- All About Eve
- Sunset Blvd.
- The Furies
- Los Olvidados
- King Solomon’s Mines
- Variety Lights
- The Asphalt Jungle
- Born Yesterday
I’m fascinated by the red-blooded, screen-tearing work done by Kirk Douglas in the Bix Beiderbeck-inspired musical Young Man With A Horn. It’s one of his least celebrated lead roles (critics tend to veer more towards Champion, The Bad And the Beautiful or his Van Gogh), but this performance is up there with the best of them. He convincingly blows that horn with as much passion as he destroys the love of the women around him, and even Doris Day can’t come off a virgin beside him (her delivery of “The Very Thought Of You”, by the way, is pure heaven).
The competition that made headlines that year! Oscar watchers were dying on their feet to find out who would win the cutthroat race for Best Actress in 1950: silent screen queen Gloria Swanson making her return in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard? Or would Bette Davis scoop up her third trophy for her Lazarean comeback in All About Eve? Oscar wimped out and gave the trophy to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and not without some justice–Holliday is exceptional in the role and it ranks as the highlight of her sadly short life–but this many decades later, the results seem ridiculous. Swanson is marvelous in Wilder’s drama, all presence and poise, but how can anything compare to Davis’ masterful delivery of the truckloads of dialogue that Mankiewicz throws at her? “All writers should be dead for 500 years!” she declares with foundation-rattling gusto. At the same time she exudes as much ease swishing around rooms in world-weary malaise…it’s no wonder the performance is one of the few non-musical roles to inspire drag queens around the world for many a year to come.
Making a film like All About Eve with such plum roles for women means you need not worry about the fellas, but Mankiewicz was never one to be hemmed in by limits. Addison deWitt, the snivelling society columnist played with unapologetic relish by George Sanders, threatens to steal the entire film from all these fantastic ladies. His glorious climax, when he lets Eve Harrington know that he is her one and only dungeon master, is a tour de force of evil glee that never veers into lamentable camp.
You don’t name a girl Karen unless you want her to mean business, and that is exactly what Mankiewicz does with the character that Celeste Holm plays in All About Eve. Everywhere that Margot is emotionally volatile and unfocused, Karen is sharp and determined, though she also has a soft emotional centre that Margot seems to have elided. Holm plays the character with intelligence and incredible charm, and would have had a better chance at the trophy had she not just won for Gentleman’s Agreement three years earlier; this one ranks as her career achievement, however.
With all the love being heaped on All About Eve, it would be fair to veer attention away to the other classic of 1950. Mankiewicz’s brilliant film can be said to be mostly in the writing, so I’ll heap the praise of direction upon the great Billy Wilder,whose tribute to the fading glory of silent films in Sunset Boulevard combines its rich nostalgia with a pungent sense of decay, plus incorporating a murder mystery. Besides, most of what makes Swanson’s performance so incredible is Wilder’s framing and lighting, the way the shadows turn her eyes into fireballs of fury, and her hands into insatiable claws. It’s a film that still hits hard after all these years.