Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
What more could a film buff want than this true treasure in their DVD collection? It stands as a monument to the power of cinema with performances by an ensemble of actors virtually on fire, each one delivering lines that leap off the screen and into our ongoing vocabulary; “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” being foremost among them. This classic quip was, of course, spoken by the legendary Bette Davis who stars as Margo Channing, a forty-year old theatrical star in the midst of a triumphant season of a play dubiously titled ‘Aged In Wood’. And watching her strut her stuff on stage every night is a star-struck, twenty-four year old called Eve (Anne Baxter), a woman who will inveigle herself into her idol’s life and subtly proceed to unravel it.
The film begins with a tantalising narration by theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) who introduces the main players as they sit through an interminable speech at the Sarah Sidden Society Awards. Apart from our two leading ladies, there’s Margo’s director and “groom” Bill (Gary Merrill, who was also Davis’ real husband); her long-time playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). Two characters not present at this salubrious event but who make huge impressions during the flashback that constitutes the rest of the film are Margo’s dry witted dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) and Claudia Caswell, a pert platinum blonde graduate of the Copacabana School of Arts, played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe. As Addison prophetically says to her; “I can see your career rising in the east like the sun”.
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a story by Mary Orr which was first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1946, the acerbic screenplay is sheer bliss to the ears. Makiewicz, whose brother Herman wrote that other masterpiece Citizen Kane, also directed the film, giving each player their head as they gallop towards a finishing line that turns out to be a dark place indeed, revealing only an endless cycle of ambition, paranoia and fear as the old inevitably gives way to the new. Not only is it a devastatingly cynical ode to the theatre but also a mighty fine human drama.