All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard portray the cynical side of showbiz

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve. Picture: Supplied

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve. Picture: Supplied

This year marks the 70th anniversary of two of the best Hollywood showbiz movies, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. Both are enduring classics with brilliant scripts and casts that present cynical but sympathetic stories about, respectively, Broadway and Hollywood.

The comedy-drama All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars - a record equalled but never surpassed since - and won six, including best sound recording, best costume design and best picture. Joseph L. Mankiewicz also won for best director and adapted screenplay. This is the movie where Bette Davis utters the immortal line, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night".

Adapted from the short story The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, All About Eve is, despite its title, as much about Margot as Eve. Margot Channing - played by Davis in one of her best roles - is a veteran Broadway star who dreads turning 40, worried about what it will do to her career and her relationship with her younger boyfriend, director Bill Samson (Gary Merrill). After a performance, Margot's friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the playwright's wife, brings someone backstage. Eve (Anne Baxter) is a young Margot fan who seems overawed to meet her idol.

Gradually Eve insinuates her way further into Margot's personal and professional lives, but everyone is oblivious to the young woman's ruthless ambition until it's too late, except Margot's dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) and the critic and columnist Addison De Witt (George Sanders).

Apart from the silkily venomous Sanders, who won the supporting actor Oscar, it's the actressses and their characters who register most strongly here. Mankiewicz, who had also won writing and directing Oscars the previous year for A Letter to Three Wives, obviously liked writing for and working with women.

The film deals with many still-relevant subjects - ageing, rivalry, betrayal, friendship, talent - and despite the overall light tone there are plenty of bitchy and witty zingers in the dialogue.

Offscreen, Davis and Holm, playing best friends, couldn't stand each other but Davis became good friends with her onscreen nemesis Baxter (who would later replace an ailing Davis on the TV series Hotel). Merrill and Davis fell in love during production and married, like their characters. Davis, who was not first choice for the role (Claudette Colbert had to withdraw after injuring her back) got a career boost. She hoped for another film about Margot and Bill but after she and Merrill divorced she ran into Mankiewicz at a party and told him, "Joe, you can forget the sequel. I played it and it doesn't work."

Sunset Boulevard, written by Billy Wilder (who also directed), Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, has a darker tone comedically and dramatically. Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), evading car repossessors, drives into the grounds of a mansion owned by former silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

Gillis soon discovers Norma is a delusional recluse, living with her devoted butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim) - who was once her husband and director - and dreaming of a return to the screen. When she finds out he's a screenwriter, Desmond recruits Gillis to help her with her script for her comeback movie, Salome, and, with no prospects, he moves in and becomes her gigolo. But the situation becomes untenable when he falls in love with another woman (Nancy Olson).

Sunset Boulevard gets part of its frisson from its film a clef aspects - Swanson was also a silent screen star whose career faltered when sound came in (though unlike her character, she was a practical woman who prospered in business and working in other media). Von Stroheim had been a top silent-film director - a clip from one of his collaborations with Swanson is used here - and other people make appearances as themselves including director Cecil B. DeMille, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and silent screen stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and Buster Keaton.

The film begins, literally, in the gutter - on which the title is stencilled - and is told in flashback by the dead Joe, whose sardonic narration enhances the story. The portrait it presents of Hollywood is of a place that's ruthless and exploitative with hints of sentimentality. Like Eve, it has memorable dialogue - "I am big. It's the pictures that got small" - but is sharper edged. The finale - scary, blackly funny and tragic all at once - ends with one of the most indelible lines in film history.

Both films were adapted for the stage. All About Eve became Applause, a musical with book by Broadway and Hollywood veterans Adolph Green and Betty Comden (Singin' in the Rain) and music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie). It starred Lauren Bacall who was eventually replaced, aptly enough, by Anne Baxter. The show was a hit and won four Tony Awards including best musical. More recently Eve was adapted as a West End play by Ivo van Hove.

William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard. Picture: Paramount Pictures

William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard. Picture: Paramount Pictures

Several years after Sunset Boulevard, Swanson began working with writers on a musical version (with a happier ending) but the rights were pulled. Stephen Sondheim began his own musical version but abandoned the project when Wilder told him, "It has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen."

Andrew Lloyd Webber had no such qualms and his show, written with Don Black and Christopher Hampton, premiered in 1993.

Sunset Blvd. was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three - best story and screenplay, best art direction and best score.

Davis, Baxter and Swason were all nominated for best actress but they - and Eleanor Parker (Caged) - lost to Judy Holliday, who reprised her stage role in Born Yesterday. It was a year when good roles for women were not as scarce as they sometimes seem to be today.

Both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve are well worth watching - and rewatching. Seek them out.

This story Sun sets on two enduring classics first appeared on The Canberra Times.