Friday, September 08, 2006

Thoughts on a Memorable Eve

As I neared the end of reading Sam Stagg's entertaining tome "All About All About Eve," I once again found myself turning to Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 classic, based on the short story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr. Since first viewing the film as a teen in the early 1980's, I've made a lifetime commitment to Eve. Over the years I've lost count of how often I've marveled at Mankiewicz's ingenious bon mots and Bette Davis' legendary work in the part that launched 1,000 female impersonations, and I've yet to grow tired of the movie's stringent wit and sophistication- the film remains a fresh, lively entertainment throughout repeated viewings: in the case of Eve familiarity does not breed contempt, only pleasure. Although a line from the film- "What can there be to know that you don't know?"- perfectly addresses the problem in attempting to write any overview of this all-time great, as one of my top five favorite movies, I can't resist the temptation to offer some musings regarding Eve.

Mankiewicz, riding high immediately following the success of A Letter to Three Wives (for which he won two Academy Awards) reached his creative apex with Eve, adeptly crafting filmdom's finest, most insightful and mesmerizing comedy/drama. Although the film runs a substantial 138 minutes, Eve never feels tired or drawn out, as the writer/director adroitly unfolds the story's classic scenes and dialogue without ever losing the audiences' interest. While paying tribute to the film during A.F.I.'s broadcast of "100 Years. . . 100 Movies" Richard Dreyfuss stated he thought Eve contained the best movie script ever; it's hard to dispute his claim: Mankiewicz poured all of his skill and talent in penning Eve's remarkable screenplay, and the impressive intellect and wit on display remain second-to-none in the annals of film.

In her rich, indelible gallery of screen portrayals, Margo Channing reigns near, if not at, the top of Bette Davis' filmography. Seldom has a star been afforded the chance to excel in a role so aptly suited to showcase all her talents and Davis, taking over the part after Claudette Colbert was derailed due to an injury on the set of Three Came Home, utilizes all her substantial acting abilities, achieving greatness while delivering a vivid, multi-layer portrait of a Broadway diva forced to stare down some difficult personal and professional demons as middle age creeps up on her. Davis puts her distinctive mark on every scene, including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts" cocktail party and Margo's perceptive "last analysis" to Karen. Davis' most awesome Eve achievement may be one of her more subdued moments: in Margo's midnight call with Bill, Davis perfectly illustrates the character's transition from a drowsy, confused state at being awakened unexpectedly (the groggy, distant voice Davis employs convinces one she truly has just been woke up, no easy feat) to her complete realization of Eve's threat to Margo's relationship with Bill, exemplified by the scene's final shot of a now wide-awake Margo staring out into space in deep thought while pondering the ramifications of the conversation.

Although Davis' magnificent playing of the central role easily dominates the proceedings (Davis is so vivid it took me many viewings to realize Margo's not around much during the film's final half hour, save for her terrific exit line, the great "You can always put that award where your heart ought to be" kiss off to Eve), some of the other cast members score big too: as sage, wry critic Addison De Witt, Oscar winner George Sanders serves as a perfect mouthpiece for some of Mankiewicz's most acerbic lines; Thelma Ritter's excellence as Birdie provides a blueprint for the warm-but-wisecracking maids and mothers Ritter would beautifully play for the rest of her career (and Ritter's so spot-on in her role, I wish Birdie could've stuck around for some of the later scenes- she mysteriously disappears once Eve becomes firmly entrenched in Margo's circle of friends); and, in the brief role of "Miss Caswell" a young, radiant, and funny Marilyn Monroe gives every indication she's headed for the huge post-Eve career she actually attained.

My main reservation with the film has always been the casting of about half the leading roles, starting with Anne Baxter as the title character. To be fair, I enjoy Baxter's juicy Oscar-winning performance in The Razor's Edge, love her as "Mike" in Yellow Sky, which includes a classic moment wherein pint-size Baxter convincingly wallops rangy Gregory Peck with a mean right hook, and find her way over-the-top portrayal of Nefertiti in The Ten Commandments colorful and fun. The first time I viewed Eve I had no trouble with her overt bitchiness, especially when Eve lets her guard down and is supposed to be shown at her worst (Baxter has her best Eve moment in the power room confrontation she shares with Celeste Holm: as Eve viciously fires away at Karen, attempting to blackmail her into compliance in Eve's scheme to steal the lead in Lloyd Richard's new play, Baxter's so phenomenally nasty I found myself kicking the unoccupied seat in front of me upon my original viewing of Eve). However, subsequent viewings reveal Baxter is obviously making Eve's intentions all-too-evident to the audience from her first scene. It's hard to believe no one besides Birdie would immediately see through Baxter's Eve, and cast her back into the dank alley from whence she came. The role is demanding, and Baxter is determined to give it all she's got, but she's clearly "acting" every second, which works against her during the early scenes. Mankiewicz reportedly didn't want to cast Jeannie Crain (studio head Daryl Zanuck's choice) in the role, as he felt she lacked the "bitch virtuosity" Baxter could employ in the part; however, this is exactly why I think a "good girl" like Crain would've possibly worked better, as Eve's innocence wouldn't be in question until later in the film (in further defense of Crain, I think Mankiewicz underrated her onscreen abilities: she proved herself a capable dramatic performer in possession of some sharp edges to her acting chops in her Oscar-nominated role in the prior year's Pinky and under Mankiewicz's tutelage in his other enduring classic, A Letter to Three Wives; judging from these performances, Crain could have handled the from-Dorothy Gale-to-Medea-in-sixty-seconds character switch with aplomb).

Although Davis, Sanders, Ritter, Monroe, Gregory Ratoff, and Barbara Bates (who, in the brief role of "Phobe", does an expert job of moving from fawn to barracuda, and caps the film nicely with a terrific final shot), offer definitive portrayals, I think the remainder of the cast is adequate, but not top-flight; my "dream cast" would include Crain (or, judging by her work in the final scene, Bates) as Eve, Ann Sothern as Karen (I usually love Holm, the consummate professional, but she slightly overplays Karen in a theatrical and studied "Grand Dame" manner- the down-to-earth Sothern, who was considered for the part, would've been effortlessly good-natured-yet-perceptive, providing a nice contrast to Davis' showy Margo; Sothern waited nearly four decades before finally scoring an Oscar nod playing opposite Davis, in 1987's The Whales of August), William Holden as Bill Sampson, and Kirk Douglas as Lloyd Richards (don't laugh- ultimate he-man Douglas was just fine portraying an intellectual schoolteacher in Wives, and he matched up perfectly with Sothern in the film).

Idle musings on casting aside, the Davis and Mankiewicz collaboration assure Eve of its deserved, lasting placement near the top of any list of Hollywood's masterworks.

Random Eve data:

14 Oscar nominations (tied with Titanic for most nods)
6 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Costume Design (Edith Head), Sound Recording)

Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; nominations for Picture, Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Sanders), and Supporting Actress (Ritter)

New York Film Critics Awards for Picture, Director, and Actress (Davis)

National Board of Review: Placed #2 on the Board's top ten list (behind Sunset Boulevard)

Screen Writers Guild of America: Winner for the Best Written Comedy

Screen Directors Guild of America: Best Director

Cannes Film Festival: Special Jury Prize and Best Actress (Davis)

American Film Institute:

#16 on the Top Hundred Films list

#9 on the Top 100 Movie Quotes list (for "Fasten Your Seltbelts..." of course)

#23 Villian (Eve Harrington) on the "Heros and Villians" Top 100 list (Only 23rd? I'm sure we'll soon find Eve smoozing up to top-listers Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates, in an attempt to steal their crowns. My money's on the bitch- before she's through she'll have Norman running home to mama, while Hannibal will turn vegetarian after spending a few days with the cinema's most unappetizing ingenue).


At 6:12 AM, Blogger Emma said...

Well said! A masterpiece, and the script is one of the wittiest and smartest ever.


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