Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Bitch's Brew

Sam Staggs Sharpens His Claws On A Catty Hollywood Classic In 'All About All About Eve.'

by

comment
All About 'All About Eve', by Sam Staggs (St. Martin's Press). Cloth, $25.

"FASTEN YOUR SEAT belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" With that campy cocktail party bon mot, Hollywood legend Bette Davis, at her eye-rolling, hip-swaggering, teeth-gnashing zenith, forever left behind her career as a legitimate actress and shot into the stratosphere of camp icons. Given that she delivered said line in the middle of a highly respected, Best Picture Oscar winner stuffed to overflowing with similarly bitchy zingers, it was only a matter of time before someone took it upon themselves to catalog absolutely everything about All About Eve, which since its release in 1950 has held the peculiar distinction of being viewed as both art and trash by generations of loyal cultists and critics. Enter obsessive fan and cultural scholar Sam Staggs, whose new book All About All About Eve also manages to straddle the line between art and trash. Staggs' fanatical document will leave many readers cheering and just as many scratching their heads.

The film All About Eve, detailing the backstabbing shenanigans of a two-faced young starlet named Eve Harrington who worms her way into the glittering sphere of Broadway theatre -- along the way destroying her older actress role model/mentor Margo Channing -- crackles with the kind of sharply literate writing that has become an endangered species in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Populated by a cast of dagger-tongued actors who clearly relish the chance to wrap their tonsils around some of the wittiest dialogue ever to grace the silver screen, Eve stands today as a caustic, middle-finger salute to show business and its inhabitants, a cynically brittle deconstruction of the corrosive power of fame that still has the power to shock. Its acerbic view of a world overflowing with vindictive critics, bloodsucking ingenues and spineless writers, all saddled with an unhealthy obsession with youth and a penchant for hard liquor, offers a blackly misanthropic metaphor for society at large, and its debatable quality and undeniable excesses quickly garnered it a reputation as a cult film, even before such a term existed.

The story behind the making of the film is undoubtedly fascinating in a trashy, Hollywood Babylon-ish way, and self-professed Eve fan and film scholar Sam Staggs has performed an impressive feat of historical reconstruction in detailing literally all one would ever want to know (and much one probably wouldn't want to know) about the film. Tracking the evolution of Eve from its genesis as a non-fiction Cosmopolitan article in the mid-'40s, through its rocky road to the big screen, an incarnation as a Broadway musical in the late '60s, and finally to its enduring impact on popular culture today, Staggs leaves no martini glass unturned. Deftly weaving together historical documentation, film dialogue and personal anecdotes into a compulsively readable narrative, Staggs has crafted an unusual "biography" of a film that feels like a scholarly work wrapped in a potboiler fiction cover.

Combining oral histories with extensive primary and secondary source research, Staggs makes a convincing argument that the behind-the-scenes action on the film was a catty meow-mix of clashing personalities that not only mirrored the onscreen action, but actually one-upped it. Aging screen diva Davis, tearing into the role of aging-actress-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Margo Channing with rabid ferocity, not only resurrected her own moribund film career by playing a part uncomfortably close to her own life, but also lived up to her bad-girl reputation by attacking literally everyone involved with the production. From her off-camera feud with co-star Celeste Holm (Holm: "Bette Davis was so rude, so constantly rude. I think it had to do with sex"), to her bitter jealousy of up-and-coming starlet Marilyn Monroe (Davis: "That little blonde slut can't act her way out of a paper bag!" To which Monroe later replied, "She sure was a mean old broad"), no one remained unscathed.

Co-star George Saunders, who had the anxiety-provoking distinction of being both bisexual and married to future Queen of Outer Space Zsa Zsa Gabor, had nothing but bile to heap upon his cranky co-star. (Saunders: "Davis' lack of fundamental graciousness toward her co-players disgusted me.") Male lead Gary Merrill, playing Davis' younger onscreen lover, became embroiled in a stormy, tabloid-tracked affair with the older, married Davis off-screen as well. (Merrill: "She didn't care who she cut down with her scythe-like tongue.")

Writer/director Joseph Mankowitz's constant battles with 20th Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck over the editing of the film pale in comparison to glamourpuss Tallulah Bankhead's very public vendetta against Davis for stealing a role she believed to have been patterned after her. (Tallulah: "Dahling, just wait until I get my hands on that woman...I'll pull out every hair in her mustache!")

Staggs weaves these sappy storylines into such a tempestuously trashy hoot, it's difficult to believe the film ever saw the light of a projector.

In an entertaining melding of style and content, Staggs' prose throughout mimics the florid style of Mankowitz's scripted dialogue, as when he describes Davis' real-life daughter as "the love in her heart and the dagger in her breast." Unfortunately, his writing occasionally seems so breezy and fan-like that it undermines his often keen observations. Staggs is most effective when he tones down the hyperbole to unearth the rich Freudian subtext of the film (as well as the veiled references to Eve's "killer lesbian" tendencies), astutely noting that said subtext is what makes a film endure rather than fade away as mere entertainment. While carefully delineating the film's cultural impact on such diverse sources as art films (Fassbinder's Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant ), recent Hollywood schlock (Paul Verhoeven's enjoyably trashy Showgirls), and even pop psychology (the goofy self-help book Sisterhood Betrayed: Women in the Workplace and the All About Eve Complex), his image as a starstruck fan threatens to overwhelm his objective stance.

Strangely subjective statements such as "Nobody has ever topped Mankowitz's use of the freeze-frame, before or since," rub elbows with such grossly over-generalized theories as, "Gay audiences have always worshipped Eve....Why? Because gays love glamour...and can relate to Margo's fear of aging." Frequent flights of narrative fancy, in which the author places speculative inner monologues into the heads of these real-life characters, and provides intimate details and running commentaries that reek of artistic license used to make the action seem even more over the top than it probably was, place the book on a tightwire between fact and fiction. There are, however, instances when Staggs' mostly harmless, fan-based approach tips into the realm of the creepy and the bizarre, as when he slavishly recounts pouring over Davis' original shooting script, noting with lip-smacking relish every coffee stain, grease spot, and mysterious red blob. ("Lipstick...or a drop of blood? And if so, whose?")

All of which illustrates how firmly All About All About Eve situates itself into the emerging literary genre of "Fictional Non-Fiction" (see Edmund Morris' creatively fictionalized Reagan bio, Dutch, and Dave Eggers' rule-busting meta-memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for just two recent examples) -- where facts are far from sacred, and the author's subjective voice molds reality into a far more personal expression than classical non-fiction typically allows. While passion for subject matter and a creatively enhanced perspective can, expertly applied, make all the difference between just-the-facts drudgery and a snappily memorable work, unchecked it can just as easily cloud the legitimacy of the project. Staggs' work, while exhaustively researched, regularly follows its subject into camp, prodding the reader to laugh both with and at the work, often during the same sentence.

So the question remains: Is an entire book about "the bitchiest film ever made" necessary? Well, yes and no. At its best, the study offers a fascinating glimpse into the mechanisms of old-school Hollywood filmmaking, the ways in which films both reflect and influence popular culture, and the shockingly childish behavior of the stars we choose to worship. It's also very funny, with enough memorable lines to fuel any wannabe wit's next cocktail party. At its worst, it wallows in a fannish devotion that borders on the crassly sentimental. And to quote the unforgettable Margo Channing herself, "I detest cheap sentiment."

Add a comment