When George Sanders was about to start production on 1950’s All About Eve his then wife Zsa Zsa Gabor asked him to get her a small part in the picture, little more than a walk-on in the last minutes of the film.
Sanders responded with this: Don’t be silly. Acting isn’t for you.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today with another in our series of George Sanders blogs, noting that his cutting putdown — which could have easily have tripped off the acid tongue of Eve’s drama critic-narrator Addison de Witt — did his marriage to Zsa Zsa no favors.
It also displayed the fact that the actor’s offscreen demeanor was getting uncomfortably close to de Witt’s sublime onscreen nastiness.
George the cad versus George the confused emotional softy. The tension between the two dogged Sanders throughout his life. The hapless Zsa Zsa witnessed the softer side of his personality that 1951 night when he walked off with his best supporting actor Oscar for unforgettably personifying the cynical DeWitt.
George was presented his Oscar by Mercedes McCambridge, who had won the Best Supporting Actress award the year before, according to Richard VanDerBeets’ concise and informative 1990 biography, George Sanders: An Exhausted Life.
When his name was announced he arose without looking at Zsa Zsa, walked to the stage, accepted the statuette with a bow to the audience, and disappeared behind the curtain… Once behind the curtain and backstage, he began to weep uncontrollably. ‘I can’t help it,’ he sobbed. ‘This has unnerved me.’
Is All About Eve the best of more than 110 movies Sanders appeared in over a career that lasted nearly 40 years? Probably. It certainly was the one that was most lauded by the Hollywood establishment, winning a half dozen Academy Awards. And it remains a great pleasure to see today, the definition of a classic movie.
But there’s another, far lesser known movie that Sanders made in Italy in 1953 opposite Ingrid Bergman that could take the best-Sanders-movie honor. Directed in black and white by Bergman’s then husband Robert Rossellini, Viaggo in Italia (Journey To Italy) follows a worn out middle-aged couple’s visit to Naples to dispose of a deceased relative’s villa.
The vitality of the surrounding Neapolitans effects the couple in ways that they could not have predicted. Few movies portray the vicissitudes of long term marriage more realistically and honestly than this one.
As it turns out, Sanders hated making the picture. He had accepted the offer because of his admiration for the director and also because he wished to work with Bergman again, writes VanDerBeets. (Sanders and Bergman were teamed at MGM, and appeared in 1941’s Rage In Heaven.)
But upon his arrival in Naples, (Sanders) learned that the Maestro, as he came to call Rossellini disdainfully, intended to shoot the picture without a script. This and other of the director’s eccentricities — aimless shooting, jumbled dialogue, non-existent plot — eventually reduced George to tears of frustration.
When he asked to be released from the picture, he was told that Rossellini, whose reputation was at a low ebb, had been able to raise money for the production only by getting a ‘name’ actor to costar with Bergman and that backing had been secured on the basis of his being in the film. (Sanders) felt ill-used…
Be that as it may, he wound up giving perhaps the performance of his life.
Writes British critic David Thomson: In fact Rossellini boldly cut through irritability to the shy observer of life who hid behind Sanders’ barbs. The actor was visibly unsettled by this and by the heat and spontaneity of Naples, and thus all the more profoundly resembled an inhibited English snob at a loss with his marriage.
We recommend you track down this picture. The search may not be easy. We’re not even sure Journey To Italy is out on DVD (we saw it on VHS). But try and see it. It may be George Sanders’ finest 97 minutes onscreen.