Why ‘All About Eve’ is Here to Stay

Writing for The Independent, Geoffrey McNab explores why All About Eve, which turns seventy this year, is still relevant to audiences today. (You can read his recent piece about The Misfits here.) The photo shown above was taken during a screening in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, as part of the HBO Film Festival in 2012. “10,000 people showed up to see Marilyn, 50 years after her death,” blogger Hans Von Rittenberg wrote here. “Marilyn lives eternal.”

“What makes All About Eve so irresistible is the malevolent wit and relish with which Mankiewicz tells his Darwinian backstage tale … Based on the celebrity New York drama critic George Jean Nathan, [Addison] DeWitt is as sharp in his dress as in his phrase-making but shows no pity for anyone. He happily discards Margo, the star he once championed and sneers with condescension at the naivety of his young companion Miss Caswell (a doe-like Marilyn Monroe) who is as star-struck as Eve but lacks her steel. He describes Caswell as ‘a graduate of the Copacabana school of the dramatic arts’ … All About Eve may be about narcissistic theatre folk but almost everyone watching it, regardless of their line of business, will have encountered their own Eve Harringtons. In business, sport, politics, playgrounds, and in just about every other form of human endeavour, there always comes a moment when the pushy newcomer tries to dislodge the established figure, often using underhand methods to do so. That is one reason why the film is as topical now as it was 70 years ago.”

One reader left this response: “A throwaway line by DeWitt is brilliant – he describes how he had met Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe), they had met ‘In passing.’ One guesses that it was de Witt who did the passing and (Caswell) who had been stationary – on the sidewalk. Quite …”

Miller and Marilyn’s Misfit Movie

Writing for The Independent, Geoffrey McNab ponders why Arthur Miller’s plays (unlike those of his contemporary, Tennessee Williams) have translated so poorly to the screen. He concedes that The Misfits has stood the test of time – perhaps due to the calibre of its cast, and being written directly for the screen (albeit based on a short story.)

“‘It’s a very mysterious business. It’s very difficult to generalise about the movies. It has a mystical effect on you finally. I can see why people devote their whole lives to fiddling with this [medium],’ the playwright, then at the end of his career, told producer/director Gail Levin when interviewed for her documentary Making The Misfits (2001).

John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), about rodeo riders, ageing cowboys and divorcees adrift in Reno or chasing wild mustangs in the Nevada deserts and mountains, was a famously chequered production. It went over budget and over schedule. Miller had intended it as a valentine to Monroe but, during shooting, their marriage imploded. Her behaviour was erratic and her time-keeping infuriating. This, though, is a heartrending movie in which, against the odds, Gable, Monroe and Clift, alongside a youthful Eli Wallach, give their rawest and most tender performances. It combines an old Hollywood feel with the best of Method acting. It also has an obvious added poignance because Gable and Monroe never completed another film after it.

Ironically, Miller felt that Huston wasn’t making The Misfits cinematic enough. ‘What intrigued me somewhat about life in Nevada was that the people were so little and that the landscape was so enormous. They were practically little dots … they were like specks of dust,’ Miller told Gail Levin. He wanted Huston to give the film an epic quality. Instead, the director did close-up after close-up, concentrating on the inner emotions of his tormented protagonists. Nonetheless, the credits are very revealing. For once, Miller’s name appears as big as those of his stars. He originated the project, found the producer and hired Huston.

At the time of The Misfits’ release, audiences were flummoxed. It wasn’t a typical Monroe or Gable vehicle and nor was it a conventional western. Sixty years on, it stands as the purest and least compromised of any of the films in which Miller was involved.”

The Misfits: ‘A Beautiful Accident’

The Misfits is being reissued in selected UK and Irish cinemas from today. Here are a selection of reviews:

“The occasion for this restored re-issue is the BFI’s full Monroe retrospective: this is the pained capstone to her mere ten years of stardom, and surely her deepest, most torn-from-the-soul performance … When Gay calls Roslyn ‘the saddest girl I ever met’, the line springs out as the most direct and insightful ever spoken to Monroe on screen, and she reacts to it as if the truth had been grasped at last. The film gets her totally, and despite all the delays and the hospitalisations and the marital spats which made production such a nightmare, she gets it back. After one lengthy hiatus in rehab, [Russell] Metty had to use soft focus to disguise her poor health, which makes her face swim fuzzily in the centre of the screen at times, and this is somehow perfect for a character so unsure of herself.” – Tim Robey, The Telegraph 

“Its merits and significance have been exhaustively documented over the years, but The Misfits still has a lot to show us about how we should approach Hollywood today … its the vision of stardom’s pound of flesh. The notion becomes even more potent with Monroe. Marilyn was an idea conceived by several patriarchal forces; but you could see Norma Jean in every moment of her screen time; the sad, abused, ambitious woman struggling to negotiate the compromises of Hollywood – a battle between body and soul. We will never understand her furtive complexities, and that’s why we keep trying. She is the key to understanding so much of the context of the American cinema. When we write about Hollywood, we wrestle with supernovas; we can only catch the debris of their magnificence.” – Craig Williams, Cinevue 

For me, the film is itself a bit of misfit, full of big stagey speeches, contrived moments and some overemphatic performances, but opened out with muscular style by Huston. The faces of Gable, Clift and Monroe together in closeup have a Mount Rushmore look to them.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

“As the unexpected swan song for Monroe and Gable, it is marred by their death soon afterwards – but it also highlights their isolation in the world of Hollywood … the reason The Misfits is so thoroughly engaging, is because it often hints at a deeper truth. Huston has captured a moment of change and honesty. The story carries weight, as we know the depression and dependencies behind closed doors – and we only wish this wasn’t the final appearances of such unforgettable stars.” – Simon Columb, Flickering Myth

“It is instructive to read Arthur Miller’s account of the making of The Misfits in his autobiography, Timebends. In his account, the film sounds calamitous. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe was breaking up … Against the odds, she gives an extraordinary performance. It’s an artless one that at times seems phoney, but what she does convey in uncanny and febrile fashion is her character’s power of empathy, whether it is her sympathy for the cowboys (Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift) out of kilter with a modern, wages-based world, or for the wild mustangs they plan to kill.” – Geoffrey McNab, The Independent

“Bolstered by incredible, career-best performances from Monroe and Gable and the meticulous photography of Russell Metty, it’s a powerful and moving viewing experience. As Monroe and Gable ride off in their truck – neither would live long enough to make another film – they seem to leave behind Hollywood cinema as we know it.” – Tara Brady, Irish Times

“This reissue of what became the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (Something’s Got to Give was unfinished) looks even starker and more jarringly isolated today than it did in 1961 … Monroe and Clift seem to be falling apart before our very eyes, John Huston directs through a fog of bitterness and booze, and Arthur Miller’s script reeks of estrangement and misunderstanding – both literal and literary.” – Mark Kermode, The Observer

You can also listen to Mark Kermode’s review for BBC Radio 5 Live here.