Friday, October 26, 2012

A Mankiewicz Moment


Mankiewicz Moment: The point in time in which one identifies the brilliance of a movie or part of a movie long after having seen it. Antonym: Icebox Moment.

Joseph Mankeiwicz' clever movie plots bear repeat viewings and are worth appreciating. You're so busy enjoying his film, that you're not always aware of the mechanisms which bring you that pleasure.

Take for instance Bill Sampson's (Gary Merrill) first big speech in All About Eve (1950). It's a long, drawn out affair about what constitutes theater. To be frank, after having seen it the first time I fast forward past it during every subsequent viewing. 

I believed the scene was filler, the screenwriter hammering home his personal feelings through a long-winded character. [Mankiewicz does this as well with Kirk Douglas' character in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) on the subjects of teachers' salaries and dim-witted radio programs.]

But Mankiewicz is more than just killing time with Bill, he's setting up our leading man's character and fidelity.



The Scene
While waiting backstage for his love interest - star of the theater Margo Channing (Bette Davis)  - to finish dressing so that she will escort him to the airport, Bill Sampson - on his way to direct a film in Hollywood - spouts off a long monologue to devoted Margo fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) about what constitutes theater. 

It's a perplexing few lines, not for its content but for the fact that it exists at all. Why do we stop the movie for two interminable minutes to talk about what is theater?  Surely Margo could have been ready to leave and Bill and Margo could have marched to the cab for the airport. End Scene.

What is the purpose of this scene? It has bugged me for a while now. I did a bit of reverse engineering, then I finally had my Mankiewicz Moment.  The brilliance of his plot-making actually does three very important things for Bill.

1.This Scene Shows Bill's Personality
The first scene between Bill and Eve gives us a rough sketch of Bill's character and focus. Within  fifteen minutes of running time, the leading man is hurriedly introduced, and whisked away to the airport, not to be seen again by the audience for a few minutes, nor by the other characters for months. We have to know the kind of man he is quickly before the plot quarantines him in California.

The monologue tells you his mind is thoroughly in show business. If he's in love with anything other than Margo, he's in love with his job.

2. This Scene Underscores Bill's Fidelity to Margo
The story hinges on whether the aspiring actress, Eve, is after Margo’s career and her man and how successful will she be at both. Bill’s participation in any hanky panky would seriously devalue him with the audience – he would not be worthy of our leading lady. The story must protect him.

Thus, the monologue in Margo's dressing room when Bill and Eve are alone together is strictly a platonic setting for Bill. He even refers to her as a "kid." The speech gives us a glimpse of the innocuous kind of conversation Bill would have when he's with a neophyte in the business. This is necessary in preserving Bill's reputation with the audience as a director who's only interested in his business and not in philandering with every eager young thing out there who wants a shot at acting.

The next time Bill and Eve are alone together is in Margo's living room waiting for Bill's birthday party to begin. Bill has returned from directing films in Hollywood and is regaling Eve with cinema stories. You'll notice in both times that he's alone with her, he's waiting for Margo, who is always only a few feet away. This, as opposed to meeting Eve alone in a restaurant or some other shady rendezvous.

By this time, Margo incorrectly suspects Bill of having an affair with Eve. The audience knows he's not. The earlier monologue saves him with us, even if Margo believes he's cheating on her.

3.This Scene Contrasts the Final, Antagonistic Scene Between Bill and Eve
The earlier two scenes with Bill and Eve are that of mentor and student from Bill's (and the audience's) viewpoint. The third and final scene they have together alone strikes a different tone, but really does similar things as the second Bill and Eve scene – it affirms Bill’s faithfulness to Margo.

When Margo is out of town and misses a curtain, the director goes backstage to congratulate Eve - now Margo's understudy - for her performance.

It's not clear whether Eve knows that Bill and Margo have dissolved their relationship by this point. What is evident, however, is that the ingénue takes advantage of Margo's temporary absence to intimate having an affair with Margo's man. Bill - shocked - refuses her advances.

This last Bill and Eve scene reaffirms what the audience has thought since the first scene - Bill is the innocent lamb, completely unaware of the danger surrounding him. This virtue undergirds Bill's fidelity to Margo and makes their later reconciliation that much sweeter.

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We know that Bill is worthy of his leading lady because we've seen him behave consistently platonic with other women even when Margo isn't around. That first long-winded scene in the dressing room with Eve - the one I initially believed to be completely superfluous - actually saves Bill's reputation with the audience because it establishes his pattern of fidelity.

What’s your Mankiewicz Moment? Have you revisited a ho-hum scene from a movie and suddenly realized that it is brilliant?

3 comments:

  1. I think one of my best Mankiewicz moments is from the 1951 People Will Talk with Cary Grant. It's the scene with Grant/Dr. Praetorius and the college board. Dr. Praetorius explains the oddities of his friend Mr. Shunderson. It is essential to the true nature both men, and so beautifully written and performed that it always brings tears.

    Wonderful piece, Java. Excellent analysis of Mankiewicz's work in All About Eve.

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  2. My favorite Mankiewicz moments come in "A Letter to Three Wives" - in the scenes between Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern and those between Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell. Mankiewicz delineates two very different marriages with such skill as well as subtlety. I particularly enjoy Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern in roles that are a departure from most of their other work.

    Thanks for a fascinating take on "All About Eve." And so interesting that a scene you routinely skipped through became the source of great inspiration...

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  3. ClassicBecky,

    You've encouraged me to finish watching People Will Talk, finally. Somehow I haven't been able to get through it. Now I will. Thanks.

    Lady Eve,
    Those two couples are my favorites as well. I suppose it's because we spend so much time with them alone.

    The third couple's time is mostly spent in the company of other characters. I can't get a real sense of their life together.

    Thanks for your input!


    - JAVA

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