In Our Opinion

HOW I BECAME A DVD COMMENTATOR

By • Jan 1st, 2004 •

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When I received a call last August (2002) from a Los Angeles producer, Eric Young, asking me to provide commentary for the forthcoming Fox DVD of ALL ABOUT EVE, I leapt at the opportunity. I figured that if I didn’t take it, it would go to Sam Staggs, the author of the misnamed but recent “All About ‘All About Eve.’” “All About” obviously should have been a compendium of all the significant writing on “Eve” from 1950-2000, including Mankiewicz’ own, superior memoir, “More About ‘All About Eve’” (1972), which Staggs disdains as stylistically inferior to the gossip he re-visits. Its inclusion would have permitted readers to judge how Mankiewicz and Staggs measure up as writers.

While my critical biography of EVE’s writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz,’ “Pictures Will Talk,” dates from 1978, Staggs’ opus came out in 2000. (‘coming out’ is a tiny in-joke alluding to Staggs and his all-gay, Texan, viewing circle.) The 22-year age difference in pub dates tends to make Staggs’ work appear more contemporary and, therefore, more authoritative than my book and Joe’s (which are both out-of-print). My chapter on ALL ABOUT EVE, Mankiewicz’s finest film, is my shortest because I directed readers to the stories in Joe’s preface, which I could just as easily have rewritten and appropriated as Staggs did. (A Scribner’s editor told me that my deferential reference to a rival publication was gauche, and she, therefore, deleted it.)

I had a better right than Staggs to the tales because Joe and the other EVE subjects were then alive and had told all of their tales directly to me. Staggs appropriated all the remaining, first-hand gossip in my chapter, Biblically-titled, “And Joe Created Eve,” but failed to write a word about my original views on the rivalry between the old and the young Mankiewicz brothers as the origin of the conflict between the aging Margo and the rising Eve. As a friendly wag commented, “He [Staggs] stole the dish but left the meat!”

Little did I dream that Eric Young would give Mr. Staggs his own commentary track on the DVD to further explain why EVE is self-evidently a gay camp classic, nor that my own derogatory comment on Staggs’ book, “it’s quite awful,” would be retained, in isolation, when I had so much else to say in throwing dirt on Staggs’ casket-case of a book. Knowing my highly negative views, Mr. Young ought to have intercut me with Staggs fore scorching debate. That way I might have, authoritatively, set the record straight.

Instead, he paired me with two other voices (producer Christopher Mankiewicz, Joe’s argumentative older son, whom I recommended, and now whispery-voiced Celeste Holm, 83, the last survivor of the cast of EVE) on my track. Our commentary track has been ably edited by Mr. Young to suggest that we were all in the same studio, but ‘twas not so. On THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR DVD, also produced by Eric Young, my coeval, Jeanine Basinger keeps reintroducing me every time she finishes her long-winded spiels, “and now, critic Kenneth Geist” so you may be sure that we have never set eyes on each other.

To this date, I cannot bring myself to listen to the Verbal Version According to Staggs. It was irritating enough for me to read and to painstakingly annotate his text for review. However, every gay friend of mine who knows Staggs tells me he is a real sweetheart. I have declined two opportunities to meet him as his work continues to cause me so much superfluous grief.

Of course, my well-received biography of Mankiewicz was precisely the reason I was assigned Staggs’ book (in galleys) by a senior editor of the New York Times Book Review staff who was reciprocating a number of crucial favors I had done for him on the biography he was in the process of writing. ALL ABOUT EVE seemed like a slam dunk to a Mankiewicz scholar.

Now this editor and I both knew Staggs’ book was dreary as we had both read the long excerpt, totally devoid of novelty, which appeared in Vanity Fair more than a year before the book appeared. (All books are previewed by The Times to determine whether they merit review at all, and, if they do, whether they should be covered in long or brief form.)
I solved the problem of recycling the previously recycled by dismissing the book as a repository of all-too-well-known tales, and then writing a provocative essay on ALL ABOUT EVE based on my original views of its genesis. So, in short order, I dismissed Staggs’ book as poorly and pretentiously written; filled with trite trivia and anecdotage: and grievously padded by Staggs’ monumental-only-to-him discovery of the actual stage-door intruder who insinuated herself into Elizabeth Bergner’s life, thereby inspiring Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” which, in turn, formed the basis for ALL ABOUT EVE. This self-impressed archeology is about as significant to Mankiewicz’ film as Staggs’ detailed chapter on “Applause,” the 1970 musical based on the plot and characters of ALL ABOUT EVE, but with all of Mankiewicz’s zingers replaced by the less elegant, musical comedy wit of Comden & Green.

This was not sufficient for my editor, however. If I was going to make such disparaging remarks, I would have to detail exactly what was wrong with every chapter. My deeply offensive male Gorgon, as I thought of him, lacked the politeness of other literary editors. When, for example, the Gorg requested a plot summary of “Eve,” he didn’t call me a numbskull nor a cretin in failing to supply one, but something far more wounding. In fact, all of the Gorg’s edits, great and small, were accompanied by hugely insolent comments on my illiteracy, stupidity, and ill-usage. And I absorbed this body-blow punishment for three, castigating edits. (I am pleased to see that the Times’ top film critics have recently employed the term “nexus,” which the Gorg thought only fit for Henry Miller and yours truly.)

Actually, I was the one being ill-used, but I had such a large investment of time in the damned review, that I swallowed my Gorgon’s contumely and pointed out why Zsa Zsa was only trashing Marilyn as a bimbo, because her then husband, George Sanders, was overinterested in MM. This was why Staggs had used a slanderous passage from Zsa Zsa’s autobiography to punch up the uneventful shooting history of EVE. The only bit of scandal on AAE was that Gary Merrill and Bette Davis, playing lovers in the film, fell for each other so completely that they quickly divorced their respective spouses in order to wed each other and make their lives a continual shouting match. This, in itself, was very, very old news. Fifty years old, to be precise.

By analyzing the sins of each chapter at my editor’s behest, I transformed my initial bored dismissal into a hatchet job. In fact, I made every change required of me by the Gorg, but for two:

1) My comment that by winning Oscars for screenwriting in 1941 (Herman Mankiewicz’s CITIZEN KANE) and 1950 (ALL ABOUT EVE) the Mankiewicz brothers’ unique wit framed the beginning and the end of Hollywood filmmaking in the Forties, just as the presentation and receipt of the “Sarah Siddons Award” frames the start and the finish of ALL ABOUT EVE. [The Gorgon said that this observation was old hat, though my film scholar friends had never seen it in print previously, so I clung to it. After all you know who at the Times had the final cut of my review.]

2) My summation – that in Staggs’ misrepresenting the comparison between Orson Welles’ dynamic, multi-mirror shootout in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and Mankiewicz’s static, infinity of mirrors shot at EVE’s conclusion, I wrote, “As usual, Staggs gets it wrong, and proves that he is to film journalism what Ed Wood was to filmmaking.”

I could never find a more apt nor witty summation had I tried
.
This conclusion seemed perfectly just for the loopy prose stylist who had written, “The subtext [of “All About Eve”] 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.” Ed Wood could have written that incredible sentence himself, but the Gorg said I could not defame a writer so definitively. “Subtext” my ass to gays’ appreciating the film even more than straights. Mankiewicz’ significance is in the lines, not beneath them.

As the Gorg never told me he was not running the piece until long after the pub date, I could not place it with another important book review. I am most grateful to my friend Roy Frumkes, who commended it, published it on his filmsinreview website, and commissioned the present essay.

My unfamiliarity with DVD commentaries caused me, at first, to decline the producer’s initial offer to speak to picture all through a full-length screening of EVE. Not knowing that the soundtrack would be muted for my remarks, I feared competing with Joe’s elegant dialogue and, also, that I would not have enough to say to cover the film’s running time of 138 minutes.

Initially, I chose only to make isolated comments on various aspects of the film to the producer Young’s Nagra tape recorder, placed on my travertine dining table in New York City. This accounts, possibly, for the inapposite scenes shown while I recount Joe’s explication of the fleeting shots which revealed Eve as a Lesbian (which were hard to slip by the censors, in 1950, when there were no Lesbians in the movies). My/Joe’s observations are, curiously, not synced to the shot of Eve and her roommate, arms linked, triumphantly climbing the boarding house stairs after luring the playwright from his marriage bed to tend the supposedly sick Eve; as well as the scene at the end, where the disgruntled Eve only warms to her young fan, Phoebe (who has snuck into her apartment) after persuading her to stay the night.

The second session, to record my opinions of THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, (with additional comments on ALL ABOUT EVE) was conducted nearly two weeks later in a sound studio in Los Angeles with one technician running a large sound-monitoring board and another slowing or speeding through MRS. MUIR. Even though early morning is not my best hour, being able to comment to the picture and having it slowed or rewound as I directed was a boon to me as commentator.

My one grief was that I had made copious notes while screening MRS. MUIR in my hotel room, but I could not watch the monitor and look down to read my notes as, apparently, did Jeanine Basinger, my opposite number, who, I confess, puts me to sleep with her detailed, lengthy, reader’s precision. In comparison, my off-the-cuff comments are genuine while Professor Basinger seems like a pedant and supreme apple-polisher in commending every last one of Fox’s gifted technicians’ skills and vastly overpraising the limited gifts of Gene Tierney.

I knew I had done something perceptive when a noted editor in the publishing world told my partner, recently, that, “I should ease up on Gene Tierney,” I forget exactly what I said about the somnolent vacuity of this former cover girl with perfect cheekbones whom Fox made one of its wartime stars. I must try once more to endure Professor Basinger’s lecture to determine whether I only confined myself to Tierney’s monotonous line readings. Mankiewicz claimed that the Fox stars Tierney and Jeanne Crain were imposed upon him by Zanuck very much against his will.

Now, while it is perfectly true that Tierney and Crain could scarcely act a lick, neither could the Fox star Linda Darnell. One fundamental difference among these stunning women is that Darnell became a favorite Mankiewicz bedmate, and did well for her mentor-lover in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and NO WAY OUT. Tierney was married to the zealously protective and successful designer Oleg Cassini, while Jeanne Crain was a fervent Catholic mother producing multiple bambini with a virile fellow named Paul Brinkman, as I recall.

Tierney is wiped off the screen by the flamboyant theatricality of Vincent Price in DRAGONWYCK, Mankiewicz’ first directorial effort, and Rex Harrison, polished in theater, film and life as a cad, does a neat job of scene-stealing from his titled co-star. However, Joe liked to play leading man to his leading ladies, and when they rebuffed him–he bridled. Jeanne Crain is perfectly swell in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES.

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