Thursday, May 14, 2009

All About Eve -- consequences of insatiable ambition

Director: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1951.

Time for a pop quiz. Question: what movie garnered the most Oscar nominations ever (14)? Answer: that historical disaster movie with Leo and Kate . . . Titanic. True enough. Question: which movie got 14 nominations years before DiCaprio was even born? Answer: All About Eve. In fact four of the female actors were nominated, also a record. However, Titanic won 11 Oscars, the most ever (tied with Ben Hur and Return of the King); All About Eve won only 6. One of these was Best Picture. Two went to Mankiewicz for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Interestingly, his brother Herman Mankiewicz won the screenplay Oscar seven years earlier for Citizen Kane.

The film opens at an awards ceremony where theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders winning an Oscar) gives voice-over narration to set the stage. As the camera pans we see the main characters in the film all looking decidedly gloomy. Then when Eve Harrington gets up to accept the award, the film moves back a year to recount all about Eve getting there.

Eve (Anne Baxter) is a young devoted fan of aging stage legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis with those big eyes). Every day she waits by the stagedoor to catch a glimpse of her idol and attends every single show of Margo's Broadway play. One day she meets Margo's best friend Karen (Celeste Holm), who is won over by this humble and naive woman from the sticks. Karen brings her backstage to meet Margo and in the dressing room Eve meets all the other main characters: Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Karen's husband and writer of the play; Birdie (Thelma Ritter), the cynical dresser and friend for Margo; and Bill (Gary Merrill), director and long-time boyfriend of Margo. (In fact, during the filming Davis fell in love with Merrill and afterwards became her fourth and last husband.)

In this first meeting, Eve's gushing sob story of her life impacts the cynicism of Margo and her friends and wins Eve the beginnings of friendship. She moves into Margo's guestroom and becomes her secretary-aide, organizing her affairs. Little by little this petite charmer ingratiates herself fully into Margo's inner circle.

Eve reminds me of David's son Absalom. When he returned to Jerusalem after being exiled for killing his brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13-14), he wanted the kingship in place of his father. To ingratiate himself with the people of Israel, he would stand by the road leading to the city gate and meet all those who had complaints. Listening to them, he would tell them, " 'Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you. . . . . If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.' " (2 Sam. 15:3-4) In this way, he won over the people to his position though he never actually delivered on his promises. He was driven by ruthless ambition and needed the people to be behind him.

Eve, too, was driven. She was not the simple-minded girl she appeared. Instead, she was a cold-hearted snake driven by an insatiable ambition. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew what she wanted and what she was prepared to do to get it. And like a snake ready to strike, Eve knows exactly when to dig in her fangs.

At one of the parties that she herself organized she makes a move. It is at this party that the angry Margo speaks the famous line, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" And bumpy it is. All About Eve is filled with sparkling dialog, witty and cynical, a scathing commentary on the goings on behind the scenes of Broadway productions.

Eve is enchanted by adulation. As she comments on the theater she says, "If there's nothing else, there's applause . . . like waves of love pouring over the footlights." But this is not real love. She is seeking the approval and applause of men. Man's approval is fickle. It comes, flares brightly, and fades quickly. Paul warns us against such approval: "On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts" (1 Thess 2:4). Paul realized that pleasing God was more important and valuable than pleasing men. Being lauded by men pales compared to being lauded by God with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matt. 25:23) When the lights fade, when the wrinkles merge, the audience will be gone, but God will still be there.

Eve's lust for the limelight drove her to sin and crime. From the act of lying to deeper manipulation and more, Eve counted the cost of ambition but was willing to pay the price. With deception comes division. And her friends became enemies. Likewise, as Absalom made his push to be king, he lost the friendship of his siblings and his father. Eventually he lost his life in an ill-fated civil war (2 Sam. 18:9-15).

Ambition itself is amoral. It creates a drive to accomplish, to excel. In the early days of the church, the apostle Paul had an "ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known" (Rom. 15:20). This was a positive ambition that led to the sharing of the gospel and the foundation of churches across southern Europe. But Paul also warned, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (Phil. 2:3). Whereas Paul's ambition was selfless, Eve's was rooted in selfishness and prideful vanity.

Alongside Eve, DeWitt is a formidable partner and mentor of sorts. He says, in his voice-over at the start, "My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater." He produces his column, filling it with caustic and cynical criticism of those who actually work in the theater, all the while soaking in his own self-importance.

This raises the question of the role of the critic. Is the critic really essential to the theater? Is the critic adding value in a positive sense to the performance? In All About Eve, DeWitt is a political player, contriving and conniving behind the scenes and through the formulation of public opinion. But he is really not essential. He acts as a negative force more than a positive contributor.

But what of film critics? I write here as one trying to make a difference. Is criticism art? No, the art is in the performance, in the film itself. But is there value in the writing of personal opinion? If it helps others to see the art better, to connect with the film-maker's message, then I believe there is value. In my case, if I can help make a connection to the divine somehow, pointing out how I see the relevance to a biblical worldview, then perhaps I have made a contribution to the enjoyment and valuing of the film. You be the judge.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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