Blu-ray Review: All About Eve | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, March 28th, 2020  

All About Eve

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Nov 28, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

What’s left to say about All About Eve in 2019? Among the most revered films the American canon, it was nominated for a record 14 Academy Awards - a record that was tied by Titanic in 1997 but has never been broken - and remains the crown jewel in the acting career of one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, Bette Davis. Its stacked ensemble, razor-sharp screenplay and thoughtful direction make it as watchable and relevant today as it was when it debuted almost 70 years ago. The story of an ambitious young ingenue who slowly ingratiates herself into the circle of an aging Broadway legend and eventually attempts to supplant her, All About Eve is a thematic gold mine, tackling the cutthroat vanity of celebrity life, the pressures put on women as they age, and the complex dynamics of personal and professional relationships.

All About Eve is remembered as one of the great “woman’s pictures” an extremely loose subgenre of melodrama popular through the 30s, 40s and 50s, intersecting with everything from noir to historical epics. The films - as the name would imply - focused on what were then perceived as female issues such as motherhood, aging, mental health and romantic relationships. As pandering as this may sound to a modern viewer - and as pandering as it often was in practice at the time - many women’s films rank among the classics of the Golden Age and feature all-time great performances from titans like Barbara Stanwyck, Vivian Leigh and of course, Bette Davis. All About Eve is emblematic of this trend, featuring no less than four Academy Award nominated female performances from Davis, Ann Baxter, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter. It’s mildly perverse then that the first character we’re introduced to is our narrator - at least initially - Addison DeWitt, played by George Saunders.

Saunders’ performance as DeWitt - the only one in the film to win an Oscar - is the one by which all future depictions of fussy, elitist critics will be measured. A striking antecedent to Alan Rickman’s performance as Snape in the Harry Potter films - looming physicality, clipped annunciation, bored contempt - DeWitt’s character is so breathtakingly, nihilistically cynical that making him the audience’s initial guide through the world of the film seems like a daring risk. His self-introduction is such an active dismissal of a film-going audience - “To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself” - that it’s a testament to Saunders acid-laced-honey elocution and Mankiewicz’s clear identification with his aesthetic zeal that the character could become so beloved.

The film begins with DeWitt’s narration but quickly reveals itself to be a more expansive affair, eventually switching to the perspectives of both Davis’s Margo Channing and Celeste Holm’s Karen Richardson and generally moving among its ensemble with such deftness that arguments could be made for three or four different characters being the ‘main’ character. Mankiewicz’s script and direction excel at grouping and pairing off various cast members in numerous permutations that always feel fresh and genuine. His framing will often include characters in the background or foreground observing a conversation they are not a part of in a way that allows the audience to identify with them even when they’re not speaking. Every bit of dialogue and staging is doing the work of strengthening and deepening their characterization in a way that always feels natural.

As top-notch as the writing and directing are, the performances are what made the film a classic. Ann Baxter’s unnerving, too-good-to-be-true sincerity combines with her Disney Princess features and breathless cadence to make her eventual turn all the more chilling. Her performance doesn’t change drastically once her true colors are revealed, making you recognize how clearly they were there all along. She effectively becomes the protagonist for the final act of the film, another daring but excellent choice in a film that makes many of them. Celeste Holm’s Karen would be a thankless part in a lesser film, the kind-hearted best friend caught between the paranoid Margo and the scheming Eve, but Holm imbues her with a genuine intelligence and caring that makes her all the more tragic. Thelma Ritter has a few short but sweet scenes as Margo’s brassy, New York-accented personal assistant, her entrances into rooms played and framed for comedy in a way that feels sharply modern.

Towering above all of them is Davis as Margo Channing in one of the great performances of the Golden Age. Following almost a decade of mega-stardom, Davis made a string of disappointments in the late 1940s, which coincided with her reaching the dreaded age of 40, when Hollywood tended to put leading ladies out to pasture. The part of Margo was more than a little autobiographical for Davis, and the story of an aging star raging against the dying of the light was apparently a popular one in 1950; Sunset Boulevard was another self-reflexive ode to changing celebrity culture starring a supposedly past her prime actress released in that year. The range and dynamism the character affords Davis is remarkable; she is at turns, a preening diva, a self-pitying drunk, a worn-out romantic and a jaded cynic. Her physicality is equally varied and compelling, from the way she flounces in and out of scenes to the way she rears like a cobra when challenged. As much as Margo despises cheap sentiment, Davis was a master of manipulating it with something as small as the arch of an eyebrow or a downward glance.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray release feels like as definitive an edition of this classic as we’re ever likely to see. Two commentary tracks, a radio adaption, a feature-length documentary on Mankiewicz and the original short story upon which the film is based are only some of the extras featured. Treat yourself to it before Disney locks it away in a vault until 2050.



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