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The trouble with ‘All About Eve’BY: Dan Rottenberg 08.10.2010
All About Eve won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Picture, and ever since it has been justly acclaimed for its incisive portrait of Broadway backstage backstabbing. But something about this classic always bothered me, specially when it’s contrasted to Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run?
Show business villains revisited:
All About Eve won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Picture, and ever since it has been justly acclaimed for its incisive portrait of Broadway backstage backstabbing. It still holds up well on TV, but something about this classic always bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read Maria Corley’s recent BSR essay advocating performing arts education as an antidote for student cheating.
The film’s protagonist, Eve Harrington (played by Ann Baxter), is an ambitious young actress who, posing as an adoring fan, wheedles a job as personal assistant to the grande dame of the Broadway stage, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Through a manipulative combination of flattery and favors to Margo and those in her circle, Eve proceeds to displace Margo— first on the stage, and then in her personal life.
In the interim, a cynical theater critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), discovers that Eve Harrington is a phony: Her real name is Gertrude Slojinski, and before meeting Margo she had been paid to leave a Wisconsin town after an affair with her married boss. But instead of exposing Eve, Addison blackmails her and promotes her career. Barely a year after her arrival in New York, Eve has become the grand dame and Margo is washed up. In a final coda, Eve hires an adoring fan who, we are led to believe, will to do Eve what Eve has done to Margo— a rough kind of Broadway-style justice.
Just one problem
Here we have a devastatingly profound human study of actors when their masks come off, laced with razor-sharp dialogue by its director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But there’s one problem with the film’s scenario: Eve may be a conniving bitch, but at the end of the day she does possess real acting talent. Without that, all her manipulations would be useless.
As Maria Corley put it, “Live performance is one of the few arenas where cheating is all but impossible: Either you can play the piece (or recite the lines) or you can’t.”
Viewed through this prism, the definitive work about the sleazy side of show business is not All About Eve but Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Schulberg’s amoral protagonist, Sammy Glick, does all of his hustling behind the scenes, and consequently he gets away with it.
Sammy begins as a copy boy at a newspaper. He possesses neither education nor discernible talent but tremendous ambition and street smarts. Sammy begins by stealing a screenplay from a young writer and submitting it to a Hollywood agent under his own name. Subsequently, through a combination of plagiarism and under-the-table payments to a ghostwriter, he rises to the top ranks of Hollywood screenwriters, even though he’s never written a word.
Sammy also discards his girlfriend to marry the daughter of a Wall Street financier. By the end of the story he’s a prominent producer, managing a stable of writers.
If anyone locked Sammy in a room and told him not to come out until he’s written a script, his entire hustle would collapse. But of course nobody does. Like a cockroach, Sammy flourishes in the shadows, where he can’t be pinned down. But Eve Harrington, once she has clawed her way into the spotlight, triumphs there. Nobody can take that away from her.
Yes, yes: I am shocked— shocked!— that an aspiring actress named Gertrude Slojinski would change her name to Eve Harrington. But whatever her name, there’s no escaping her bottom line: This witch can act.♦
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