Remedial Film School: Watching All About Eve with Amy Nicholson

Screencap (20th Century Fox)

20th Century Fox

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Amy Nicholson from LA Weekly is our guest, and she chose All About Eve (currently available on Netflix Instant). It’s Bette Davis’ birthday this month (April 5). Plus, the film The Clouds of Sils Maria starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz is out now in limited release and is being compared to Eve. Seems like the perfect time to watch this 1950 classic. Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” (Nicholson explains): All About Eve is hit-the-brakes fantastic, a movie so good that you shouldn’t watch anything else until you cue it on Netflix. For film fans who are just starting to get into the classic Hollywood canon, or have heard that Davis is one of the best actresses this city ever had, this is where to start.

Davis plays Margo Channing, a theater star as big and frightening on Broadway as she herself was in pictures. She’s got mean quips and big moments ‐ the infamous, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” But she’s also vulnerable, loving, and calculatedly restrained. In her first scene at an awards banquet for an ingenue she despises, Davis channels her disdain just by blinking. And if you’re a Gone Girl fan, listen to Anne Baxter’s scheming Eve Harrington ‐ you can hear where Rosamund Pike borrowed her numbed line readings.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz could fill a closet with his Oscars. (And his brother Herman wrote Citizen Kane.) Maybe that’s why All About Eve’s bitingly funny insights into the industry still feel sharp: producers nervously trying to make a buck, writers and directors dismissed as second tier talents, ingenues (including an unknown Marilyn Monroe) fluttering into parties trying to get powerful people’s attention, and critics on the sidelines tracking every cruelty and making things worse. Well, I hope the last part isn’t true. As you can tell, I’m beyond excited Bayer is going to watch this for the first time.

“A lamb loose in our big stone jungle.” (Bayer watches): Heck, I didn’t even realize Davis doesn’t play the title character Eve, but instead Margo. That was the first of many twists for me. Going into the film, I knew it starred Davis. Here’s my relationship with Davis up until this point: In a song, Madonna declared that we all love her, and Kim Carnes thinks another woman has her eyes. I also assumed this film won an Oscar. Let me go find out … It actually won six, but no woman won for acting, even though four were nominated (Davis, Baxter, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter).

It’s insane to me that a film from 1950 can still hold up as one of the best portraits of women in Hollywood. More importantly, this is about a powerful actress, and I’m just going to say it, she’s a dame in all of the good ways that could possibly be taken. After watching this film I have a huge Davis crush. Right from the beginning we know this is a comedy because Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) explains during a narration that, “It’s not important what [a man on stage] says.” And he delivers that line with all of the wit we critics hope we have with our writing. The key moment in the opening scene is when two women aren’t clapping for another one who is being awarded. Otherwise, I’m not sure the flash forward is necessary. The film goes on to bounce from comedy to drama.

At a glance I thought Gregory Peck might be in the film, but it turns out it’s just Gary Merrill as Bill Simpson. This becomes especially weird when Bill refers to himself as NOT being Peck. He’s the weak link of the acting chain for me. The more we get to know Eve, a woman desperate to please her idol, the more we wonder what is real with this woman. The voice drives me nuts, which I think is slightly on purpose. Eve speaks in audible, apologetic whispers. Currently, Paula Patton does this in some roles, and you’re right, I didn’t notice at the time, but Pike and Baxter definitely are cut from the same cloth.

The running time made me wonder where exactly this film is going (it’s 2:18). There seems to be a little Lord of the Rings: Return of the King here. They can’t decide on one ending, so they just have them all. I feel like it could have ended in the Cub Room (the film’s true highlight). I didn’t love the actual final scene. It felt too perfect. Though it did reaffirm my feeling that Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle received a lot of inspiration from this film. This movie is steps away from being horror.

The two funniest tiny moments are when someone refers to Eve and Margo’s honeymoon period, it just consists of Margo lying back and eating fried chicken. The other is when Eve and Addison are walking outside of New Haven. It’s an incredibly fake looking backdrop. Any time I see something like that I wonder if I’ll be able to looks at today’s movies the same way 50 years from now.

You might hate this, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but every time I watch a classic or foreign language film, I wonder who would be cast in the remake. So far I have Angelina Jolie as Margo Channing, Emma Stone as Eve Harrington, and Colin Firth as Addison DeWitt. Care to fill out the rest of the cast? Hate me for even bringing this up?

My final random thoughts; I didn’t need the narration (especially with the long breaks and from multiple people), or the flash forward. What’s the equivalent in today’s world for the word “harpy”? I love how much Davis smokes in this film, and my favorite line of dialogue is when she talks of her age (“Now I suddenly feel as if I’ve taken all my clothes off.”) Also, her dress has pockets? That was a thing back then? I assumed that was recently invented. Most importantly, Thelma Ritter, they don’t make them like that anymore. What a brilliant character actor.

Movie Score: 8/10

“Now I suddenly feel as if I’ve taken all my clothes off.” (Nicholson responds): Glad you’ve finally discovered Davis. If you’re hooked, check out a few more of my favorites: Jezebel, Mr. Skeffington, Now Voyager, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ‐ that last one is like All About Eve on LSD doing primal scream therapy. (And co-stars Davis’ rival Joan Crawford.)

We don’t have many female stars in Davis’ mold, or maybe they just aren’t getting parts that show off what they can do. I don’t think Jolie has the fire or wit to play Channing ‐ she’s way more of a cool-toned killer like Eve. Maybe Nicole Kidman, an aged-up Charlize Theron, or my current dream girl, Taraji P. Henson.

I’m a big fan of that final scene, especially how it implies that in the future, stars will have even less time on top. Margo Channing had decades. Eve has a year. Eighteen years later, Andy Warhol would downgrade it to 15 minutes ‐ and in real life right afterwards, the actress who played the ingenue in that last shot committed suicide, in part because her own career never took off. If it had ended earlier, we’d have lost the film’s bleakest message: that in the entertainment business, stone-cold scheming killers like Eve win. At least for a while.

Margo Channing is forced to redefine her own happy ending. Maybe she won’t win any more awards, but she can stop having to care so much about her looks and eat some more damned fried chicken. That might not be the recipe for eternal fame, but it’s a fine way to spend an afternoon. Just like watching All About Eve, for anyone out there who hasn’t. Dig in.

Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men. (Bayer concludes): Davis has MORE movies? Ugh, why does TV have to be so good right now? Between the new episodes of Mad Men, Louie, Veep, Game of Thrones, The Last Man on Earth, plus the two to three wide releases I see each week, and the NBA Playoffs, when’s a boy supposed to find the time? I really need to spend less time with my kid. Nicholson, you completely convinced me about the ending. I like to believe I would have gotten there on my own after watching All About Eve again, but that might be giving me too much credit. Also, I love Theron, so I decided to look up her age to see how long it would be until she was able to play the aging Margo. Davis was 42, Theron is 39. Wow.

Any questions, answers, deep dive trivia about the film, or suggestions for future films or special guests? Add to the comments below.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Vince Mancini (@Filmdrunk) selected Seconds. It is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. Your due date is May 28.

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