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A Sparkling 'Eve'

Movies * Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 hit 'All About Eve,' re-released in a newly restored print, still crackles.

November 03, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

No film has had more Oscar nominations than "All About Eve's" 14. No film has had more best acting nominations than "Eve's" five. And no other writer-director has duplicated Joseph L. Mankiewicz's feat of winning Oscars in both categories two years running (for "Eve" and the previous "A Letter to Three Wives"). Though a revival of this exceptionally entertaining 1950 film would be a delight under any circumstances, the film has come back to us in a state worthy of its considerable virtues.

Showing for one week beginning today at the Nuart in West Los Angeles, "All About Eve" is the beneficiary of a newly restored, sparkling 35mm print, a product of cooperation between 20th Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive and the Museum of Modern Art.

Visually impeccable, "All About Eve" displays blacks and whites that couldn't have looked better when the film was initially released half a century ago. Just as important, the soundtrack has been restored using original masters discovered in the Fox vaults. And no film has ever soared as high on the written and spoken word as "Eve."

It's ironic that the year that saw Gloria Swanson's "Sunset Boulevard" lament for the silent cinema ("We had faces") as well as "All About Eve" now looks like a departed golden age of a different sort. They had words then, they had language, they weren't afraid of the power of speech. And if Mankiewicz, whose biography is suitably titled "Pictures Will Talk," was the exemplar of that enviable verbal style, "All About Eve" is his masterwork.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 7, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Film quote--In the film "All About Eve," the line "There never was and never will be another like you" was spoken by critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) to Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). A story about the film in Friday's Calendar misidentified the person who was being addressed.

Based on a short story by Mary Orr published by Cosmopolitan magazine and itself apparently based on a real-life experience by actress Elisabeth Bergner, "All About Eve" is not only the ultimate backstage story, a delicious portrait of connivance and complicity in the world of the theater, it also showcases the kind of witty, sophisticated dialogue (written over six weeks at Santa Barbara's San Ysidro Ranch) that was Mankiewicz's trademark.

The younger brother of Herman Mankiewicz, who shared screen credit for "Citizen Kane" with Orson Welles, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was especially adept at writing parts for actresses. If he ever wrote "All About Adam," he once said, it could be done as a short. Four of the women in "Eve" were Oscar nominated, two in each category, and a fifth used the film as a launching pad for a legendary career. Though the competition meant none of them won awards, the ensemble work they did here is priceless.

The one actress most associated with "All About Eve" is Bette Davis, who plays Margo Channing, the great theatrical diva of her day. Temperamental, tempestuous, even volcanic, Margo, with her big hair, bigger fur coat and magnificently lived-in face is an unstoppable force, the Broadway star all the others envy.

Though Davis was a last-minute replacement for Claudette Colbert, who had hurt her back, she completely threw herself into what became one of her signature roles. It's a performance guaranteed to astonish, filled with spectacular lines, from familiar ones like "fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" to lesser-known delights like "I'm still not to be had for the price of a drink like a salted peanut."

Into Margo's realm comes Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). For months on end, wearing the same trench coat and funny hat, she stands outside the stage door of the Broadway theater where Margo is performing. Finally the wife of the playwright (Celeste Holm) brings her in to meet the great woman, with delicious results that play out like moves of a chess game in Mankiewicz's intricately structured script.

One of the film's secret weapons is Thelma Ritter, who plays Margo's loyal factotum, a former vaudevillian who is part wisecracker, part suspicious bloodhound. Her line after Eve's introductory monologue about her woebegone past--"Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end"--improves every time it's heard.

Though she is ninth-billed (the last time that would happen), a young Marilyn Monroe is already luminous and unforgettable, even in this heady cast, as the companion of acerbic drama critic Addison De Witt, who introduces her as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts."

George Sanders, married to Zsa Zsa Gabor at the time, won the film's only acting Oscar (it took six all told) for his quintessentially urbane performance as the slashing De Witt. His is the only key male performance that's at all memorable: Both Gary Merrill as Davis' director and lover (he later married the actress in real life) and Hugh Marlowe as the playwright were Fox contract players who do not particularly elevate the proceedings.

Though viewing "All About Eve" is a pleasure that time does not wither, the film plays differently now in some interesting ways. Margo's sense of being practically an antique for having turned 40 is one such moment, as are the hints of possible lesbian encounters that appear. And a joke that turns on the audience knowing that a character has mispronounced a French phrase would likely be cut by nervous executives if the film were made today. Which is just one more reason why what a character says about Margo is equally true of the film she lights up: "There never was and never will be another like you."

* "All About Eve" screens at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 478-6379, today through Thursday.

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