May 31, 2017

Bette Davis • All About Eve

as Margo Channing
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress • Cannes Film Festival - Best Actress

At long last, we’ve come to Bette Davis. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this performance and have attempted this write-up 3+ times, only to give up and shelve it away for a later time.

Why? Because this is a performance that has been praised to the high heavens, and yet…it’s played in quite a straightforward manner. It's executed in such a way that is potent but far from what one might deem as “mind blowing” or “revelatory.” Unlike the likes of Gloria Swanson and Judy Holliday, Davis isn’t projecting a character with eyesore and ear sore idiosyncrasies. She is playing Margo Channing forthright. Simply put, Davis does not transform into “Margo Channing” - she instead takes the character and shape-shifts it to fit a “Bette Davis” mold. The beauty of it all is that the character is a perfect fit to the actress - Davis may very well be playing herself, but this is an instance in which both character and actress persona fuse together seamlessly.

Bette Davis, All About Eve
You listen to or read descriptors of Margo and you'd think people were talking about Davis herself. Take Addison DeWitt's line in the film: "Margo is a great star, a true star, she never was or will be anything less or anything else."

Or Bosley Crowther's description of Margo: “...this lady, an aging, acid creature with a cankerous ego and a stinging tongue…

What struck me in my early reviews of Davis' work (Dangerous, Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, et al), and what was tough to initially grapple with was how she always appeared to project "Bette Davisism" into the various characters she played. With such a strong personality, her strong-minded characters generally read as similar across the board. Say what you will about the woman, but Davis was not what I'd consider a chameleonic actress. You don't watch Bette as Margo and think "THAT is Margo Channing!" in the same way that you may think "THAT is Billie Dawn!" or "THAT is Norma Desmond!" 

No, Margo Channing is basically a vessel to project all those Bette Davisms that we know and love about "Bette Davis" the movie star. In the past, I've deducted points on performances wherein the actor seemingly just plays an iteration of him or herself. I suppose that was the most difficult part of writing up this performance; justifying why one playing oneself makes for such a fantastic piece of work.
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Simultaneously inexplicable and without a doubt, Davis is Margo. Her mere presence is felt. It is that type of palpable star power possessed by movie stars of a certain stature or era, much in the way that Gloria Swanson is felt in Sunset Blvd. And even in the face of the theatrics, Davis still feels lived in as she drunkenly insults everyone at her party or screams at her peers and boyfriend in the theatre. The star power referenced by Addison permeates through every frame that Davis is in - even while sitting there, draped in fur and bearing a look of general indifference - every note of the performance feels right because Bette Davis is Margo Channing and Margo Channing is Bette Davis. The bravado she brings to the film is unmatched and uniquely hers. It goes without saying that for a movie that is not All About her, Davis still steals the spotlight from just about everyone in the picture. The picture is more exciting when she's around.

She is so quick and sharp with the comedy, sliding in quips into those wordy exchanges with playful ease. Conversely, she has some lovely moments of vulnerability - that harsh shot of her smoking in bed in the dark, that shot of her on the verge of tears after reading Addison's column.
Bette Davis, All About Eve
For a movie about a bunch of bitchy dramatic divas, this is a performance that is full-fledged bitchy dramatic diva at its most cinematically satisfying. I've often read about performances in which an actor is described as being their character - I'd never quite understood why that may be a positive thing, as I tend to have an affinity for performances that require a transformation of sorts. I question whether this was actually a challenging part for Davis. I like to think that she turned this one out with quick deft.

And so, after all this time, I think I've finally come to terms with my thoughts on this performance. I don't need Davis to be transformative here a la Sophie's Choice. Davis, being herself in all of her glory, is magic - she sets the foundation and the criteria down for others to transform into her. I think that's why it's so great - the role allows her to be exclusively herself. And neither she - nor her magic - can be replicated by anyone else.



6 comments:

  1. Like Joan Crawford, widowed once and divorced three times, Davis met her final husband on the set of "All About Eve." She would go on, much later, to tell Johnny Carson that she regretted not living in a time when you could shack up with someone first before taking the matrimonial step, "except for Gary. I still would have married Gary." She and Merrill fell very swiftly in love, and in this case it helps her work too.

    Allen, I definitely don't envy you the task of this review, nor wonder that you discarded several false starts. It is as emblematic a role-to-actress as Leigh and Scarlett, built to test the greatest swordsmen of the English language. You did remarkably well.

    As to the award itself, I still don't begrudge Judy her win. Certainly I could had Davis not already had two. That's not to say Davis doesn't deliver perfection here. She does.

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    1. You're too kind - I certainly do not fancy myself anymore than a very amateur writer, but glad you enjoy what you read here.

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  2. Terrific review! And I think this performance is sensational.

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  3. After the 1-2 punch of 'Jezebel' and 'All About Eve', I chose to ignore Bette Davis films for 15 years. Had I not reconsidered, I'd have missed now-favorites like 'The Little Foxes', 'The Petrified Forest', 'The Letter' and 'Now, Voyager' (her, not the film). That said, my first impression of this performance remains: it epitomizes everything I dislike about Davis as an actress. The 'mannerisms' loved by so many (though, truth be told, abhorred by so many as well) repel me. The clenching hands, chimney-smoking, hip-strut swaggering, staccato line readings, shoulder-shoving scream-fests that mistake shouting for connection to character .... they're all here. Yes, no one could have played Margo like Davis, for who better to do spot-on imitations of her collection of mannerisms than the actress herself. I do not believe her for one second in her 'tender moments' and (in one of her worst tendencies as an actress) she barges through scenes without engaging with or adjusting to the performances of other actors. She's fully capable of doing so, as I later discovered, but sadly does not do it here. And I'm not referring to the character of Margo; it's Bette in full-throttle mode I dislike.

    There is a reason why generations of Davis imitators have honed in on 'Margo' and 'Jane' for their takes on the actress and helped make her a camp figure. I prefer the quieter, subtler Davis performances where she either moves me with her emotional connection to character or persuades me with her artistic acumen. Here, she's a bull in a china shop and I don't care to be another teacup in her path.

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    1. We shall agree to disagree - I think you make great points, and I certainly understand where you're coming from. I do think that where we deviate is that while everything you say you dislike about Davis as an actress is on display - for me, all these things worked - for the part, for the film. I've never been one to appreciate these mannerisms in say, Dark Victory, but the way it melds together made the part better and more enjoyable - I certainly couldn't imagine a quieter and subtler Davis for All About Eve.

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