Book Reviews

ALL ABOUT ALL ABOUT EVE

By • Jun 23rd, 2001 •

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By Sam Staggs
Revised 4/04/00 / Illustrated. 369 pp.
New York: St. Martin’s Press / $24.95

Half a century after its 1950 release, All About Eve endures as “one of the most enjoyable movies ever made,” in Pauline Kael’s estimation. In part, this is because the film features a truly bravura performance by its star, Bette Davis, as a theatrical diva whose temper tantrums towards others are as much fun to watch as are her savage misgivings about herself.

But it is the remarkably literate and witty screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz which makes All About Eve a rarity among American film classics. Mankiewicz’s text is studded with bon mots a la Oscar Wilde, in addition to allusions to a host of historic theater figures. A backstage comedy of ill manners, played by a sterling cast, the film concerns the rise of a scheming actress (Anne Baxter)–the eponymous Eve–who plots to supplant a reigning Broadway star (Davis) by betraying every member of the star’s coterie after they have befriended her. All About Eve is really all about succeeding as well as succession.

Sam Staggs’ “All About ‘All About Eve'” is not nearly as comprehensive a work as its title suggests. It leaves out Mankiewicz’s own, elegant, 1972 essay on the film’s creation combined with his brilliant screenplay, titled “More About ‘All About Eve.'” Mr. Staggs denigrates Mankiewicz’s book as “turgid and meandering” while praising his own work by writing, “I had unified the contradictory narratives and random gossip into an authentic account of All About Eve and all those connected with it.”

Mr. Staggs commits such turgid sentences as, “The subtext has beguiled several generations of devotees, largely gay men, who have ‘read’ the film as though it beamed a limelight into the closet of their hearts.”

Despite his current book’s many charts and sidebars (every esoteric theater figure receives at least an introductory paragraph), this volume is composed almost entirely of stale gossip and marginal trivia in lieu of any significant analysis. (Mr. Staggs’ only previous publication is the obscure novel, “MM II: The Return of Marilyn Monroe.”)

Much space is given to such peripheral subjects as Mary Orr, the author of the 1946 Cosmopolitan short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” on which All About Eve was based. Staggs also profiles Martina Lawrence, the real-life prototype of Orr’s Eve, who was befriended and then rejected by the actress Elisabeth Bergner. Though Staggs appreciates that Orr’s fiction is “a second-rate story in a forgotten magazine [sic]” and merely “the embryo” for Mankiewicz’s magisterial script, he gives Orr a parity with Mankiewicz which she does not deserve.

In this hodge-podge of a book, Staggs analyzes the coffee and ink stains as well as the lipstick blots in the archival copy of Bette Davis’s script at Boston University so portentously, that you can never take him seriously again.

Staggs discovers a “sacra conversazione ” in one of the film’s best-known production stills of Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and George Sanders at the “Fasten-your-seat-belts” party scene. But since the photo lacks a Virgin and Child, Staggs quickly changes his pretentious designation to one of “three types of female beauty.”

In Staggs’ most useful discovery, he cites seven lines from All About Eve which made their way into Edward Albee’s equally bitch-witted play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, (1962).

The only notable but well-worn story of the uneventful production–the scripted romance between Bette Davis and Gary Merrill becoming real–is expanded by Staggs to inordinate length. To spice up his tired gossip, the author reprints a scurrilous and highly implausible anecdote from Zsa Zsa Gabor’s autobiography depicting Marilyn Monroe as an insatiable nymphomaniac.

As if it weren’t very old news, Staggs outs Eve as a gay cult film.. This tiresome way of interpreting the picture may seem significant to Staggs, but such an appreciation is irrelevant to the film’s intrinsic merits.

By magnifying the subtly implied lesbianism of Eve and terming “bi-sexual” both Eve’s conqueror, the vicious theater critic Addison De Witt, as well as the actor who portrayed him (George Sanders), Staggs gives All About Eve far more of a gay spin than it warrants.

Though Staggs calls Mankiewicz “a heterosexual trapped in a gay sensibility,” the writer-director would have deplored any “hint of mint.” Mankiewicz was a noted womanizer who was highly contemptuous of both male and female homosexuals. When I had occasion to compare him with George Cukor as a famed director of actresses, Mankiewicz cracked that “George only befriended female stars. I fucked them!” This may be one of the reasons why Mankiewicz made the hateful Eve a lesbian.

Manifestations of Eve’s lesbianism are only twice briefly discernible. First, after a duplicitous late-night phone call to lure the married playwright to her room, Eve links arms with the caller (her rooming-house mate) and, both dressed in night wear, they joyfully climb the stairs together. Second, in the final scene, Eve’s hostility towards a young intruder melts after “Phoebe” offers to spend the night.

A more important topic in the film concerns the conflict between Broadway’s prestige and Hollywood’s lucre. It was a source of profound ambivalence to Mankiewicz and it keeps cropping up throughout All About Eve, although it is overlooked by the author of this supposedly authoritative study.

The film was actually a valentine to the theater community which Mankiewicz yearned to join, rather than the poison-pen letter many mistook it for. Although Mankiewicz moved to New York in 1952, he never realized his great ambition to become a Broadway playwright. He did complete one full-length play, Jefferson Selleck–contrary to Mr. Staggs’ claim that he never finished one–and began many others which he failed to conclude.

Staggs perceives that “in structure, Eve is the offspring of Citizen Kane,” but he refers only to such similarities as their multiple narrators and duplicated scenes shot from different perspectives, which Mankiewicz envisaged for Eve but which Darryl Zanuck (the film’s producer as well as the head of Twentieth Century Fox) deleted. A more significant correspondence between Citizen Kane and All About Eve can be found in the rivalry between the films’ respective writers. Herman Mankiewicz won a 1941 screenwriting Oscar for Citizen Kane, which his younger brother, Joe, greatly coveted. (Significantly, All About Eve is framed by a gilded awards ceremony.) Joe owed his film career to Herman’s bringing him to Los Angeles in 1929 when he was only 20. In the 1940s, as Joe ascended the ladder of success which Herman was skidding down, the highly competitive Joe was continually nettled by being known in the film colony as Herman’s “younger and less witty brother.” Though a role reversal with his brother had taken place, he could never forget this sobriquet as Herman’s junior and lesser.

All About Eve may be based, in part, on Orr’s short story, but the ongoing competition between the younger and older Mankiewicz brothers provides its unconscious vitality. The picture’s combat between an aging star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and a gifted, ambitious, and strikingly younger upstart, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), is remarkably similar to the rivalry between Herman and Joe.

While Mr. Staggs puts Citizen Kane in his “pantheon of classic screenplays,” he fails to note how remarkable it is that the disparate but similar Mankiewicz brothers wrote two of the greatest American screenplays within a single decade.

Staggs claims that the film’s final image of Eve’s successor bowing to countless self-images, is a “mirror sequence” wholly “borrowed” from Orson Welles’ shattered mirror shoot-out at the end of The Lady from Shanghai. While Welles’ sequence is characteristically dynamic, Mankiewicz’s is static–albeit reverberant as a metaphor of youth’s inevitable succession. As usual, Staggs gets it wrong, and proves that he is to film journalism what Ed Wood was to filmmaking.

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