Review of All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs

St. Martin's Press 2000 369 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

"The golden girl, the cover girl. The girl next door . . ." This is the description of the world's most famous celluloid stalker, the sweetly evil Eve Harrington, offered by one Addison De Witt, feared theatrical reviewer, in one of the talkiest, wittiest, and most universally beloved of American films, 1950's All About Eve . Sam Stagg's new book tells you everything you wanted to know about Eve and considerably more besides.

Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz--whose older brother Hermann (co-author of Citizen Kane ) had brought him to California in 1929--All About Eve was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, a record it held for 48 years, until that boat-hits-iceberg picture.

This book covers the complete story, beginning with actress Mary Orr's short story, "the Wisdom of Eve," a lightly fictionalized account of the actress Elizabeth Bergner's relationship with her understudy; through the film's production; to the Broadway musical version, Applause , starring Lauren Bacall.

Along the way we are entertained by numerous Hollywood anecdotes. Staggs notes that of all the famous actors in the film, only one was to see her star rise following the picture, Marilyn Monroe. Her character, Claudia Caswell, was "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art." Or, as Constance Bennett said of Marilyn at a Hollywood party, "Now there's a broad with her future behind her."

He also considers the evidence that Miss Davis spent the film doing an imitation of Tallulah Bankhead, a rumor Bankhead mined for laughs on her television show. If there was any truth to the story, he finds Mankiewicz the guilty party, not Davis.

While the reader may expect to hear stories of on-set fireworks, especially considering the mutual animosity between Miss Davis and Celeste Holm, Staggs notes that "the placid set of Eve turned into perhaps the happiest professional experience of Bette's life."

Although it won Best Picture, surprisingly, the film gleaned only one Oscar for acting, for George Sanders. One expected that Bette Davis would be a shoo-in for her portrayal of a famous actress turning forty, "Margo Channing's Long Dark Cocktail Party of the Soul." However, Anne Baxter's legitimate and successful attempt to have herself considered for Best Actress as well seemed to have split the vote, and the statuette found its way into the hands of Gloria Swanson for Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard .

What accounts for the enduring appeal of this movie "strictly for grown-ups?" Staggs argues that "more than politics, psychology, or camp, it's the vitality of the movie that keeps [viewers] hooked." This does not prevent Staggs, however, from devoting considerable space in the book to the gay elements of the film, both its appeal to a gay male audience, and its "crypto-Sapphist" subtext.

Staggs notes late in the book that "as far as possible I had unified the contradictory narratives and random gossip into an authentic account of All About Eve ." However, at close to 400 pages, one may find oneself--straight or gay--hoping that Staggs soon will run out of material. For every interesting story of, for example, the real Sarah Siddons (the namesake of the award Eve receives), there are pages and pages of material that may appeal to the genuinely obsessive fan, but may cause the casual but interested reader to look for a fast-forward button on the page.

If you haven't seen the film, rent it tonight. If you're a fan, and want to learn, for example, how to say "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" in French, consider reading All About "All About Eve" .