Joseph L. Mankiewicz introduced Margo Channing and her catty cohorts to the general public on October 13, 1950. As befitting a movie about the theater, All About Eve premiered in New York City, its first stop en route to the hearts of Oscar voters, cineastes and drag queens. Some 30 years later, in the shadow of its premiere city, a young nappy headed boy turned on his TV and fell in love with a severely edited version of 1950’s Best Picture winner. But more about him later, all about him, in fact. For now, let’s talk about All About Eve and how such a classic, both of the actual and camp varieties, could beget a terrifying musical and an even scarier bout of dolphin sex.
Heaven Help Me, I Love a Psychotic
Had it not been for Claudette Colbert’s desire for realism, something else would be my favorite movie of all time. It’s not that Colbert would have been bad—I love her and Mankiewicz said she would have been a “piss-elegant drunk.” It’s just that she has different baggage than Bette Davis, and her Margo would have been less of a pain in the ass. Even worse, impersonators would be doing Rosa Moline, Bette Davis’ character in Beyond the Forest, rather than Margo Channing. Davis had just been voted the worst actress of the year by the San Francisco Film Critics for her Forest Grump, a role so bad only crazy-ass Martha from that Albee play could appreciate it. She was on the set of another bad movie, Payment on Demand, when she received the original Colbert Report from Darryl Zanuck.
My mother once told me that when birds crapped on me, it meant I would have good luck. Bette Davis must have felt like an army of pigeons shat on her when she received word that the original Channing choice had broken her back during the filming of a rape scene in Three Came Home. In traction and out of action, Colbert had to surrender the role despite Mankiewicz waiting as long as he could for her. Davis read the script and realized this was the jolt her career needed. Mankiewicz cast her, despite several warnings from other directors that Davis would kill him. Voila! The queens get to do Margo, I get to swoon giddily over a movie, and the United States Post Office gets to neuter Margo Channing on a postage stamp. Postmaster Will Hays, of Hays Code fame, would have been happy to see his former employer get into the censoring business by airbrushing out Davis’ cigarette. It made her look as if she were throwing gang signs, and Margo Channing without a cigarette is like Claudette Colbert hitchhiking in overalls.
Adam Ant Was Wrong
All About Eve’s story is not a new one—it’s as old as drama itself. Underling wants boss’ job, but in order to get it, the boss must be unseated. Writer Mary Orr was inspired to write “The Wisdom of Eve” after hearing her actress friend Elizabeth Bergner go on and on about “that terrible girl,” an understudy who tried to run off with her career. As with most aspects of the theater, the role of understudy has an aura of sadism. It is a profession pregnant with vengeful situation. After all, your job is to support your competition, but your success depends on your competition’s failure. What people tend to forget on their way to the top the ladder is that there’s always somebody behind you, ready to push your ass off once you get there. Adam Ant was wrong: There is NEVER room at the top.
Eve, both Mary Orr’s and Joe Mankiewicz’s versions, makes the audience root for the lead, not her replacement. We wanted Ruby Keeler to get her big break in 42nd Street, and we’re able to accept that it comes at the expense of the lead actress’ literal big break (or big sprain, to be accurate). Eve pulls the romantic notion off that, turning the understudy into one who is willing to play an active, scheming role in her ascent. Would 1930s audiences cheer for Ruby Keeler had she pushed the lead down the stairs to get the part? It is doubtful they’d have responded to a more realistic portrayal of behind the scenes shenanigans. Showgirls, which is All About Eve for Dummies, would not have played well in 1935. For starters, it would have killed Will Hays.
The Piano Has Written the Concerto
Mankiewicz is on record stating that writing for men is easy: They always did what you expected them to do. In reference to two of Eve’s male characters, Mankiewicz scripts the line “they’ll do as they’re told.” Women, on the other hand, are unpredictable and therefore fascinated the writer in Joe Mankiewicz. They also fascinated the ho in Joe Mankiewicz, as his numerous Hollywood conquests included Judy Garland and Joan Crawford. Such constant female interaction, both personally and professionally, is reflected in the confident way he wrote for women. George Cukor may have been “a woman’s director,” but Mankiewicz was a woman’s writer and, by the time All About Eve went into production, he had the Oscar to prove it. 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives cemented Mank’s reputation for putting (ahem) words into women’s mouths and making them sing with conviction. Wives had some great lines and awesome narration by an unseen Celeste Holm at her bitchiest, but dragged to its conclusion; I don’t even remember whose husband ran off with Addie Ross, though I do remember the jackass comes back.
Four of the five main female characters in All About Eve are actresses, former (Birdie), present (Margo and Eve) and potentially future (poor Miss Caswell). While Mankiewicz understands them, writes credibly for them, and gives them the star moments and the best lines, I sense he doesn’t identify with them. Nor does he try to, opting instead to let his actresses bring the required emotion to his dialogue. His direction leaves the audience to connect with Margo’s insecurities, Karen’s “happy little housewife” and Eve’s ambition, letting the actresses bring the emotional weight to his words. The piano may not have written the concerto, but you’d never know it didn’t. Many have commented that Mankiewicz had even less of a directing style than Peter Hyams, but I think his style was just standing back and letting the actors tell his story without him getting in the way. This works for comedies and dramas like Eve and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; for Guys and Dolls and Cleopatra, not so much.
The three main male characters in All About Eve are a writer, a director and a critic, three sides to Mankiewicz with whom he more readily identifies; his philosophies are channeled through them. That they are different stereotypes of men is interesting commentary on male personality: Lloyd Richards is henpecked, Bill Sampson is overly macho and a match for his super-diva better half, and Addison DeWitt is, to quote Eve’s lead actress’ assessment of the actor who played him, a bitch. The writer and director get to gloriously speechify; the critic shares a venomous penchant for one-liners with the aging super-diva. That last characteristic is testament to how well All About Eve’s screenplay is constructed. It’s a never-ending series of connections, of set-ups and payoffs, of obvious and subtle links between characters. Even its coda, which works for me though I understand the criticisms toward it, has both a visual and a dialogue reference two hours before it arrives.
Oh Shit, Good Manners
All the great gossip on Eve has been told—and better than I could tell it—by Sam Staggs in his book All About All About Eve. The cover tells us Eve is “the bitchiest movie ever made,” and the backstage antics make the bitchiness bleed right into the celluloid. Among other things, Staggs conducts an interview with Celeste Holm that sounds like those inserts by the real Rick James in Dave Chappelle’s infamous sketch. She contradicts herself by saying the set was both bitchy and not bitchy. The one constant in both sides of her tale is that she hated Bette Davis after Davis responded to her “Good morning” with “Oh Shit, Good Manners.” It’s a testament to her acting that she pulls off the role of Margo’s best friend, but she’s especially good at portraying exasperation over Margo’s antics. I have now exceeded this piece’s gossip quotient, so there will be no tales of Tallulah Bankhead’s feud with Davis over ownership of Margo Channing (“NO thank you, Miss Bankhead, sir.”), no Zsa Zsa Gabor jealousy over George Sanders’ lunches with Marilyn Monroe, no lurid tales of Bette Davis acting like a horny cougar over Gary Merrill, and no comments about how Davis found out about George Sanders’ bisexuality from Henry Fonda (how did HE know?!!). You’ll just have to read Staggs’ book for all that.
Andy Williams IS Margo Channing
Lauren Bacall was way too young for Margo Channing in 1950, but in 1970 she brought All About Eve to a logical place: The thea-tuh. Applause had a score by Charles Strouse and book by Broadway legends Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It also had Bacall singing and dancing and reciting some fairly terrible dialogue. On opening night, the theater critics were as spellbound as Addison DeWitt watching Eve audition with Miss Caswell. The New York Times raved “Bacall takes your breath away!” The Gray Lady was right: Bacall’s singing and dancing were fatal. Bacall is Margo Channing the way I am Carol Channing.
Bette Davis lost the Oscar, but Bacall won not only the Tony but the prize All About Eve created, the Sarah Siddons Award. The 1973 TV production of Applause, where Sweeney Todd himself was replaced by J.R. Ewing, is not on video or DVD—it’s the Star Wars Christmas Special of missing musicals remade for TV—but thank God for YouTube. You can watch the entire thing there, or if you want to see Bacall do even fewer favors for both musical and gay depictions on film, watch her get her ass whipped with a riding crop in 1981’s The Fan.
You’re Margo, Just Margo.
For all her sniping, Davis brings a credible vulnerability to Margo Channing. We understand why she’s lashing out, and her fear of forty is something I can certainly identify with; when I turned forty a few months ago, I had my own drunken, seatbelt-fastening bumpy night in Scotland.
Davis makes Margo Channing real. When Anne Baxter first comes to visit her, Davis does her scene with a face full of cold cream and a taped up head. When Bill awakens her with a phone call on his 32nd birthday, Davis looks as if she just rolled out of bed—hardly a glamorous look for a diva. During her famous party, it is obvious that the dress Margo is wearing is perhaps a bit out of her age class (though Davis rocks it), an attempt to mask the worries about her aging with more skin than someone her age might wish to show. And she is completely convincing in her controversial (at least for some feminists) speech where she decides to be the happy little housewife cliché she earlier used to mock playwright wife Karen Richards. It’s a shame we never get to see her act in any of Lloyd Richards’ plays, though from the looks of it, with the plots similar to earlier works by Davis, we already have seen her in them.
You’re too short for that gesture.
We also never get to see Eve act in Lloyd’s plays, which may be for the best for some people. It is here I must now introduce the Addison DeWitt to my Miss Caswell, Matt Seitz. Matt and I went to see a fresh print of All About Eve at the Walter Reade a few weeks ago, but more on that later. In his Salon piece on “Trashing Great Movies,” Matt writes about Eve’s portrayer:
“Baxter always seems to be reciting lines. And she can come up with only one way to fake sincerity—by delivering poignant anecdotes in a breathy voice while staring mournfully into the distance. I don’t believe that Baxter’s version of the dewy-eyed foundling routine could fool so many battle-scarred showbiz veterans, except maybe Celeste Holm’s kindhearted Karen.”
I agree that Baxter seems to be reciting lines to Margo and company, but I think that’s on purpose. Eve is incredibly fake, but she’s adept at giving her audience what they want. It’s her sleight of hand. This is why she’s so successful on stage; she allows herself to be what her audience wants her to be, and she calibrates her fakery thusly. She’d make a fantastic whore at the Bunny Ranch.
During her first scene with Margo and Karen, the latter two goad her into telling that ridiculous story about her life. You can see Karen literally oozing schadenfreude for a tale of woe, and boy does she get one. Eve is a performer, and as alluded to by Addison late in the picture, a sociopath. It’s important to note that the only one not suckered into this woman’s picture bullshit story is Thelma Ritter’s wonderful Birdie. Birdie is an older actress, and far less interested in somebody else’s trials making her feel better. Eve isn’t performing for her anyway, she’s suckering in Margo, making her feel superior while also awakening some kind of maternal feelings in her.
Addison also sees through Eve, because he’s a master of watching performances. He is giving one himself, both in print and in person. He talks to Eve “killer to killer” because she’s just like him. “You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I,” Addison tells her. “We have that in common.” In fact, Addison’s entire speech to her at the end is commentary on how unconvincing Eve is: “You’re too short for that gesture.” If Baxter had portrayed Eve as too good an actress, I’m not sure the ruse would have worked on Margo or theater people in general. Her acceptance speech at the Sarah Siddons society deserves the Shadow Henderson “everything you just said is bullshit” rant, yet everyone except those whom she has burned eats it up.
That Venomous Fishwife, Addison DeWitt
Speaking of Addison, he is my favorite character in All About Eve. Like Bette Davis, George Sanders was introduced to me by Disney. He also showed up 8 million times on Channel 11’s endless loop of 1972’s Psychomania. Addison lives up to the last syllable of his name, upping his Kinsey Score with every wonderful, malicious and catty remark. Sanders uses his voice to brilliant effect, turning even Mankiewicz’s cheapest lines into comic and Oscar gold. How can anyone not love a man who uses his charm like a razor? According to Wikipedia, Roger Corber has no love for my dear Mr. DeWitt. Corber writes:
“The nurturing heterosexual relationships of Margo and Bill and of Karen and Lloyd serve to contrast with the loveless relationship predation and sterile careerism of the homosexual characters, Eve and Addison. Eve uses her physical femininity as a weapon to try to break up the marriages of both couples, and the extreme cynicism of Addison serves as a model of Eve’s future.”
I will concede that several lines of dialogue do lean toward a reading of both Addison and Eve being homosexual: Eve says yes to taking off all Margo’s clothes and tucking her into bed, and Addison describes his desire for Eve as the “height of improbability.” I’m just not convinced that their sexuality, whatever that may be, is the cause of their unwholesome actions; they are both mad with power and ambition. Besides, a truly gay version would have had Addison trying to be Margo, Eve running off with Birdie and Bill running off with Darryl Zanuck. (Carol Burnett certainly had that last idea…) What would Mankiewicz’s point be in putting Eve and Addison together and implying that Addison is nailing her if he wanted to slam gays?
But if Eve is indeed an evil lesbian, than Joe Eszterhas was the perfect writer to remake All About Eve. As infamous as Pamela Anderson’s remake of Casablanca, and just as dreadful, Eszterhas’ Showgirls recasts Margo Channing as a bisexual stripper and Eve Harrington as a chop-socky, ambitious dancer-slash-whore who has something wrong with her nipples. While Baxter’s Eve has Celeste Holm to help her keep Margo from the stage so she can go on, Liz Berkeley’s Eve relies on a well timed push down the stairs and a sex scene in a swimming pool that does less for dolphins than tuna nets. Showgirls makes its LGBT characters explicitly evil, has a camp pedigree as large as its predecessor, and also earned a record number of award nominations from “those awards presented annually by that film society.” Perhaps Showgirls is the movie Bill Sampson went to Hollywood to make.
I Detest Cheap Sentiment
After seeing the new print of All About Eve at the Walter Reade (my first time ever on the big screen), Matt and I met a couple who had also attended. The woman told us that she’d tried unsuccessfully three prior times to get her husband to sit through All About Eve. The fourth time was the charm, but her husband was far from impressed. When Matt explained why he enjoyed the movie’s writing, and I chimed in as well, the husband said he was just a regular moviegoer who didn’t analyze movies as we did. He thought it was all clichéd. The wife sided with me and Matt. When the husband continued to complain, I asked him if he’d seen Showgirls. He lit up. “It’s the same movie,” I said. “It’s All About Eve with tits and ass.” The husband said that at least the tits and ass kept him awake longer than Eve’s talky dialogue.
During the conversation, the wife said something I never thought of before: She called All About Eve a retelling of Faust. If so, then who is the Devil? Addison DeWitt? For someone who claims such undying love for All About Eve, I’m ashamed I never considered the wife’s take on it. It only made me want to watch the movie again so I can savor all the performances from Davis on down to the then unknown (and surprisingly good) Marilyn Monroe. Margo would yell at me for being sentimental, but at least I’m not one of those people who doesn’t have a heart.
The Odienator is maudlin and full of self pity. He is magnificent.