Once a year, Hollywood relaxes the lollypop diet on which it sustains a large but jaded public, and serves up one dish of acidulous sophistication. Or to be more precise, about once a year Joseph Mankiewicz at Twentieth Century-Fox does this under the indulgent eye of Darryl F. Zanuck. The last chef’s special was Letter to Three Wives; the new one is All About Eve, the bitchiest fabrication since Mrs. Luce’s The Women. It is not true, as you may have heard, that All About Eve is a great picture and proof that Hollywood has grown up overnight.
Last week a note on what a pair of good actors can do for a weak romantic script. This week a look at what a crackerjack cast—first-class all the way—can do for a middling contemporary drama. Kramer vs. Kramer, based on a novel by Avery Corman, was written by Robert Benton who also directed. I don’t know the book: the script tells, in lithe dialogue, the story of a New York couple who split. The struggle is not about the divorce, which as such is never glimpsed, it’s about the custody of their small son.
What makes movies a great popular art form is that certain artists can, at moments in their lives, reach out and unify the audience—educated and uneducated—in a shared response. The tragedy in the history of movies is that those who have this capacity are usually prevented from doing so. The mass audience gets its big empty movies full of meaningless action; the arthouse audience gets its studies of small action and large inaction loaded with meaning. Almost everyone who cares about movies knows that Orson Welles is such an artist.