Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs.
388 pages, 2000, St. Martin's Press.
I bought this book for Krys because she loves the movie, and when it came around on my alphabetical list, I decided to read it too, because I also enjoy the movie and dig books about individual movies. This is a fun book, too, although it's strangely not as compelling as it could be.

The book is basically written in chronological order, with the publication of the short story on which the movie is based, the machinations to get the rights and begin production, the casting of it, including the fact that Claudette Colbert was going to play Margo Channing until she ruptured a disk in her back just before filming was going to begin. We get a great deal of the behind-the-scenes fun that occurs on any movie set. Bette Davis didn't like Celeste Holm. Both Bette and Gary Merrill cheated on their respective spouses to carry on an affair with each other. Zsa Zsa Gabor, married at that time to George Sanders wanted the part of Phoebe in the movie. Bette Davis lost her voice the day filming began and had to speak the way she did in the movie because of it. There were accusations that she was parodying Tallulah Bankhead with her voice, and bile flew. All the great fun that goes into making a movie is covered. Then Staggs goes on to the release of the film, the Academy Awards ceremony, and Eve's impact on moviemaking and how it still resonates. Finally, he goes into the making of Applause, the 1970 musical based on the original story that saved Lauren Bacall's career, much as Eve saved Bette Davis's.

It's a fun book, and certainly Staggs is a good writer for it. I have no idea if Staggs is gay or not (and I don't care), but he knows a great deal about the gay subculture that has sprung up around the movie and Bette Davis's performance in it. This forms a good part of the book, and it's a fascinating section of it. Staggs also knows a great deal about the moviemaking process, and that's a plus. We get a lot of insight into the nuts and bolts of how Joseph Mankiewicz (whose son, by the way, is a screenwriter on the new Superman movie) managed to get the movie made and get certain things past the censors (which is always a fun part of old movies - the subtext and innuendo), as well as juggling his talented and volatile cast. As with all books about movies, we get stories of the costuming and the set design, which isn't as fascinating but still vital, and we get to hear the gossip about various cast members. One of the biggest problems with the book is that not a lot of the people connected to the movie were still alive by the mid-1990s, when Staggs began the book, and Celeste Holm wanted nothing to do with it. However, Staggs does enough research into other sources that we get enough background into the people involved.

Staggs also ends his book with a long interview with the original Eve, the person on whom Mary Orr based her short story, "The Wisdom of Eve," which was published in Cosmopolitan in 1946. She lived in Venice and was upset that she never got to tell her side of the story. Staggs portrays her as a slightly pathetic person, someone who has been nursing a grievance for fifty years without simply letting it go. She tells of her relationship with Elisabeth Bergner, the star she was supposed to have attempted to supplant, and how Orr told a very skewed side of the story. Staggs, it appears, has a great deal of sympathy for her, but he also points out that she is upset by a fictional story and has lived her entire life with this strange desire to "set the record straight." For a fun book, it's a strangely maudlin way to finish, but it works.

The book has its flaws. Staggs spends far too much time with Applause, the musical, and how it came to be. Given that Staggs himself writes toward the end, "All not-so-great musicals sound rather alike, and this one has plenty of clichéd tunes and lyrics." The long section on Applause doesn't really add much to the legend of All About Eve, and the book would have been stronger if it was trimmed and perhaps Staggs expanded the sections about the impact of Eve and even the behind-the-scenes stuff more. Staggs' first book was MMII: The Return of Marilyn Monroe, and he spends what seems like an inordinate amount of time on Marilyn, especially for someone who has very little screen time. Staggs also has a weird tendency to drop paragraphs into the text describing the fates of some of the characters. We're reading along, and suddenly Staggs adds not quite a non sequitur about what happens to a certain person he's been writing about. They are certainly relevant, but the interrupt the flow. On page 64, he's writing about Gertrude Lawrence, who was a option for Margo. Staggs writes that she decided to star in The King and I, and finishes with this: "Gertrude Lawrence played Anna Leonowens in this smash musical until she was hospitalized with hepatitis in the late summer of 1952 and, instead of convalescing as she had planned, she slipped into a coma and died." What? It's not that the information isn't necessary, it's that it's thrown out so casually. He does this throughout the book, culminating with this on page 314, when he is writing about Gwyda DonHowe, who played Karen Richards in Applause: "Gwyda DonHowe and her husband, producer Norman Kean, spent their lives in the theatre, from the time they met while working in summer stock in 1957 until a January day in 1988 when he murdered her as she lay sleeping and then jumped to his death from the roof of their apartment building." This tragedy is simply mentioned and then Staggs moves on. It's such a strange thing to find in the book, and either Staggs should have done a bit more with this (although I can't see how, since it's such a minor part of the book) or excised it altogether (which would have been better). It's very strange.

All in all, this is a fun book. If you like books about movies, or if you simply love All About Eve, which is a classic, I recommend it. It zips along, it gives you insight, it's sufficiently catty without being evil, and it's an interesting look into how movies affect our society. It's certainly not a deep sociological book, but it is a page-turner. And we can all use more knowledge about Bette Davis, can't we?

Labels: , ,


Blogger T. said...

I love love LOVE this movie. I love anything written by Joseph Manckiewicz (sp?), including Barefoot Contessa and Cleopatra (I thought this movie would be a stinker, but it's surprisingly good and unfairly maligned). If there was one weak point to this movie, I think it's Anne Baxter. I thought she really overacted and hammed it up way too much. She's so blatantly over-the-top even from the beginning when she's supposed to be all innocent that you expect her to be trailing slime behind her all around the set.

6/7/06 4:02 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Staggs RIPS the Barefoot Contessa in the book (I haven't seen it), and his only mention of Cleopatra is that Zanuck fired Mankiewicz off of it. I have heard good things and bad things about the movie, but apparently it doesn't deserve the awful press it gets.

I had only seen All About Eve once before we watched it a few weeks ago, while I was still reading. I think Baxter does a good job for one reason - she sells her story to the cast while letting the audience know, subtly, that she's manipulative. The cast are theater people, after all, and used to over-the-top. I just like how we know she's evil even as she fools everyone.

6/7/06 9:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home