Friday, December 14, 2007

An old kazoo and some sparklers

I'm not actually all that familiar with All About Eve, so it was good to see it at my local cinema.
This is, of course, the Bette Davis film that rounded off her golden Hollywood period. It is a very good movie rather than a great one: as always with Mankiewicz it is at least half an hour too long and only perfunctorily filmed; the dialogue is the thing, though even this could do with judicious pruning. It survives mainly on account of a few waspish one-liners, a generally convincing evocation of the solipsism of the theatrical community and two terrific performances.
Actually three - as well as Davis's superlative Margo Channing, a great actress facing middle age and usurpation by the insufferable Eve, Thelma Ritter comes close to stealing the show as the wisecracking Birdie, the humblest but wisest person in the room when Eve makes her first move, and the only one to instantly see through her act.
But the real star of the show for me is George Sanders as venemous critic Addison DeWitt. It is to Sanders's absurdly rapturous description of one of Eve's performances as "a thing of music and fire" that Davis characterises herself as "an old kazoo and some sparklers".
As always I find myself pondering why Sanders was never a major star; he's certainly talented enough, handsome enough, and blessed with the most melodious speaking voice around. Perhaps he is just too cynical, apathetic and indolent in his manner to suggest hidden reserves of heroism or romance. He played his share of heroic roles, but audiences always felt most comfortable with him as the witty, ironic bystander, first with the putdown and last into the fight.
Perhaps they also sensed that what they saw was pretty much the real man. David Niven, who liked him enormously, speaks in his autobiography of Sanders's mocking reluctance to do anything to support the British war effort - which certainly took bravery of a sort - and his cheerful admission that his death would come at his own hand. When he did eventually commit suicide in 1972 he left a note addressed "Dear World", citing boredom as his principal motive and concluding "I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool."
But what a screen presence - possibly one that communicates itself more attractively to our hard-bitten age than it did to his own. It is to Sanders that Mankiewicz donates the film's best and truest line: when Marilyn Monroe's lousy aspiring actress asks "Do they have auditions for television?", Sanders replies "That's all television is, my dear: nothing but auditions."