Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "All About Eve" (1950)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

All About Eve
Release Date: October 13, 1650
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written By: Joseph L. Makiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 138 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (George Sanders)
-Best Screenplay
-Best Costume Design (Black and White)
-Best Sound

Oscar Nominations: 8
-Best Actress (Anne Baxter)
-Best Actress (Bette Davis)
-Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm)
-Best Supporting Actress (Themla Ritter)
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Black and White)
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Born Yesterday
-Father of the Bride
-King Solomon's Mines
-Sunset Boulevard

And the winner is...

There are very few films that have the same immediacy as that of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve. For starters, it is the definitive movie about the theater world, in which women take center stage and fight each other for relevancy. It's a film that explores the tragedy that is aging and features one of Bette Davis' most iconic performances as well as an early appearance of Marilyn Monroe. However, it was also as crazy behind the scenes as it was in the final film. Thankfully, the final product not only serves to the power of film, but to the impact that great female performances can give, and what a very strong screenplay can do for careers that are fading, much like the characters on display in the film. There's a reason that it has aged gracefully, and it has a lot to do with the lightning in a bottle nature of it all.

The film was created in a roundabout way. Mankiewicz had wanted to make a film about an actress recalling her life. While doing so, he had read a story in Cosmopolitan Magazine by Mary Orr called "The Wisdom of Eve" that altered his story greatly. After presenting it to producer Daryl F. Zanuck, Orr was paid somewhere between $3500 and $5000 for the story, of which she wouldn't get any further credit for. To make matters worse, the film was changed to the title Best Performance. It was eventually settled on All About Eve after Zanuck read the script and saw it in an opening line by the character Adison DeWitt. Also, Orr's protagonist Margola Cranston's name was changed to Margo Channing. Despite the final film seeming incomprehensible from Orr's three and a half page story, she did receive a shout out in the film. Monroe's name, Miss Casswell, is a reference to her middle name.

In keeping with her persona, Davis was notoriously stubborn. When she met co-star Celeste Holm, the younger actress supposedly said hello and was met with an insult. As a result, the two never spoke again. Davis also was reported to have an antagonistic relationship with Anne Baxter. In real life, they were friends and did it more to play with each other. The worst that can be said about Davis' relationship with Monroe is that the young actress was intimidated and took awhile to get her lines right. Zsa Zsa Gabor supposedly hated Monroe because she loathed her husband George Sanders spending so much time around her for the film. However, Davis would fall in love with Gary Merrill in a moment that was considered to be love at first sight. It was especially strange because Davis was coming off of a nasty divorce (her third marriage) that left her voice raspy. Davis and Merrill would later marry and adopt a baby named Margo. As for her relationship with Mankiewicz? They got along just fine.

But Davis wasn't the first decision for Margo Channing. Among the names that Zanuck or Mankiewicz had selected were Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Gloria Swanson (who would star the same year in another iconic, career-defining Hollywood film Sunset Boulevard). The final selection was Claudette Colbert, who backed out when she began having back issues. Davis had just left an 18-year association with Warner Brothers and was facing potential career suicide. However, she chose the project after discovering that the script was one of the best that she had ever written. She would later claim to be thankful for the role, which she holds responsible for saving her career. It added to the metaphorical obsolescence of her role, as did Baxter finally breaking out of supporting roles. 

Dispute has continued to happen on whether or not Margo Channing was based off of actress Tallulah Bankhead. It has long proven not to be, with Orr claiming that it was more inspired by Australian actress Elisabeth Bergner. However, the rumor persisted and was made more interesting after Bankhead turned down the role. In keeping with the character, this made Bankhead more annoyed because she was convinced and claimed that Davis got rich off of copying her. Things got so dire that Bankhead claimed that if she ever met Davis, she would tear out her hair. Bankhead would talk to Orr later on and when Orr denied this, Bankhead reportedly never spoke to her again. However, Bankhead would later go on to star in a radio broadcast version of the film.

The film was thought to be such a success that Zanuck refused to air it to test audiences. The first audiences to see it were critics, who lauded it immediately with praise. After some battling, Baxter was allowed to be nominated in the Best Actress category alongside Davis. This resulted in an unprecedented four female acting nominations; the highest that there's ever been. The film would also break another record with 14 total nominations (a record previously held by Gone With the Wind with 13 nominations); which was the most until Titanic in 1997. While the film cleaned up nicely, there's many who believe that Judy Holliday won Best Actress for Born Yesterday that year because the two All About Eve stars had to split the vote. Similarly, Josephine Hull won Best Supporting Actress for Harvey over Holm and Thelma Ritter. It did a lot better than Sunset Boulevard, which failed to win any of its acting nominations in every category and became the first to do so; a record held until American Hustle in 2013.

The film's legacy is very flagrant. It has been critiqued for its gay subtext and Margo Channing has become an icon for her flamboyant, petty nature. Davis asked Mankiewicz to work on a sequel about Margo's love life later on, likely inspired by her marriage to Merrill. However, she later told him that it was a bad idea. She knew that because she lived it. The story was eventually turned into a musical in 1973 called Applause, which starred Lauren Bacall as Margo. When she bowed out, Baxter took her place. This wasn't the only time that Baxter would metaphorically usurp Davis. In 1983, Davis starred on a series called Hotel. When she became sick, Baxter replaced her. Davis never returned. The film inspired a British rock band of the same name. It also is considered the inspiration for director Pedro Almodovar's Oscar-winning Spanish film All About My Mother, which has similar elements.

Among the older Best Picture winners, there's few as radiant and lively as All About Eve. It's a film so full of competitive female roles that it's a shame that few films even compare. It wasn't only competitive on screen, but also reflective in various relationships behind. It also has one of Davis' most iconic performances, which was made especially peculiar given her unfortunate similarities to the character. It's a film that was about theater, even if Mankiewicz knew nothing about it. It's a film that challenges the societal norms, making us understand that women can be complicated protagonists and antagonists. It's a film unlikely any other that inspired every other film to explore the fragility of fame and age. If nothing else, it gave us the most iconic film about theater. You don't have to be a seasonal subscriber to appreciate the value and wit of All About Eve. It's just a masterpiece.

No comments:

Post a Comment