Liz Smith: All About All About Eve

New York magazine

And more from our Gossip Girl: on the eve of Oscar, Liz considers the nominees (will Harvey Weinstein make a comeback?)

“COME ON, let me buy you a drink,” says Gary Merrill to Bette Davis in the movie “All About Eve.”

Miss Davis answers in the words of playwright-scriptwriter Joseph Mankiewicz: “Well! I’ll admit that I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail – like a salted peanut.”

* * *

I write this with a kind of rueful joy that Turner Classic Movies will be showing the 1950 film again next Tuesday, on March 1. When I see the date of its release, I can hardly believe it was so long ago – only a year after I came to New York from Texas and entered the worlds of theater, television and journalism.

And that world is exactly what the genius who was Joe Mankiewicz was writing about. Some people believe that Mankiewicz wrote the last movie ever with true dialogue, as in a dramatic play. (This classic is supposed to represent treachery in the New York theater world, but it’s really all about stardom – in any medium.)

While I was re-visiting my happiness at “All About Eve,” my righthand man, Denis Ferrara, who knows more about films and everything else to do with entertainment, chided me. He reminded me that when I was invited on Turner Classic Movies by Bob Osborne to talk about four of my favorites, I omitted “All About Eve” and singled out  “Tootsie,” “Double Indemnity,” ”The Barkleys of Broadway” and “Kitty Foyle” as my big four.

Oh, I protested, I could have named 100 favorites and I was instructed by Osborne not to go into “Gone With the Wind” because they had just done too much on that one. It doesn’t matter, but now thinking it over, I believe “All About Eve” is the best film ever made about show business.

And although Joe Mankiewicz is considered to have failed with “Cleopatra” for 20th Century Fox and Elizabeth Taylor, in the end, I think he didn’t fail. The words he put in the mouths of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the words that eventually came to define their real-life, otherworldly personas.

For instance, he has Burton as Mark Antony saying things like “I’ll never be free of you; I want to be free of you!” and other utterances that eventually became the staples of their marriage outside of film.

If ever you loved a cast of people, take a look at the cast for “All About Eve.” The incomparable Bette Davis who seemed to be playing herself (or Tallulah Bankhead!)…her soon-to-be husband Gary Merrill, still in his prime before she cut him down to size … Marilyn Monroe in an astonishing brief and telling appearance … Celeste Holm as everybody’s friend … Thelma Ritter as Bette’s dresser in a work of comic genius … George Sanders at his sardonic best as the drama critic with the best asides. (This was before Zsa Zsa Gabor ruined George — “She tossed me aside like a squeezed lemon,” he said of their real-life split.) And Anne Baxter as Eve. I confess I didn’t buy Miss Baxter’s butch aggressive villainess. She over-played by a mile and a half. But even that can’t ruin “All About Eve.”

You get Bette Davis at her peak, on a platter, as the insecurely grand aging actress-star. She is simply great. But she didn’t win the Oscar that year. The award went to Judy Holiday in “Born Yesterday.”

* * *

SPEAKING OF Oscar, on Sunday night Hollywood falls all over itself once again, giving out those little golden guys. A few thoughts: Doris Day, still not honored — you should all be ashamed out there! Natalie Portman is presumed the frontrunner for Best Actress but I feel it might just be Annette Bening’s year. She is a four-time nominee, and brilliant, always (some say she should win her own Honorary Oscar for taming Warren Beatty) … Melissa Leo of “The Fighter” was hot in her Best Supporting category, but now she’s not, because of those glam “For Your Consideration” ads she placed for herself, and her complaint that she was “too young to play Mark Wahlberg’s mother.” (Honey, you’re an actress — it’s called “acting.”) So, perhaps Helena Bohnam Carter will swan up to the podium, instead — or Ms. Leo’s co-star, Amy Adams, also nominated in the Best Supporting category … Colin Firth seems a shoo-in for Best Actor, and it’s neck and neck between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” for Best Picture. I am rooting for the former, not only because I loved it, but a win will solidify Harvey Weinstein’s great comeback. And we are all waiting curiously to see how Anne Hathaway and James Franco fare as the evening’s hosts. (It won’t be Ricky Gervais-time, no matter what.)

Oh, and while we muse on great ladies who should be honored by Oscar, how about … Maureen O’Hara? Maureen has at least five classic films to her name —“Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quiet Man,” “How Green Was My Valley, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Rio Grande.” One of her best performances came in 1991’s “Only the Lonely,” with the late John Candy.  Of course, she also starred in movies like “The Flame of Araby,” “The Spanish Main” and “Sinbad the Sailor.” But who could resist fiery-haired Maureen in Technicolor, her bodice perpetually ripped? Miss O’Hara was and is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear onscreen.

And Maureen was brave. She sued the infamous muckraking Confidential magazine and she won!

26 comments so far.

  1. avatar Gerry Schwartz says:

    you wrote:  “…And Anne Baxter as Eve. I confess I didn’t buy Miss Bancroft’s butch aggressive villainess. She over-played by a mile and a half. But even that can’t ruin “All About Eve.”
    Miss Bancroft?  You meant Miss Baxter, I take it.  I’ve read many descriptions of her performance in this movie, and have my own impressions based on seeing the movie at least 20 times, but “butch aggressive” is not a phrase I, nor anyone else I’ve read, would have ever thought up.  You seem to forget that she was reciting lines written by others and was directed by a guy who wasn’t shy about letting his desires known.  I personally thought her performance was nicely balanced between the character’s faux humility and her overweening desire.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Gerry…having watched “AAE” about 25 times myself, I think Miss Smith is onto something.  Certainly I always found Eve anything but the “soft and feminine” creature Margo Channing professes to think she is (the the famous stalled car scene)   There is a scene in Eve’s rooming house with a girfriend which looks awfully chummy, and I recall he way she looms over Celeste in Margo’s bedroom after asking for the role of Cora.  I suppose it’s a matter of perception.  And the final sequence, In Eve’s apartment, being taken in by “I call myself Phoebe”…

      She does over-play, tho that gives the movie a surreal quality–she’s so obvious, why is it only Thelma Ritter who catches on?   Baxter might have seemed less odd had Claudette Colbert played Margo–they share some physical similarity.  But, poor Claudette broke her back and the rest is history.

      I’ve never found Anne Baxter especially feminine in any role. 

      • avatar Gerry Schwartz says:

        M Wow,
        If we looked only at the scenes you mentioned, I’d concede we might read some “butch” overtones into Baxter’s portrayal of the character…but then we’d be ignoring the scenes where Eve comes onto Bill in dressing room, or Eve’s plotting to get Lloyd away from Karen and marry him. Thus I don’t think “butch” applies.  Perhaps bisexual…

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I think butch is too strong.  It plays into the sexist image of women.   A woman who is assertive is either a bitch or a butch so to speak. Anne Baxter as far as I know was neither. But played both quite well.  As for Margo Channing what delicious fate for all of us that Bette Davis played her.  She was, in a way, merely playing herself.  Although I doubt the Eves in her life got past the dressing room door.  Or the Steves for that matter. 

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Baby…no, I certainly don’t think of Margo as “butch” and she was as much an assertive carrerist as Eve. 

        And does nobody remember that in the end, Margo gives in and marries Bill so she won’t be a “woman with a French Provincal office and a scrapbook full of clippings…” for all Margo’s strenght and ambition, she folded to the 1950′s idea of a career woman–nothing unless she has a man.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        strength…

        God, where is the spell check?!!!   I’m an idiot, I depend on it.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I wasn’t referring to Margo but to Eve. Margo was a bitch. But not butch. Eve was a bitch. And possibly butch.  A little butch perhaps. We can compromise.

        Bette Davis was a bitch. But not butch.  Anne Baxter was neither. But played both quite well. 

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Gerry, first of all, forgive me for writing in Bold Type, but the font on Reply is once again teeny, I can barely see what I’m writing.  And given my habit of writing fast and not knowing how to spell…Bold is better.

        As I said, it is a matter of perspective.  Eve does not seem truly sexually interested in Bill or Lloyd, and certainly not Addison—they are a means to an end.  I always thought it might have been interesting to have cast Marilyn as Eve–she was as soft and feminine and beguiling as Baxter/Eve was supposed to be. 

        But, again, from my point of view, Baxter’s heavy-handed performance gives the movie a fab crazy vibe. I guess because from the beginning we know Eve is obviously a bad bit of news, so her portrayal is for us, the audience, rather than the characters in the movie.

        I could watch it every night.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Marilyn Monroe as Eve?  Eve was far too complex a character at that point in her career to have played. Possibly at any point in her career. 

        As for watching it every night, I lived it a couple of nights here and there. “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”  And with that, I grabbed Jack Daniels and settled in on the nearest sofa.  Oh the books just from the cocktail party as I call it. Fondly at this point I might add. 

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        ReallY?  I don’t Eve was complex at all.  She showed two emotions–phony concern and affection for the people she was about to betray, and  a vicious streak of self survival when cornered.  It was always hard for me to beleive she was the great actress she was said to be, “full of fire and music and what-not” as Margo said.  Her reverie about “if only for the applause” seems to come from nowhere and certainly doesn’t fit any of her actions. 

        Of course this is only a movie and one must suspend disbelief, so it’s pointless to analyze the characters too much.  Margo looks ready to give up her career for Bill toward the end.  I once heard women hissing the screen at a revival some years back.

        As for Monroe—I point you to “Clash By Night,” “Don’t Bother To Knock” and Niagara.”   Under the right circumstances (Joe M. would have had to murder “Monroe’s acting coach) I think she could have made a very fine Eve.  And certainly one who was “so soft and feminine…” as Margo relates the qualities she herself feels she has lost.

  2. avatar rick gould says:

    Who doesn’t love “All About Eve”? Brilliant. I love seeing younger friends “discovering” it.
    But I’ll tell you a Mankiewicz gem I love: “A Letter to Three Wives.” It won Joe his first writer/director Oscars, which he duplicated the next year with “Eve.” The only director to accomplish that feat! “Wives” is hilarious, smart and still timely. And “Desperate Housewives” totally ripped off this film’s basic premise, which hasn’t been acknowledged much.
    And Mankiewicz had the herculean task directing “Cleopatra” after its first disasterous version in London. He gave his blood directing it by day and writing it at night. The Burtons both praised him for giving the film what quality it had. And frankly, I don’t think “Cleo” pales THAT much  next to two other highly overrated epics of its era “Spartacus” and especially “Ben Hur.” But there is always an instant knee jerk negative reaction to “Cleopatra.”
    But Mank always brought intelligence to his films, no matter how they varied in quality.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      The only way to appreciate “Cleo” is on the big screen in a theater, or the full screen version on TV.  Cinema purists be damned, the letterboxing is rather extreme, and Joe M. didn’t have very many close-ups, so Miss Taylor and her friends all have heads the size of postage stamps in the letterbox version.

      I suppose if you have a really big TV at home, and sit right on top of it, “Cleo” is fine.
      “A Letter to Three Wives” is great, and it is the underrated Linda Darnell’s best performance.
       

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I’m sorry but Cleopatra is, well, not on the list of truly great cinematic moments. I don’t think any critic had anything nice to say about the film or about Elizabeth Taylor. I also don’t think Elizabeth Taylor cared. She was, as they say, rich when she left Rome and was even richer once the film was released.  I love watching it. It was and is camp as they say. 

        It was supposed to be about Anthony and Cleopatra. As Liz Smith pointed out with regard to some of the dialogue it turned out to be about Richard and Elizabeth. 

      • avatar rick gould says:

        I don’t think it’s great either. But I just don’t think Cleopatra is the bomb it routinely gets labelled as. Who cares what critics say, anyway? They’re just as biased as anyone else, especially when a film has had negative pre-release publicity, of which “Cleo” is the ultimate example.
        I just don’t find it any worse or more campy than supposed classics like Spartacus with Tony Curtis and his D.A. giving Olivier a bath, or Kirk Douglas and his brush cut. Or Charlton Heston and his terminally clenched jaw winning an Oscar for Ben Hur. Zzzzz.
        And Mank’s urbane touch actually makes the first half, with Rex and Liz, quite watchable. But after Caesar gets the knife and Antony steps up… very uneven, to say the least.
        But I am here to praise Joe Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s great writers. A great wit, too.
         

  3. avatar Merlindbear says:

    “You get Bette Davis at her peak, on a platter, as the insecurely grand aging actress-star. She is simply great. But she didn’t win the Oscar that year. The award went to Judy Holiday in “Born Yesterday.”

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, however from what I understand of the Oscar race that year, Ms. Baxter insisted on the nom for Best Actress instead of Best Supporting Actress – causing a split in the vote that ended up awarding the Oscar to Ms. Holiday, who was considered the ‘dark horse’ in that race.  Later in life, Ms. Baxter did express regret at that decision.
    Regardless, I agree that the role of Margo Channing, although ostensibly written with Claudette Colbert in mind, well and truly was only realized with Bette Davis in the role.
      

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Miss Baxter screwed herself and Miss Davis.  And even possibly Gloria Swanson, who was up for “Sunset Boulevard.”   Davis said she would have been happy to cede the award to Swanson, but, Judy Holiday had perfected her role on Broadway for two years, and Bette thought it was unfair that Judy should have won when she and Gloria had created their roles from scratch.

      She didn’t mention Miss Baxter.

      • avatar Jay Gentile says:

        Then by that yardstick, why didn’t the incomparable Rosiland Russell win an Oscar or Auntie Mame? She played that role on Broadway, too, and honed it to hilarious perfection.

      • avatar rick gould says:

        I think time is the ultimate critic, fairly or unfairly.
        Any movie lover can quote All About Eve and the plot’s been imitated numerous times. On a slightly lesser level, the same with Sunset Boulevard. But Born Yesterday? Really? Despite Holliday, who’s a delight, is the movie remembered as well the others? Just my opinion…
        There are many examples of films or performances which everyone praised to the heavens and yet, over the years, fade or don’t hold up. And many performers who were routinely dismissed by critics are beloved by many generations…

  4. avatar gitvo says:

    Maureen O’Hara’s did sue and did score well in the court of public opinion, but I understand that she settled out of court for a relatively nominal amount.

  5. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    Liz Smith’s column is always the highlight of my morning. In a world where gossip gets uglier by the day, Ms. Smith is the last, real entertainment journalist. No TMZ sensationalism. No walks in the muck for our Ms. Liz. Perhaps that’s why so many stars are so open with her. They know Liz will be fair.

  6. avatar mobseen says:

    Anne Baxter was always guilty of overacting.  Need proof? Just go to the Ten Commandments and remember her famous, ” Moses, Moses, Moses”  Hilarious

    • avatar Maizie James says:

      mobseen, I agree.  Anne Baxter never seemed quite ‘right’ for her roles.  I always wondered if her overacting was compensation for her offstage [ambitious] persona. I recall an earlier movie, The Fighting Sullivans.  Her acting was too rigid/harsh; perhaps not butch, but not feminine either.  She certainly was not convincing as the young grieving widow with a young child.

    • avatar rick gould says:

      Aaaahhhh! I can hear Baxter booming that in my head right now!!!
      She sounded like a baritone cow moo-ing ;)
      And her eyebrow was permanently arched as much as Joan Fontaine’s!

  7. avatar Maizie James says:

    Liz, great article!  I like your top five list.
    Just curious.  What are you top five Bette Davis films?
    Mine include:
    All About Eve
    Now Voyager
    The Little Foxes

    Dead Ringer [Peter Lawford playing the 'bad boy' was a plus!]
    The Virgin Queen
    And I have to throw in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for ‘honorable’ mention because it was hilarious to see the two queens of cinema [Davis & Crawford] finally together.
     
     

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Now Dead Ringer was one of those great films most people discovered later on television.

      Then came the “movies that pay the bills” as I believe she called them.  She did them, so everyone else started doing them. Why not? They, well, paid the bills. 

    • avatar Richard Bassett says:

       Davis really deserved the Oscar for 1934′s “Of Human Bondage” with Leslie Howard. Only in Hollywood for a few years at the time, she took a chance on a rather risky plot at the time. She was so good…yet, lost the Oscar. So, of course, she won the next year for the forgetable 1935 “Dangerous” …which was really a message from the Academy saying that she should have won for “Bondage”. I loved her most in the sappy drama “Dark Victory” where she had the chance to run a spectrum of emotions…some hidden. It is hard to believe that Bette was only 41 with “AAE” and Swanson, 50, for “Sunset Blvd”. If remade, actresses in their 70′s would be needed to play those roles today. No, Davis didn’t win for “AAE”. She had two at the time and I guess the Academy thought that was enough…until Hepburn almost two decades later. I will always remember Davis in “The Whales of August” with Lillian Gish. Bette was still the pro that she always was with her timeless amount of talent. I’m glad that she made it. She worked until the very end.
        If there hadn’t been a Burton/Taylor scandal, then ” Cleopatra”, despite Mankiewicz day by day dialog, would not have stood the test of time.