A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Talk, talk, talk. Ever since the movies learned to do it, it has been the glory -- and sometimes the bane -- of the medium. We cherish some films because they do it so well: the films of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Quentin Tarantino, for example, would be nothing without their characters' abundantly gifted gab. Hardly a year goes by without someone compiling a list of the "greatest movie quotes of all time." And invariably the lists include such lines as "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" or "You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point." Those are spoken by, respectively, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) in All About Eve, one of the movies' choicest collections of talk. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the best screenplay Oscar for the second consecutive year -- he first won the previous year for A Letter to Three Wives, which, like All About Eve, he also directed -- and in both cases he received the directing Oscar as well. Would we admire Mankiewicz's lines as much if they had not been delivered by Davis and Sanders, along with such essential performers as Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, and, in a small but stellar part, Marilyn Monroe? It could be said that Mankiewicz's dialogue tends to upend All About Eve: The glorious wisecracks and one-liners are what we remember about it, far more than its satiric look at the Broadway theater or its portrait of the ambitious Eve (Anne Baxter). We also remember the film as the continental divide in Bette Davis's career, the moment in which she ceased to be a leading lady and became the paradigmatic Older Actress, relegated more and more to character roles and campy films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962). All About Eve, in which Margo turns 40 -- Davis was 42 -- and ever so reluctantly hands over the reins to Eve -- Baxter was 27 -- is a kind of capitulation, an unfortunate acceptance that a female actor's career has passed its peak, when in fact all that is needed is writers and directors and producers who are willing to find material that demonstrates the ways in which life goes on for women as much as for men.