When Joe Mankiewicz engaged Bette Davis to play stage actress Margo Channing in All About Eve, her career was at a low point. At age 41 and with over 50 films to her credit, she was at a crossroads. For Hollywood, she was no longer a fresh, young face nor was she yet a proven mature character actress. It is this very tension that lies at the heart of her role in the film, and in a sense having nothing else to lose, she unleashed her demons.
Here is a section from a BBC documentary that places her at this career intersection. There is a quick montage of earlier roles. The section on All About Eve begins three minutes in.
Here is a classic moment from All About Eve, Margo’s party that is done essentially in one setup. (The famous “Bumpy Night” quip introduces the dolly shot that leads into the stairway). Remember the days when the dialogue and the caliber of acting sustained a shot for more than ten seconds? Marilyn Monroe is on George Sanders’ arm.
And here is an even more visually constrained scene that unfolds in Margo’s car, a moment of which ended the documentary clip from above. Unknown to Margo, her BFF Karen has drained the gas tank to let Margo’s understudy, Eve, go on in her place for the evening performance. The audience does not know for certain that Karen has done this, but a suspicious air lies over the scene:
When I consider a scene like this I can’t help asking if it would be possible for a director and cinematographer today to cover it so simply: one two shot, two singles, an insert of a radio. Aside from the seeming manic tics of our society and a sense of near universal ADD, do we avoid such a simple visual vocabulary because the audience won’t stand for it, or because most actors can’t sustain it, or because the writers can’t create it? I’m not proposing an answer, just asking the question.
Not only is Bette Davis’ speech about the identity of women one of the half dozen great monologues in American film, it is amazingly still relevant to many women’s dilemma of career/family. And the fact that it was written by a man is also amazing.
It reminds me of a scene that played out between an actress and the director of a film I photographed some years ago. During the rehearsal period before production began, the actress, who had grasped a strong sense of ownership of her character, began to disagree with the director about her character’s “motivation.” In utter frustration with the director’s defense of his position, she blurted out, “What the hell would you know about her? You’re a man.” The director took a deep breath and said calmly. “Well, my dear, this character that seems to be so real and true to you and with whom you so identify—was written by this man.”
I love being present in as much of the rehearsal process as I can. It gives me a window into not only how the scenes are coming to life off the written page, but often helps me to start thinking about how to photograph the film. I am of a generation that believes that camera style develops first from the actors’ staging with the director, then outwards to the camera. The camera is in a dance with the actor, yes, but the actor leads. And sometimes, I get in the rehearsal process an unexpected insight of just how the power dynamics will unfold once we begin shooting.
As for Mankiewicz, after the success of All About Eve he gravitated back to the east coast and settled in Westchester County north of New York City in a house that was the setting for almost all of the interviews in the Brian Dauth book. Paul Attanasio has the most vivid description of it:
Here, in the den of his big brick house, at the end of a hard dirt road, in the midst of a leafy, puncture-proof country quiet that he has perhaps never known in his soul, and that he certainly never put on the screen, Joseph Mankiewicz… fishes in his pocket for a biscuit he offers his black Labrador, Cassius, who beseeches him with an appropriately lean and hungry look.
The filmmaker’s den is fully book-lined and the volumes all look to have been read.
There is one other anecdote that is revealing of the character of this very civilized man, a man who did not suffer fools. This comes from the interview conducted by David Shipman in 1982, ten years after Mankiewicz has directed his last feature, Sleuth.
During the frenzy of the McCarthy period in Hollywood, while Mankiewicz was president of the DGA and when he was out of the country, fellow director C.B. DeMille had pressured the Board to pass a compulsory loyalty oath affirming that members had never been Communists. Upon his return, Mankiewicz confronted DeMille who said this was the time to stand up and be counted. Mankiewicz asked, “Who gave you the right to do the counting?”
A showdown, a very dramatic meeting of the membership, took place shortly after, a potential confrontation that promised to pit directors against each other in a world that usually avoided politics at any cost. Here is Mankiewicz’s telling of a tense evening that came to a head at two-thirty in the morning:
…my eyes were fixed on one man, wearing a cap, sneakers, puffing his pipe. That was Jack Ford, and I knew that the way he went the guild would go….
(Ford rose to his feet and said to DeMille)
‘My name is Ford and I direct westerns… Cecil, you and I go back to 1916, maybe even earlier, right? Let me tell you something, when it comes to providing the people of the world with the kind of movie they want to see, there isn’t anyone in this room who can touch you, and I respect you for that’… Then he paused, as only Ford could pause, and he said, ‘But, Cecil, I don’t like you. And I don’t like a goddamned thing you stand for. I move that we go home and start making movies because that’s our job.’ And John Huston jumped up and said, ‘I second that motion,’ and there was acclamation and that was it. Except, however, that Willy Wyler demanded that each member of the board resign individually, which they had to do.
Mankiewicz seemed to be always in the thick of controversy and was himself often the subject of it. It stalked him throughout his career, and even later. Some see his literate screenplays and his theatrical directing style as an object of scorn. The tone of the criticism is usually ambivalent, however, as it both decries his self-consciousness of gesture while extolling the intelligence behind it. As I have been reading about Mankiewicz and trying to understand his place in cinema history, I have been struck by the intensity of differing opinions. Here is an article written by Tag Gallager, a John Ford scholar, rambling in its analysis of Mankiewicz’s role as a producer, but finally settling into grudging respect.
Several critics have said that the theatricality of much of Mankiewicz’s work is deliberately self-referential, a kind of post-modernist deconstruction of the very process of filmmaking. They say this is why Jean-Luc Godard so loved his work. “Godardian” cinema is hardly naturalistic, nor is, to pick a director closer to us, the guignol tropes of David Lynch. I don’t really have an opinion on this contretemps. But All About Eve is as much about filmmaking as it is about theater.
Mankiewicz, like almost all filmmakers, had one dream project that he despaired of ever being able to do. He had hoped that if he accepted Cleopatra and if it were a success, it would enable him to return to Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet an adaptation of which he was writing. It is largely the story of a woman, Justine, told from differing perspectives in each of the four novels. It embraced all the hoped for complexities of filmmaking narrative, perspective and flashback that Mankiewicz had ever dreamed of doing. In the book’s final interview with Jeff Laffel, the director says:
When I was finished with the treatment I wrote on the frontispiece, “I’m happy this treatment can’t be read by anyone who has not read all four volumes of ‘The Alexandria Quartet.’ ”
Except for the young Richard Zanuck, the screenplay went largely unread. A notable exception was Durrell himself who read it (and loved it) in a Paris hotel room with Mankiewicz at his side, while both men waded through a bottle of cognac. This description of the novel from Wikipedia can serve both as logline and headstone epitaph for Mankiewicz’s dream project:
As Durrell explains in his preface to Balthazar, the four novels are an exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject-object relation, with modern love as the subject. The Quartet offers the same sequence of events to us through several points of view, allowing individual perspectives to change over time.
Sounds to me like a film all America is just waiting to see.
When I met Mankiewicz in 1987, I was aware of him only as a prestigious writer/director of several films that seemed positively fustian to my still New Wave besotted senses. But DVDs and VOD have seemed to collapse time and space and now that almost everything is instantly accessible, films such as Mankiewicz’s, Zinnemann’s, Wyler’s, and other humanistic directors who were not so long ago out of favor, take on new luster. We can look at them as signposts, even beacons, in the continuum of literate, dramatic/narrative film history.
When Daryl Zanuck, head of Fox and the producer of All About Eve accepted his Oscar for Best Picture of 1950, he just held it up and said, “Thanks, Joe.”