“We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity,” says Addison DeWitt of theater folk in “All About Eve.”
Sometimes I feel and fear that in entertainment today, we have forgotten about the one primary ingredient — the writer. The playwright, the screenwriter, the book author, the lyricist. Without him/her, we are left with nothing but car crashes, stunts , grunts, and animatronic creatures of childhood charm.
The other night the Actor’s Fund gave us a live show for its own benefit in which the writer reigned supreme. This was Joe Mankiewicz’s classic screenplay “All About Eve,” performed in a reading by a stellar dramatic cast no regular production could ever afford to assemble. The talents, fabulously directed by John Erman, were THAT rich! This was a tour de force of excellent performers using the written word to tell a fascinating story. As Lynn Redgrave said in her intro asking us to turn off cell phones, “You wouldn’t want to miss a word of this, the most often quoted of any motion picture!”
The incredible cast of performers was simply wonderful and I was charmed by each and every one. But it was Mankiewicz again with whom one falls in love — his witty one-liners, wisecracks, jokes, japes and philosophies about theater and life. The hip audience knew many of his famous lines by heart but they laid back and let themselves be surprised — over and over. “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night … You’re too short for that gesture! … Why do they all look like unhappy rabbits? … Miss Caswell is from the Copacabana school of dramatic arts!”
Mankiewicz, the cinema maestro, created a screenplay in the ’50s about, of all things, New York theater. In those days, theater was formidable, sometimes intellectual, one of the last bastions of America culture.
Theater today, much more perversely commercial, non-intellectual, and revival crazy, still remains a glamorous arena in which insanely driven persons persevere and sometimes survive. Mankiewicz nailed its essence and brought it to life in the movie classic titled “All About Eve” with Bette Davis and an unforgettable screen cast. That film is a part of past history.
The needs of the Actor’s Fund and, perhaps the needs of certain actors who may hope that their onstage revels will culminate someday in a film revival, created a tsunami of talent. And the night was simply great! Annette Bening, probably Hollywood’s most distinguished star these days, was an impressive Margo Channing. Young Keri Russell was compelling as the ambitious and evil Eve. And I loved a blond, composed Cynthia Nixon as Margo’s best friend. The men — Peter Gallagher as the director, John Slattery as the playwright and Joel Grey as the producer — all impressive. There is a fabulous moment when Jennifer Tilly blowsily makes us forget the youthful, just-beginning Marilyn Monroe. And the audience reserved its greatest applause for Angela Lansbury as the acerbic Birdie, Miss Channing’s dresser. But then there was Brian Bedford, doing the impossible, out-pointing the sophisticate George Sanders as the acid-dipped drama critic, Addison DeWitt.
This was a fabulous night in the Eugene O’Neill Theater where for once we weren’t conflicted about the quality of what was onstage when it comes to comparing life its own self to the glorious recent past of the theater. I know, I know — Mankiewicz does nothing in this drama except make fun of “the thea-tah!” But it is fun made of a desperate love for quality, magic, grandeur, meanness, revenge, backstabbing, schadenfreude, tragedy, comedy and sheer unadulterated fun.
IT WAS AMAZING to see the appealing Miss Bening performing a role made over-famous by the overwhelming Bette Davis and yet, Bening held her own, in spades. It was fine to see a beautiful youngster play Eve Harrington with the “fire and music” of Keri Russell who was more subtle in her evil than Anne Baxter on the screen. As far as I was concerned, this night could have gone on forever. And all concerned deserve a vote of thanks for their generous time and effort. Nobody got paid.
It is often said that Mankiewicz wrote a film drama that was just about the last great dialogue play of real wit and distinction ever grafted onto the screen. You seldom see his kind of plotting and spoken lines in movies anymore. Or rarely.
I never thought any effort could overtake the film version. That, of course, remains and ever will. Its stellar cast, mostly all gone now, remains in one’s heart. But the other night we saw on Broadway that great writing, super dialogue, superb staging and creative talents exist outside of film and, for once, seemed to be in a place where they really belonged.