All About Eve is a 1950 drama that for nearly fifty years stood as the lone record holder for most Academy Award nominations. At the 23rd Academy Awards it was nominated for a total of fourteen awards, a feat unmatched until Titanic equalled it in 1997. The film wouldn’t be a successful as James Cameron’s sprawling, water based epic however and won just six of it’s nominations including the important Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Sixty four years on and today I watched the film for the first time to see what all the fuss is about. My immediate impression upon completing the film was that of surprise for its multiple nominations and victories but stepping back a little, the film features a lot to like, not least some fantastic writing and superb acting performances.
The film strangely shares many themes with another 1950 release, Sunset Boulevard, and indeed the two would battle it out in eight of the categories at the Oscar’s ceremony I just spoke of. Another film that All About Eve congers memories of is stranger still and that is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All three movies feature stories about revered and ageing stars who are or at least feel threatened by perkier, younger women. Here, the marvellous Bette Davis plays Broadway star Margot Channing, a talented actress with an outwardly sense of entitlement but who is inwardly frail and uneasy, worried for her place in the theatre world. Her fears come to the forefront of her mind when she is confronted with the attributes and ambitions of Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter). Harrington begins the film as a timid and star struck young girl but what lurks beneath her downtrodden and excited appearance is a viciously ambitious starlet.
I have to admit that it took me a while to settle into All About Eve. I found the opening scenes set inside Channing’s dressing room to be overly theatrical and boring. As I didn’t know what to expect from the film, I was worried that it would be a thespian rollick full of ‘luvvies’ and ‘dearies’ and was put off straight away. Once I let the film play though, I relaxed into a taught drama about ageing and fame hunger which still resonates with today’s world. Although dressed in ball gowns and sipping cocktails, these characters are no different from the reams of fame hungry, idol worshiping people we find ourselves surrounded with today. Those who find themselves in positions of fame and wealth must too worry for their positions, especially as age catches up with them. The movie has a lot to say about how the theatre world is conducted and manages to do so with a small and tight cast. Actors, directors, producers and writers are all featured and the film gives an interesting, if not entirely accurate portrayal of life behind the curtain.
I thoroughly enjoyed Eve Harrington’s transformation from quiet girl next door to ferocious femme fatale and her part was exquisitely written. The change creeps up on the audience quite slowly despite her going from one character to the next, using each for her own personal gain. She’s like a whirlwind, spinning a character around at her want before moving onto the next. She manages to use her charms on both men and women and always lands on her feet. It personally took me quite a while to realise what she was actually up to so it’s no wonder some of the characters ended the film without a clue. Despite all her cunning, it was difficult not to like the character as she was played so deviously that the despicable qualities rarely bubbled to the surface.
Opposite Anne Baxter’s Eve is Bette Davis’ Margo Channing. Although it’s Eve who is the ‘bad guy’ of the piece, it is Channing who one is much less inclined to like. She is a woman who has been a star too long, accustomed to getting her way and having the finest things life can offer. She’s separated from reality for much of the film and only towards the end does she come crashing down and the real woman behind the actress come out. The writing of both central characters is superb and much closer to the knuckle that I’d imagined. All throughout the film there are wonderfully written characters and fantastic lines of dialogue. From the snappy but humorous “Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago; he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” To the introspective and longing “So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.” There are beautifully written lines dotted in every scene.
Alongside the fantastic writing, the film is also notable for its acting. It garnered a total of five acting nominations including two in each of the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories but its only win came for George Sanders as Best Supporting Actor. Sanders is a cold-blooded and straight talking theatre critic who spews some of the most wonderfully evocative and deeply cutting lines that the script has to offer. He’s fantastic but no more so than the two stars, Bette Davis and Ann Baxter. I’ve talked much about their characters but they are bought to life vividly by the two actors who are on top form here and unluckily failed to bring home a coveted Oscar. Celeste Holm is also superb, caught between the two central characters and Thelma Ritter has a few feisty and funny moments. The movie also afforded an early role for Marilyn Monroe who plays the outed wannabe star to Eve’s closeted one. As always, it is difficult to take ones eyes off her when she’s on screen but is so unfortunately for just a few moments.
Overall I’m still a little surprised by All About Eve’s total of fourteen Oscar nominations but find myself disagreeing with few of them. It’s a beautifully written tale that features some tremendous acting and holds up well over sixty years after its original release. It’s still sharp, cutting and relevant and despite some dull moments is still extremely watchable.
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Sunset Boulevard 1950