls the double standards of its time into question by showing Margo as an interesting person and talented actress regardless of the fact that she is middle aged and unmarried. At one point, Margo says “Bill is thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago and he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men”. As funny as this line is, it also underscores the basic reality that while women in acting are ‘put out to pasture’ when they reach middle age, the concept of a man’s prime has nothing to do with his age. Margo’s eventual acceptance and embracing of her age shows that women are much more than pretty faces, and as such are just as complex and valuable at forty as they are at twenty (if not more so). Thus, the film’s original 1950 poster is entirely accurate; All About Eve is "all about women...and their men".

With its combination of scathing satire, razor sharp dialogue, and compelling drama, All About Eve is a film that grows more fascinating with each viewing. Through its criticism of celebrity, the story’s plot may be even more relevant in today’s celebrity obsessed culture than it was upon its initial release. The film’s top tier performances include personal bests for Bette Davis and George Sanders and a star making bit part turn by a then unknown Marilyn Monroe; all in parts in which art eerily imitates life. So fasten your seatbelts, and settle in for one hilariously bumpy ride courtesy of Margo, Eve, and the witty world of theater that they inhabit.
You can always put that award where your heart ought to be

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