Thursday, September 23, 2010

All About Eve

I watched All About Eve the other night, and I was just as fascinated by it as I was when I first saw it, at least a dozen watchings ago. Joe Mankiewicz’s script is still music to the ear, and the performances are all legendary. It is the best acting Bette Davis has done, and the same is true right across the cast, from Anne Baxter to Gary Merrill to George Sanders to Celeste Holm to Hugh Marlowe. None of them ever equaled what they left behind in Eve. It is hard to believe that there is any film-lover who has never seen All About Eve, but of course there are, and to them I say: Get a copy by hook or crook, and be prepared to see just how good a movie can be.

Eve is Eve Harrington, a fiercely ambitious young would-be actress. Margo Channing is the reigning queen of the footlights, and Eve is a Margo wannabe. Bill Sampson is a successful director and Margo’s boyfriend. Lloyd Richards is a playwright, and he and his wife Karen are among Margo’s small circle of friends. Addison Dewitt is the most powerful drama critic in town. Minor characters flit around these luminaries, among them Miss Caswell, played by Marilyn Monroe before she was Marilyn Monroe.

The plot traces Eve Harrington’s devious journey to the pinnacle of Broadway stardom. The script sparkles with such lines as “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” and “It’s time to tell the piano it hasn’t written the concerto.”

Sam Staggs’s excellent book, All About “All About Eve” correctly notes that half the cast would be forgotten today were it not for their roles in the movie. Bette Davis, 42 at the time, was considered washed up until she played Margo – a role she seized when an injury sidelined Claudette Colbert, the studio’s first choice. Bette had already logged a string of hits that would ensure her lasting fame, but the same was not true of Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter), who won the title role. Gary Merrill, today remembered (if at all) for his role in 12 O’Clock High, had an undistinguished film career until Eve, as did Anne Baxter, Hugh Marlowe, and Celeste Holm. George Sanders, who perennially played British upper-class gentlemen (though he was actually born in Russia), deservedly walked off with an Academy Award for his portrayal of the venomous Addison Dewitt. Margo and Addison are in fact the juiciest roles in the movie, with one commanding every scene she’s in and the other providing the emotional climax of the story and the resolution of the plot. Gary Merrill and Bette Davis were an item during the shooting, and the two married as soon as they could shed their spouses. This was life imitating art, and the on/off-screen romance adds another dimension to one’s appreciation of the film.

But the real star of All About Eve was its writer and director, Joe Mankiewicz. His script attracted and motivated an excellent cast, and his directorial style drew from each a once-in-a-career performance. This in spite of the fact that tempers were often raw. Bette Davis and Celeste Holm managed to play best friends on screen even though they detested each other and never spoke to each other away from the set. It was Mankiewicz who kept them all pushing to achieve the great film they all knew they were part of. For this was no surprise hit; each week, when the rushes were viewed, everybody was surer than ever that All About Eve was a special film.

And it was, and is.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Our $90 Billion Salesman

From “The World This Week” in the current issue of The Economist:

“The Obama administration has announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia arms worth as much as $90 billion over the coming decade, in what would be America biggest-ever weapons sale.”

Did you notice something strange about that news release? The seller is identified as “the Obama administration.” We have come to the point where the Government can make a sale (or not make a sale) for $90 billion dollars’ worth of hardware. That’s a lot of hardware and a lot of paychecks and a lot of commissions for someone. Come to think of it, the aerospace companies don’t even need salesmen any more. The sale is closed when the President says “okay.”

Here’s what Dwight Eisenhower said as he was leaving the presidency in 1960.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Arms manufactured in the United States may be found in every corner of the earth. Some of these arms, if past experience is any guide, will one day be used to kill Americans. We are in fact the world’s largest supplier of weapons of mass destruction. And as other countries cut their arms budgets, our role will get even larger. The military can’t stop it. When it tried to kill a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Congress overruled it; too many jobs were at stake.

Increasingly, the U.S. is the go-to enforcer, because erstwhile allies are quitting the game. Great Britain proposes defense cuts of 10 to 20 percent. Germany plans to drop its draft and cut its armed forces by a third. Today’s “coalition of the willing” is shrinking fast. Meanwhile, as if Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t enough, hawks in Washington press for greater U.S. military involvement in Yemen and Somalia. It is hard to see how this lunacy will play out. President Obama, who probably wishes he could disengage, can’t, any more than he can close Guantanamo. The military is trapped in wars it cannot win. Congress, which deserves the public scorn it gets, keeps funding weapons systems the military doesn’t need.

Eisenhower saw in the military-industrial complex “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” And Dwight Eisenhower was no pacifist. He led the Allies to victory in Europe and was regarded as a bona-fide military hero. One can only wonder what he would have thought on reading a press release for a $90 billion-dollar arms sale – issued, not by Boeing or Northrup or Lockheed, but by the President of the United States.