..

ALL ABOUT EVE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm,Gary Merrill
Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  January 15, 2003

"I admit I've seen better days, but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail and a salted peanut!"

Film ****

Bette Davis was a movie star.

That’s a term that’s not used as much today as it once was.  Many high profile performers prefer just to be known as actors or actresses.  There’s almost something derogatory about the label “movie star” now, as though it implied a screen presence, but lack of talent. 

It wasn’t always like that.  In the golden age of Hollywood, a movie star meant acting talent and so much more.  It meant more than just being beautiful, or handsome.  It meant that the camera had an intimate love affair with the star’s face…and how every line, curve, shadow and feature would transcend simply being captured on film to becoming indelibly etched into the hearts, minds, and consciousness of our culture.

Maybe we don’t say “movie star” much anymore because that’s just a quality modern Hollywood lacks today.  Sure, there’s incredible talent to be found everywhere, but let’s face it…nobody’s written a song called “Sally Field Eyes”.

Bette Davis just had that quality.  Her face illuminated from the screen.  She was an icon of American cinema…larger than life in every way.  And boy, could she act.  Today, it's almost impossible to believe that many thought she was washed up in 1950 before she brought the indelible Margo Channing to the screen!

All About Eve deserves mention in the same breath with her other career making performances, Now Voyager and Dark Victory.  This was the film that for so long held the record for most Oscar nominations with fourteen, until Titanic tied it.  This film represented a wonderful artistic collaboration between an on-screen legend in Ms. Davis and a legend from the other side, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who both wrote and directed the film (and won Oscars for both).  Mankiewicz, as director and writer, is impressive.  His wonderful lines drip with humor, sarcasm, wit, revelation, and genuine emotion, and he coaxed the perfect delivery for each savory word from his talented cast.

As the picture opens, a theatrical award ceremony in New York is about to honor Eve Harrington (Baxter), and as the title implies, over the course of the film, we are going to learn all about her.  Mankiewicz chooses to start his story from a point near the end, and tell the bulk of it in flashback form, with the aid of narration from the other characters who have interacted with Eve over the course of her tale.  She first appears when she is brought backstage at a Broadway theatre to meet her idol, Margo Channing (Davis).  Eve worships her, and soon, becomes the recipient of much lavish care and attention from Margo and her theatrical friends, even to the point where she becomes a full time assistant of sorts.

But Eve is not all she seems.  Though she speaks with a lack of self importance and a glib tongue, she’s actually teaching herself how to think, act, and speak like Margo.  Margo is a huge star, but her worst fear is that she is now aging past her best years, and it seems that sweet little Eve is setting herself up to take Margo’s place.  And naturally, those who buy into Eve’s unassuming and naïve act are going to believe that Margo is just paranoid.  Will she go down without a fight?  “Fasten your seat belts,” she warns, “it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

It’s fascinating how Eve works, and by the time it’s all over, to consider just how thorough her scheming was.  As a narrative bonus, however, there is one character who never succumbs to her wily ways…the rather cynical theatrical critic Addison (Sanders, another Oscar winner).  Eve’s smart, but he’s just a little smarter, and it may be her failure to convince him that leads to her undoing.

If all of this sounds somewhat familiar to you, there’s a good reason.  All About Eve is one of the most imitated stories to emerge from filmed entertainment.  I can think of quite a few television movies that have mimicked the Eve formula, using everything from movie making to country music as a background.  Even Showgirls, which didn’t have much plot, owes what little it had to this film and the concept of how there’s always someone younger, quicker, and hungrier, who’s ready to push you out of the way and take your place.  

But make no mistake.  Eve is the original, and still the greatest.  

BONUS TRIVIA:  Keep an eye out for Marilyn Monroe in her first speaking role!

Video ***1/2

I was glad to see Fox re-release All About Eve for no other reason than to correct the print problems so inherent in their original offering.  With a stunning new remastering job for its 50th anniversary in 2000, Eve shines at last.  This is a gorgeously rendered black and white offering with much crisper detail, better contrast, and most importantly, a comparably cleaner print than before.  Gone are the specks, spots and debris that kept the original DVD version looking it's age.  This is the kind of radiant presentation this title deserved in the first place! 

Audio ***

Likewise, the audio is much improved...cleaner and clearer with reduced background noise than before...and gone is that dreadful hissing that marred the listening experience of the older DVD!  You have a choice of original mono or remastered stereo.  I switched back and forth repeatedly, and came to the conclusion that both are equally good.  The main difference is that the stereo soundtrack sounds a little more open, with a slight bit of natural sounding reverb to the spoken words.  Ultimately, it may be a matter of preference, but thankfully, the choice is yours.

Features ****

This is a well packaged disc, starting with two commentary tracks.  The first features Joseph Mankiewicz's son Christopher, edited together with actress Celeste Holm and Mankiewicz author Kenneth Geist.  It's a decent listen when Christopher is speaking; the others don't offer as much.  But if you think the cattiness of All About Eve is limited to the screenplay, you should know that Geist, as soon as he comes on, immediately expresses his dislike of author Sam Staggs' book on the movie, and Staggs provides the second commentary!  I actually enjoyed Staggs' track a little more, as it was frequently more coherent and scene specific, but there's enough good information between the two to please most fans.

There is also the AMC Backstory episode of All About Eve, which is quite good, original interviews with both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, four Movietone newsreels pertaining to the film (one on the premiere, three on various awards shows), a rather dull restoration comparison, a trailer, and peeks at other titles in the Fox Studio Classics lineup.

Summary: 

All About Eve is an unquestioned gem from the golden age of movies, with a terrific script and great acting from Ms. Davis and the cast, and one that remains as captivating and entertaining today as ever.  Now, at long last, Fox has given this film the treatment it deserves as part of their Studio Classics lineup.