Emory would not be pleased.
As Michael tells us in THE BOYS IN THE BAND, his friend Emory can “recite the screenplay verbatim” of ALL ABOUT EVE, the 1950 Oscar-winning film.
Recently ALL ABOUT EVE became a smash-hit play in London’s West End. Joseph Mankiewicz’ dialogue, beloved by Emory and millions of others, was certainly one reason why.
Another was Ivo van Hove’s participation. The radical director is hit or miss; A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE is an example of the former while THE CRUCIBLE will serve to illustrate the latter. Yet one can accurately describe van Hove by citing a lyric from APPLAUSE, the 1970 Tony-winning musical based on ALL ABOUT EVE: “Never dull; oh, no — never dull.”
Two other reasons may have been more responsible for the SRO status: Gillian (THE X FILES) Anderson and Lily (DOWNTON ABBEY) James, the stars who respectively portrayed Margo Channing and Gertrude Slescynski, who reinvented herself as Eve Harrington.
Just in case you’re very late to this property, Margo Channing is a famous Broadway star who’s just turned 40 and is feeling it. That’s partly because Bill Sampson, the man she loves, is younger.
Bette Davis was 41 when filming ALL ABOUT EVE while Gary Merrill, playing Bill, was seven years younger. A woman being older than her man isn’t as big a deal today, but it was in 1950. That’s why van Hove upped Margo’s age to 50 and made a bigger a gulf between Margo and Bill.
Actually, Anderson is only eight years older than Julian Ovenden, who portrayed Bill. However, his playing the role in callow fashion made the age difference seem wider.
Into their lives comes the aforementioned Gertrude/Eve, Margo’s self-proclaimed greatest fan. She becomes Margo’s Girl Friday, then her understudy and then her rival. No good can come of all this – aside from a very entertaining film.
Van Hove added a few new lines of dialogue that weren’t worth the trouble. Then he horizontally split the stage; the upper half sported a wide video screen; below it, the performers did the show. Sometimes the video displayed detailed close-ups of the scene we were seeing; at others, it showed what was going on in other rooms while the principals were chatting.
The video-graphers were unseen until the late-in-the-show scene where Margo, Bill, Karen and Lloyd were dining together. Then the cameramen went buzzing around the table with the obtrusiveness of the puppeteers that encircle King Kong.
A recurring image was the strongest. Margo peered into a backstage dressing room mirror buttressed by vertical light bulbs. She wasn’t happy with that past-her-prime face. CGI effects then aged her well beyond her current years to show her previews of coming unattractiveness.
This contrasted nicely when the younger and at-the-moment prettier Eve later assessed her still-good looks in the mirror. And yet, even she appeared a little old in comparison when Phoebe, Eve’s biggest fan, looked into the looking glass and her future.
When Mankiewicz began penning his script more than 70 years ago, he was writing for a national movie audience that didn’t know all that much about Broadway. Millions of many moviegoers didn’t question that most of the theatre people were, well, nice.
So on the surface, van Hove’s making Margo seem jaded was a smart and realistic decision. No one would question any star who’d have a good deal of cynicism inside her.
Anderson, however, laid on too-thick snide side-of-the-mouth cynicism. When Margo was introduced to Eve, Anderson repeated the name in a way that was meant to diminish the doe-eyed miss. Then, as Eve told the star her backstory, Margo barely listened – unlike in the film, where she’s paying rapt and sympathetic attention.
The downside of this more realistic approach was that Margo was no longer a character for whom we could care. Considering her superciliousness, we even wanted her to be taken down a peg. Any comeuppance couldn’t come fast enough for us. How we agreed with the line “Stop treating your guests as your supporting cast.”
Here it was shouted – not said, but shrieked — by Karen Richards, wife of successful playwright Lloyd Richards (not, incidentally, the Lloyd Richards who directed many August Wilson plays). Van Hove retained Mankiewicz’s description of Karen Richards as a Radcliffe graduate while making Monica Dolan play her as unsophisticated, even crass.
Two scenes emphasized that van Hove’s take and Dolan’s performance were all wrong. When Margo apologized in the car with the empty gas tank, Karen didn’t retain her cool but wept openly and loudly. That would be a clear tip-off to Margo that her friend had been involved in a plot. Celeste Holm in the film seemed guilty, but worked hard not to let Margo catch on.
Later, after Margo said she didn’t want to do Lloyd’s new play – leaving the role open for Eve — Dolan’s nervous laughter was far more uncontrolled than Holm’s. Such boisterous bursts would make everyone demand to know what was so damn funny.
Karen, however, wasn’t the only misstep that van Hove made. Stanley Townsend’s take on Addison De Witt – the dean of theater critics — lacked the dry martini style and urbane wit that garnered George Sanders an Academy Award. Van Hove had Townsend play him down-to-earth — too down-to-earth, really, more an avuncular man of the people rather than a rara avis. This made his devastating brass-tacks confrontation to Eve come seemingly out of nowhere.
Ian Drysdale changed producer Max Fabian from a mittel-European to an All-American. Miss Caswell — originally played by the then-up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe – was far more savvy, accomplished and ambitious in Jessie Mei Li’s hands. Thus Addison’s famous lines that Miss Caswell is “a graduate of Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts” and his later observation that “You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point” were excised from the script.
The characterization of Eve went through the greatest change. In the film Anne Baxter almost breathed Eve’s lines as if she were afraid to say them. James’ Eve was crisper, savvier, less a shrinking violet and more Audrey II.
When Baxter was essentially blackmailing Karen but sugar-coating it with “I’m so happy I can do something for you,” she played it as if she really believed that she was doing a mitzvah. James’ Karen said it in a voice dripping with let’s-not-kid-ourselves and I-know-I’m-a-bitch.
Those who see the ALL ABOUT EVE film spend the first half of the movie wondering if Eve is sincere or phony; they’d make up their minds much sooner here.
Van Hove obviously wanted inelegant-looking production. The Noel Coward Theatre’s back wall and radiator pipes were exposed. Blow-up photographs of Margo were placed here and there – at least until they were replaced by large pictures of you-know-who.
Only a few set pieces were positioned here and there. Without an abundance of door frames, Margo’s bed seemed to be in her living room. No, Margo does not live in a studio apartment.
If we needed any more evidence that this was a less glamorous ALL ABOUT EVE, Exhibit A occurred when Karen and Eve played their climactic final scene together. In the film, they sat on a posh divan in an elegant powder room. Here Karen sat on a closed toilet seat.
Van Hove did create a starting image in the scene where Addison lowered the boom on Eve. She was clad only in her slip while Addison was holding her dress and extending it wide so she could put it on. Eve then held out her arms straight ahead and allowed him to do it – making for an image that was quite like her putting out her hands and allowing herself to be handcuffed. In a sense, that’s what was happening to her.
Let’s note, though, that putting the film on stage with the same characterizations wouldn’t seem fresh or necessary. Van Hove, as always, took chances. They just may not have been the ones you would have taken.
Both the film and this play have a speech where Bill extolled his definition of theater, bringing in everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Donald Duck and plenty of off-the-beaten-Broadway-track live shows. When he conceded to Eve that any one of these “may not be your theater,” so this ALL ABOUT EVE might well not have been yours — or Emory’s.