Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Nine

#9 — All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, is responding to a direct question. The tension in the room is stirred and the temperature is rising. She’s asked if the darts she’s already been hurling represent the end or the beginning of her charged activity for the evening. She throws back her cocktail, strides purposefully away from her group, pausing one step up the stairwell to turn back and advise, curdled smile on her lips, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” It is the sort of perfect line that defines a movie, and Davis’s delivery of it takes it a step further to become the iconic representation of an entire screen career, or at least a well-loved screen persona. In that handful of words lies that uncompromising authority that always suited Davis best. She can wither a fool with a single word and signal her dissatisfaction with the flint of her gaze. Margo Channing is the apotheosis of that archetypal Davis character, the one that years of ferocious acting talents could be funneled into. Playing a theatre grand dame being slowly, cunningly maneuvered out of the spotlight, Davis could lay into the material with a relentless sharpness and a emoting power meant to bounce of the back wall of the house. Actors sometimes get blessed with the ideal role at the exact right time. All About Eve is the greatest gift Davis could have received.

The line quoted above is surely the most notable in All About Eve. It’s also probably not even in the top fifty of any ranking of the best lines in the film, if anyone were foolhardy enough to attempt such a tally. The screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (based on a 1946 short story by Mary Orr) is one of the true masterpieces of cinematic writing. Aside from a handful of film noir classics, there may be no competition for most wickedly intelligent lines per square inch of celluloid. There are barbs aplenty as an array of characters, most of them jaded to different degrees by their lives within the cutthroat business of show, offer bleakly funny assessments of the competitive goings-on. Davis is the unquestionable star of the piece, but the cast is loaded, with its remarkable five Academy Award nominations in the acting categories as compelling evidence (to this day, it remains the only film in Academy history that received four separate nominations for female actors). The sole winner among the performers on Oscar night was perhaps the clearest scene-stealer: George Sanders as the devilishly dry theatre critic Addison DeWitt, the last syllable of the character’s name duly hinting at his superpower. Barely a line escapes DeWitt’s lips that isn’t a bit of beautifully rendered comedy, and Sanders drolly gets the best out of every last one.

All About Eve believes in the nobility of the stage, extolling the greater artistry that can be achieved by those who devote themselves to life trodding the boards. Yet, it is also merciless in its depiction of the toxicity of the profession, personified by Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the ingenue who shrewdly uses ingratiating innocence as a means to wrench open the door to stardom and acclaim. In a field where the art of performance is celebrated, wouldn’t the person who can extend their masquerades convincingly into the rooms and corridors backstage be the one most likely to succeed? Baxter is a wonder in the role, giving subtle glimpses of the dark soul behind the dewy eyes. All About Eve has the whirl and wonder of a modern fable, but Baxter, Davis, and everyone involved — all guided by Mankiewicz’s smart, sure direction — wisely keep it grounded in the real. That gives the film allegorical application to a place and time that one person can be shunted aside for another that simply played the game better, maybe by implementing new rules they’ve made up on the spot. It seems to me that cautionary tale works just about anywhere. Bumpy nights aren’t that rare. It’s best to keep the seat belts fastened at all times.