This Saturday and Sunday, as part of its Oscar Picks series, The Belcourt screens a Country Life favorite, All About Eve. Below, a vintage Scene appreciation from Dec. 11, 1997.
For a movie often regarded as the best ever made about the theater, the surprise is how little of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic All About Eve takes place onstage. It’s always hard for movies to convey the greatness of stage performers, because the intimacy of film clashes with the larger scale of theatrical acting. Mankiewicz spared us what usually passes for great theater in the movies — garish overwriting, hammy acting, absurdly elaborate sets — and shrewdly placed the action backstage. To compensate, he made his frame a proscenium arch and allowed his characters to perform constantly — in duets, in quartets, even in the full ensemble.
But All About Eve isn’t just a great movie about the theater, it’s a great movie about talent. Talent has nothing to do with being a nice person; if it did, Celeste Holm’s long-suffering wife would be center stage, not catty Margo Channing. It used to be, in old musicals, the snooty star would break her foot, and the sweet, plucky understudy would be vaulted to stardom. Mankiewicz’s tale is a variation on that chestnut — in this case the ingenue, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, is a snake, and she still gets pretty much what she wants.
The reason? She may not be good, but she’s good at what she does. Ability beats virtue any day. Which is why Mankiewicz can’t bring himself to punish Bette Davis’ glorious Margo for her ego, her temper, and her insecurity. As George Sanders’ deliciously wicked theater critic Addison DeWitt tells her, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re marvelous.”
Even if you’ve seen All About Eve a dozen times, there’s always something new to catch in Mankiewicz’s sumptuous, spiked plum pudding of a script — the knowing banter between Margo and her director boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), the way Margo smirks at hateful Addison before chomping down hard on a stalk of celery. Every character has been blessed with a viper’s tongue, down to Margo’s skeptical maid (the perpetually underrated Thelma Ritter), and it’s a pleasure to hear them bicker: No other movie makes being smart and cynical look like more fun.
[You] should see it on a large screen while you’ve got a chance. The idiot box wasn’t made that could hold the likes of Margo Channing.