Once an avant-garde director but now, as The New Yorker has quipped, just the garde, the tech-heavy, video-happy Ivo van Hove has developed a splashy franchise reviving classic movie scripts on the stage. In February 2019, at the Noël Coward Theatre in London, his attention turned to All About Eve, which first came to the screen in 1950 starring Bette Davis as the aging Broadway diva Margot Channing and Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington, the faux-naïve barracuda. “I’d do much more,” Eve says, confronted with the dirty tricks she played to land a hot playwright’s latest star vehicle, “for a part that good.” Gillian Anderson, Van Hove’s Margot, and Lily James, his Eve, will have known just what she means.
In the indispensable More About All About Eve, the historian Gary Carey asks the film’s screenwriter and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz if it’s fair to say that he was more attracted to the women in the story than he was to the men. “Fair?” came the reply, with perhaps just a whisker of reverse male chauvinism, “I’m well-nigh besotted by them.... Men react as they’re taught to react, in what they’ve been taught is a ‘manly’ way. Women are, by comparison, as if assembled by the wind. They’re made up of—and react to—tiny impulses. Inflections. Colors. Sounds. They hear things men cannot.”
Nominated for a record 14 Academy Awards, Mankiewicz’s masterpiece won six Oscars, including Best Picture and two—Best Screenplay and Best Director—for Mankiewicz. Of the four actresses nominated (another record), all were disappointed. As rivals for Best Actress, Davis and Baxter split the vote to be bested (as was Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard) by the comedienne Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Same story with Celeste Holm, as Margot’s best friend, and Thelma Ritter, as Margot’s wise-cracking dresser, who both lost to Harvey’s Josephine Hull. But suppose Hull had been up against Baxter, with Holm and Ritter out of contention. Who’s to say Davis and Baxter wouldn’t each have gone home with her own statuette?
In Van Hove’s show, Margot and Eve are a decade older than they were in the movie, and the actresses who play them are older, too. (Anderson much more so than James, but isn’t 50 the new 32?) A camera artfully concealed in a dressing-room mirror ages them a whole lot more, to ghoulish effect; on a gigantic video screen, their beauty turns to ashes before our eyes.
Mankiewicz’s dialogue, however, survives virtually untouched. Anderson and James take possession like virtuosos let loose on a double concerto we’ve long known by heart from a single historic recording. Blasé yet astringent, ever coiled and on her guard, Anderson is wearier than the Margot of memory, devastated by the specter of old age. James, for her part, is a scarier Eve, minus the fake halo, with a rasp in her voice straight out of The Exorcist.
All About Eve is available for streaming on the National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii