Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: All About Eve (1950)

And we're back with another review for the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the 1950s drama All About Eve, which garnered a staggering 14 Oscar nominations (a record it still co-holds along with Titanic and La La Land) and is widely considered Bette Davis's definitive screen role.  Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, All About Eve is the story of an aging Broadway actress who finds both her personal life and career threatened by an adoring fan.  The titular Eve, a seemingly doe-eyed girl next door charms the actress, Margo, and her inner circle of friends, and swiftly becomes Margo's personal assistant and confidant.  But Eve becomes so good and so thorough at her job she begins to wield power over Margo, who grows to resent her and tries in vain to get her reassigned to the office of her producer.  Eve gets herself hired instead as Margo's understudy, and when Margo's friend Karen causes her to miss a performance, Eve finally gets her shot on stage and is an instant sensation.  Thus begins Eve's Broadway rise and the fading of Margo's star.
All About Eve explores with wit and dexterity the themes of ambition, fame, aging and betrayal, giving us a glimpse into the mindset of the aging diva who can't let go of the younger roles, and the fresh up-and-comer who will do anything to take that spot.  The film marked a poetic turning point for Davis's career, as she found much deeper waters to explore in her middle age.  Margo is cynical and impatient but oddly sympathetic, she adores the business of acting but grows tired of all the nonsense surrounding it.  Davis shared an Oscar nomination here with co-star Anne Baxter, who conveys Eve's seemingly altruistic innocence, even as the ruthless fire in her eyes gives away her fakery.  Eve's devoted fangirl act fools Margo and her friends, but as the audience we pick up pretty quickly that something about her isn't what it seems.  The conflict becomes engrossing as Margo begins to catch on and her resentment boils over.  Further exacerbating the situation is famed theater critic Addison DeWitt (a serpentine George Sanders in a role that earned him the Best Supporting Actor statue), who sees dollar signs in Eve's prodigious stagecraft and becomes determined to personally deliver her as Broadway's new it-girl.

The film's most profound concept seems to involve the star actress as a prisoner of her own fame.  Margo tires of it, and opts not to star in a new play her writer is developing (The writer and Margo have much unresolved angst over her lack of faithfulness to his scripts), while Eve realizes once she takes the gig that Addison can ruin her anytime he wants by exposing who she really is.  The spotlight is a cruel and lonely place, and not everyone is equipped to handle the baggage that comes with it.  All About Eve is a darkly funny, sometimes rather chilling reminder of that fact, boasting big performances, sharply written dialogue, and a refreshingly sparse score whose frequent absence in dramatic scenes lends them an urgency often lacking in films of that era.  This is an easy recommendation.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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