22 February 2001 | gbrumburgh
A masterpiece of old-style theatre back-stabbing with a cherished, hand-picked cast.
THE definitive saga of backstage brouhaha ever dished out by Hollywood. A triumph of screen-writing, never will one see such ripe, acrid dialogue spewed out like this again -- every indelible scene gloriously stained with classic one-liners. An actress wanna-be looking for her big break carefully worms her way into the glamorous life of a legendary Broadway star, then tries to supplant her privately and professionally.
A sterling, incandescent cast provides the fire and music to this concerto of theatre attitude. Bette Davis knew she was handed a dream role when she was cast as Margo Channing, the indomitable diva caught up in the throes of mid-life crisis both on- and off-stage. Not willing at all to deal with it tactfully, she makes life a living hell for anyone within knife-throwing distance. This juicy, once-in-a-lifetime part turned Davis' own flagging middle-aged career back on its feet, especially coming on the heels of one of her biggest "dumps" ever, "Beyond the Forest." Remarkable as it may seem, Bette was not the first choice here, replacing an injured Claudette Colbert. With all due respect to Colbert, Bette Davis was BORN to play Margo Channing. A mauling lioness one minute, a coy, declawed pussycat the next, Davis relishes every wickedly bitchy scene she gets to tear into. Yet in her more introspective moments, she evokes real sympathy for Margo (as only a true star can) especially when her character missteps. It's a resounding victory for the Queen Bee in every way, shape and form.
Her "supporting cast" also manage to create a buzz of excitement. Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe, known for their relative blandness, are splendid here in their respective roles as queen bee's lover and playwright. While Merrill's Bill Sampson tames Margo the woman with gutsy directness and virile passion, Marlowe's Lloyd Richards appeases Margo the star with flattery, great dialogue and a calm resolve. Worth watching, then, are their fireworks scenes with Margo when intelligence and restraint no longer work. Debonair George Sanders gives customary snob appeal and dry cynicism to his waspish, ultimately loathsome columnist Addison DeWitt, who swarms around Broadway's elite knowledgeable in the fact his lack of heart and poison pen yield exclusive rights and power. The most sensitive and sensible one in the collective bunch, the one lacking a true stinger, is Karen Richards (played wonderfully by Celeste Holm), Margo's best friend and confidante, who finds herself caught between the queen and a hard place when she accidentally makes a pact with the devil. Thelma Ritter couldn't be overlooked if she tried. An inveterate scene-stealer, she weathers strong competition this time in a movie crammed with clever conversation and pungent zingers. As coarse but well-meaning Birdie Coonan, a brash ex-vaudevillian now the queen's ever-loyal "drone", Ritter's character properly handles her boss's antics with amusing grit and backbone. On the periphery of this Broadway beehive is mop-faced Gregory Ratoff as an edgy, gullible, thick-accented producer, Marilyn Monroe as a hopelessly vacuous starlet, and Barbara Bates, as a novice schemer with a very bright future, all making their few scenes count -- especially Bates, who is forever enshrined in the film's stunning final shot.
The chief thorn in Margo's (and everybody's) side, and the other real star of this picture, is the queen's titular lady-in-waiting, Eve Harrington. As played by Anne Baxter, this role is probably the most delicate and difficult of all for the weight and believability of this drama falls squarely on her shoulders. Unfairly overlooked all these years by the flashier posturings of Davis, Baxter does a beautiful job of drawing initial pathos then panic as she slowly unveils her own lethal stinger. By film's end, Baxter is directly on par with her scenery-chewing co-star. Killer to killer. Champion to champion.
Six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (also Mankiewicz) and Supporting Actor (George Sanders) went to this cinematic bon mot. Had Bette Davis and Anne Baxter not competed as Best Actress (Baxter refused to place herself in the Supporting Actress category), it would have drummed up two more awards to be sure.
Developing a faithful cult following over the years, this film deserves to be on everybody's "top ten" list.