All About Eve (DVD)
In the better of two commentary tracks on the new All About Eve DVD, biographer Kenneth Geist sees the film as a potent expression of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's rivalry with his brother Herman, an Algonquin wit who had won an Oscar for writing Citizen Kane nine years earlier. Though the film's acerbic dialogue has won it numerous accolades, from a record number of Oscar nominations (and wins for Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay) to a high-camp reputation as "the bitchiest film ever made," Mankiewicz's relentlessly stylized banter does have a faint undercoating of desperation. While the lines sound great coming from the forked tongues of actors like Bette Davis and George Sanders, much of the script has the ring of wit without quite approximating the real thingit's anchored by a bilious cynicism that attempts to pass for wisdom about human nature and the theater world. For a script so routinely anointed as one of Hollywood's best, All About Eve remains a conspicuously shallow and bloodless piece of writing, short on insight and long on unalloyed bitterness, revealing Mankiewicz to be so in touch with creative vanity that he's in love with his own voice. The film might have been remembered differently were it not for Bette Davis, who nearly wasn't cast in the career-defining role of a fading Broadway star whose fortunes mirrored Davis' real-life crises to an uncanny degree. Her catty readings have made her a cult icon, but few actors have been capable of making misbehavior seem so soulful; the more she unravels, the more love she inspires. (As Sanders aptly puts it, "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're marvelous.") But Mankiewicz isn't nearly as generous with Anne Baxter, who's all ruthless, hollow ambition as a faux-naïve ingenue who slithers into Davis' theater circle and ruins their lives in order to advance her career. Introduced as Davis' biggest fan, Baxter ingratiates herself with false modesty and flattery, soon becoming the star's personal assistant, and gaining access to Davis' director husband (Gary Merrill) and the hottest playwright (Hugh Marlowe) in town. As the primary narrator and Mankiewicz's on-screen surrogate, theater critic Sanders gets the most cutting one-liners, but his way of presiding over everyone is indicative of the smug knowingness that poisons the film. Mankiewicz pins his characters like samples under a microscope, but his clinical eye doesn't allow for an ounce of humanity, and at worst, he has the audacity to create an empty shell like Baxter only to have Sanders punish her self-righteously for it. In the end, All About Eve is more Baxter than Davis: It's a smooth and technically proficient performer that has, to paraphrase the film, an award where its heart ought to be.