For my money, Anne Baxter gave one of the best performances in movie history in Orson Welles’ “Magnificent Ambersons”. Her Lucy offers a fresh, original spin on the ingénue – smart, supportive and skeptical at the same time. It’s rich and warm, playful, inventive – an altogether spectacular piece of work. And Moses wasn’t the only miracle worker in “The Ten Commandments”. On the surface of it, Baxter, as sexy throne princess Nefertiri, seems unlikely casting. A little past her heyday as a movie star. Without the box-office clout of Susan Hayward or the sexpot image of Marilyn Monroe. But, what do you know? She turned out to be a complete delight in the role. The screenplay chugged along on a nifty level of low-octane poetry, somehow managing to reconcile the grandiose elements with comic ones. And Baxter’s performance shone at both ends of the spectrum. What’s more she proved a marvelous partner for Heston AND Brynner, bringing out the best and the beast in both of them. The lady buzzed with authority and snap. And the Egyptian hair-styles and costuming made her look sexier than she’d ever been before, evolving impressively from frisky kitten to vengeful pantheress. No doubt about it – when it comes to Baxter, I’m an admirer.
Yet the role for which Anne Baxter’s most famous is one I have real reservations about. Eve Harrington brought her an Oscar nomination and lasting renown. And at first glance, she seems to be almost perfect casting. Because Baxter had already proven that (a) as a fresh-faced ingénue she really could be not just believable but beguiling and (b) she had the voice, poise and general smarts to play strong, intimidating types too. Eve has to be able to take a lot of people in (pretty much everybody but Thelma Ritter – and, of course, who could ever fool her?) with her apparent sincerity. But , at some point, she’s also got to pull out that inner viper. Plus bang out enough charisma and authority to convince us that onstage she’s able to not just understudy Margo Channing but actually supplant her. Baxter’s got the balls for that. But it’s as “innocent” Eve that she falters. The wheels are constantly turning for all to see. She might as well be waving a blueprint of her plans at the audience. When she starts launching those theatrical intakes of breath and switches on the faraway look to wax poetic about art/life, it simply doesn’t fly. Phony baloney posturing of the sort usually reserved for a Justin Trudeau speech. It doesn’t fool us and certainly wouldn’t convince the pack of Broadway wiseguys she’s pitching it to. Did Mankiewicz really think this was the way to go? Hard to believe. Doesn’t it seem obvious that the key to capturing the early Eve is to play it as if you really ARE nice – as if you hadn’t read the whole script. Clearly Baxter’s devious Eve has her nasty eye on the prize from the get-go. It’s well-known that Jeanne Crain was a prime contender for the part. And certainly her onscreen niceness was just what the doctor ordered for Eve’s initial scenes. Problem is who could ever imagine Crain as a potential rival, let alone successor to Bette Davis? I mean, Crain as Baby Jane? Forget it!
I do think there was an ideal Eve available, though. One who was on the scene and at just the right moment in her career to sieze the part and soar with it. Someone who, like Baxter in “Ambersons”, had polished off a superb demonstration of what exciting things could be done with an ingénue role. A young actress touted in 1950 as a star of tomorrow. With reservoirs of talent that could have made her a superb Eve in the picture’s later stages as well as the early ones. I could say Barbara Bel Geddes. And she’d have been a pretty smart choice. But – even better, I think – Nancy Olson, so marvelous in “Sunset Blvd”. That got her a well-deserved Oscar nomination. and it seemed likely there would be more to come.
I’d leave the rest of “Eve”’s cast alone. But Olson would have been the ultimate Eve. Fresh and sincere – so brave and good to begin with. Who wouldn’t want to help her? Then impressively and evilly empowered in the later stages. Olson played her young women in a direct, straight-from-the shoulder style quite different from Anne Baxter’s take on Eve. If Baxter had a moustache, we’d have seen her twirling it in reel one. A shame, because, elsewhere, Anne Baxter had made it clear she shared Olson’s gift for making forthrightness interesting. Without ever veering into eccentricity, Nancy Olson still managed to be intriguing. She had an excellent vocal instrument, pleasing but with a suggestion of steel. Beautiful, but watch out – that steel might just get cold and sharp enough to do some real damage.
In my universe, Anne Baxter would still have an Oscar ( for “Ambersons” though, not for “Razor’s Edge”). And Nancy Olson would have kicked off her filmography with not one but two great performances in classic Hollywood-on-Hollywood films. Gloriously jump-starting the long, illustrious movie career she so clearly deserved.