06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mankiewicz Biographer Kenneth Geist on All About Eve (Is Joe)

This is Part II of an article on All About Eve featuring highlights of a recent interview with film scholar and National Board of Review member Kenneth L. Geist. Eve kicked off TCM's Classic Film Festival in NYC. The festival continues in L.A. from April 22 through 25.

Like Casablanca (1942), All About Eve (1950) is one of those classic films one can watch over and over again without ever tiring of it. Part of its splendor is to be found in a "truly bravura performance by its star, Bette Davis, as a theatrical diva whose temper tantrums towards others are as much fun to watch as are her savage misgivings about herself," wrote Kenneth L. Geist back in 2000 in a New York Times review of a book devoted entirely to the subject of the film.

Geist--author of the Herculean biographical effort known as Pictures Will Talk: The Life & Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz--has more insight into the film's enduring qualities than most contemporary cinema scholars, which is an accolade he has earned the hard way.

It's not just that Geist survived Mankiewicz hurling a copy of Peter Bogdanovich's Fritz Lang in America at him during an early interview in the 1970s, nor that he managed to distill into chapters what it has taken other writers entire books to explicate, i.e., the disaster-laden Cleopatra (1963)--which screens on the last day of TCM's film festival--and All About Eve, which grew out of Mankiewicz's golden period. Geist has also identified the dynamic between theater and film and the primary and secondary processes at play in creating this masterpiece.

All About Eve is "Mankiewicz's valentine to the theater," noted Geist in a recent interview. "It is sheer wish fulfillment," and reflects "the conflict between Broadway's prestige and Hollywood's lucre" on the part of the writer-director who never realized his dream of a career in the theater. And what perfect descriptions as one contemplates the parallel between films and dreams (or "bumpy nightmares," as the case may be)--where Andre Bazin meets Sigmund Freud and Geist dared to tread during the eight-year process of writing his critical biography.

All About Eve followed shortly after a forty-year-old Joseph L. Mankiewicz (JLM) emerged from winning twin Oscars for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949). With this one picture, JLM caught up with and surpassed his older brother Herman, who won the 1941 Oscar for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. Legend has it that JLM was known around town as "Junior," riding on the coattails of his more talented brother, who brought him to Hollywood in 1929. Geist posits it is the sibling rivalry disguised as a conflict between a celebrated, aging, but still open, stage actress (Margo Channing) and a younger, calculating, and talented unknown (Eve Harrington played by Anne Baxter) that gives Eve its "unconscious vitality." Combine Eve with the acerbic, vicious theater critic (and theater-obsessed) Addison DeWitt and you pretty much have a portrait of some of the latent and manifest aspects of JLM himself.

DeWitt (George Sanders) brings a very young and pretty, aspiring actress (Marilyn Monroe) to Margo's cocktail party, introducing her as, "Miss Caswell, a graduate of the Copacabana school of acting." And, later that evening, as a butler passes by:

Miss Caswell: Oh, waiter!
DeWitt: That is not a waiter, my dear, that is a butler.
Miss Caswell: Well, I can't yell "Oh butler!" can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler.
DeWitt: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.
Miss Caswell: I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.
Max Fabian [a powerful theatrical producer]: Leave it to me. I'll get you one.
Miss Caswell: Thank you, Mr. Fabian.
DeWitt: Well done! I can see your career rise in the east like the sun.

JLM's reverence for the theater as well as his ambivalence about Hollywood crop up everywhere in All About Eve's phenomenally literate, witty, bitchy dialogue that Geist likens to Edward Albee, Noel Coward, and Oscar Wilde. "Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck!" snaps Margo Channing to theater director Bill Sampson (soon to depart for Hollywood). "What is he, your lover?" It is Bill who refers to Eve--whom he first admires but then sees through--as "Junior" throughout the film. Birdie (Thelma Ritter)--Margo's loyal companion, dresser, and ex-vaudevillian--senses Eve's duplicity early on:

Margo: She thinks only of me, doesn't she?
Birdie: Well, let's say she thinks only about you, anyway.
Margo: How do you mean that?
Birdie: I'll tell you how: like... like she's studying you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints - how you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep...
Margo: I'm sure that's very flattering, Birdie. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with it.

Again, one might be describing JLM who had "a fascination for women" and was more interested in writing about women than men. Geist notes in his book that the director-writer once joked that he found male behavior so basic that, "All About Adam could be done as a short." In Geist's interviews with Celeste Holm--who played Karen, the playwright's wife--she described the film as "All About Women" and JLM's attempt to resolve his neurotic obsession with the theater.

In spite of an experience that cured him from ever wanting to delve so deeply into another person's life and work again--except maybe director George Cukor--Geist remains magnanimous about Mankiewicz: "Bette Davis was on her best behavior with Joe because it was the best script she'd had in a long time. And he excelled at working with stars." The erudite author sums up Eve thusly, "It's his best film...a treasure. It is an evergreen film."

"Evergreen" might also be used to describe Geist's Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which was published in 1978 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons) and features an introduction by Richard Burton.