Jump to content
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...



Recommended Posts

New York Times - In celebration of Bette Davis' 100th year.


The Bold and the Bad and the Bumpy Nights



Published: March 30, 2008




BETTE DAVIS, born 100 years ago this week, made her first appearance on film in 1931 and her last in 1989, and like every star of her generation she was always ready for her close-up. The difference with Davis ? part of what makes her, I think, the greatest actress of the American cinema ? was, she didn?t need it. You could tell what she was thinking and feeling from across the room, even a very large one like the ballroom she swoops into, wearing a red dress, in William Wyler?s ?Jezebel? (1938), scandalizing the haut monde of 1852 New Orleans; unmarried young women like her character, Julie Marsden, are expected to wear white. But Julie wants to make an impression, and she does; and as she takes a turn on the dance floor with her stiff-backed escort, you can see, although most of the sequence is long shots, her growing awareness that she has made a terrible mistake, that she has gone, for once, too far.


Her dancing is limp, reluctant; her shoulders sag; and her head is bowed a little, as if she were trying to hide from the disapproving gaze of the assembled revelers: a shocking sensation for Julie, who, like most every character Davis ever played, is accustomed to looking people straight in the eye. There are close-ups in the scene, but it?s in the long shots that you sense most powerfully the burden of that unfortunate dress on this suddenly humiliated woman, feel the depth of her regret and the strength of her desire to be wearing something, anything, else. Bette Davis could make you see red in black and white.


Davis certainly knew how to make an impression, though her boldness, like Julie Marsden?s, sometimes had unintended consequences. Moviegoers familiar with her only from late horror films like ?What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?? (1962) and ?Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte? (1964) ? the most substantial hits of the last four decades of her career ? may think of her as a campy grotesque, a cartoon diva. That?s perhaps partly her own fault, for attacking those ludicrous roles with such unseemly comic gusto. And her performer?s soul must have been gratified by the attention they brought: better to be noticed, for whatever reason, than ignored. (?Baby Jane? even earned her an Oscar nomination, her last of 10.)


But on the occasion of her centennial, it?s worth remembering Davis as she was in her prime, in the 1930s and ?40s, when she commanded the screen with something subtler and more mysterious than the fierce, simple will that carried her through the mostly grim jobs of work that followed. (Though the will was there from the start, and her formidable technique never wholly deserted her.) In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers, she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the ?50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive. She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away.


Usually they kept looking, even when she was putting on display, as she frequently did, the unlovelier aspects of human nature. Her breakthrough role, after three years of more or less routine assignments, came in John Cromwell?s 1934 adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel ?Of Human Bondage,? in which she plays the coldhearted Cockney temptress Mildred Rogers, a vile specimen who cruelly ? and protractedly ? abuses the affections of a sensitive, artistic, clubfooted young medical student.


It was a part Davis had campaigned for. At that point in her career she had nothing to lose by taking on a juicy role that the better-established actresses in town wouldn?t touch for fear of damaging their images. But even after she was a star herself, and had plenty to lose, Davis persisted in playing women who were frankly, unapologetically bad: characters like Stanley Timberlake in John Huston?s odd, disturbing Southern melodrama ?In This Our Life? (1942); Rosa Moline in King Vidor?s overheated ?Beyond the Forest? (1949); and especially Leslie Crosbie and Regina Giddens, the heroines of two further collaborations with William Wyler, ?The Letter? (1940) and ?The Little Foxes? (1941).


There?s no mystery, really, about why she would choose to portray so many selfish, conniving, amoral, downright malevolent human beings: any actor who doesn?t know that, say, Lady Macbeth and Iago are pretty good parts should probably consider a different line of work. It?s also perfectly clear why other stars of her stature were less keen to dirty their hands with such unattractive characters: in the studio era actors were brand-name products, and audiences tended to identify them with the parts they played. Late in life Davis ruefully told an interviewer, ?The more successful an actor, the less he or she gets to act.? She added, ?People come to expect a personality, and that?s the kind of parts you get offered, ones to suit audience expectations of your star?s persona.?


Bette Davis, God knows, could supply some personality. Versatile though she was, she was never an empty-vessel sort of actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. Part of the strange thrill of watching her perform is the tension you feel between the demands of the role and the demands of her outsize self, constantly threatening to breach the boundaries of the character.


In her bad movies, and there are many, you can always sense her impatience with the material she?s been given. She?ll start working her huge eyes a little more, bulging them out for emphasis or hooding them like a snake about to strike. Or she?ll pace restlessly, her clicking heels punctuating every clipped, spit-out line. Or she?ll do something tricky with her (ever-present) cigarette, holding it in an unusual way or stubbing it out abruptly or amusing herself by varying the rhythm of her exhalations. She?s like a kid with too much energy; when she?s bored, she fidgets and colors outside the lines.


As a moviegoer you can?t help being grateful for that nervous ingenuity. Her endless bits of business may not always be, strictly speaking, necessary for her characters, but the truth is that most of the dozens of movies she appeared in her long career ? 45 in the first 10 years alone ? were, strictly speaking, junk. The women she portrayed wouldn?t be any more believable if she?d played them straight; just duller.


And when she got a part worthy of her gifts, she had the wit to put the lab work done in her lesser pictures to good use. In Lloyd Bacon?s terrific ?Marked Woman? (1937), for instance, in which she plays a nightclub hostess (read prostitute), you see a kind of distillation of all the tramps, gun molls and shady dames she?d played as an eager young nonstar under contract to studios that didn?t know what to do with her. Her character in ?Marked Woman,? is a wonderfully complex creation, a wary survivor who?s both proud of her sex appeal and slightly uncomfortable with it: not a hooker with a heart of gold, exactly, but a hooker who prefers to keep her heart as much to herself as possible.


And in one of her most celebrated roles, as the panicky aging actress Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz?s ?All About Eve? (1950), Davis trots out every bad habit she?d developed over the years, every ?Bette Davis? mannerism, and makes them all seem, strictly speaking, necessary: real aspects of an unmistakably real woman. It helps, obviously, that Margo happens to be an actress. (This was a specialty of Davis?s. She played actresses in no fewer than five of her pictures, including ?Dangerous,? for which she won her first Academy Award in 1935. The other was for ?Jezebel.?) She can get away with gestures and intonations that might be considered somewhat over the top in, say, a real-estate lawyer; theatricality is part of who she is, maybe the largest part.


But ? and this is the beauty of the performance ? it isn?t all she is. It would have been easy for Davis to play Margo as a pathetic drama queen. What she does is much more interesting: the performance is dry-eyed and free of camp posturing, the portrait of a woman whose theatricality is natural, both as an expression of her self and as a tool of her peculiar trade. It?s something she?s learned to live with, and to make a living from. Bouts of insecurity and emotional neediness are occupational hazards, as is a certain inability to resist the dramatic moment ? standing on a staircase at a party, for example, to announce, ?Fasten your seat belts, it?s going to be a bumpy night? ? but on balance Margo, mannerisms and all, seems a surprisingly level-headed woman. In the end she?s a trouper.


So was Davis, who never retired from acting and lasted, improbably, to 81, after a lifetime of abusing alcohol, nicotine and, often, her directors. Her best director was Wyler, who abused her back, productively. The three movies they made together represent one of the great collaborations of a filmmaker and an actor in the history of movies, because Wyler?s theatrical intelligence was a match for hers. (She once referred to him, admiringly, as ?the male Bette Davis.?)


They fell out during ?The Little Foxes,? perhaps because both realized, on some level, that they couldn?t hope to surpass the intimate anatomy of evil they had together managed to get on the screen in ?The Letter.? That picture?s heroine, a Singapore planter?s wife, is, like so many of Davis?s most vivid characters, a creature of urgent need, but she?s cooler, more controlled than most. She kills her lover and lies to her husband (and the court) with remarkable equanimity. And because Wyler persuaded Davis ? ?persuaded? may be too mild a word ? to mute her mannerisms, her every glance and movement seems to register with particular force, passion straining to burst free of its confinement.


Watching the first scene of ?The Letter? is as good a way as any to remember Davis on her birthday. She strides out, with that fast, purposeful walk of hers, onto the veranda, pumps some lead into her prone paramour, then pauses, lowering her gun hand slowly, to contemplate what she?s done, striking a pose (in medium long shot) that looks both melancholy and defiant. That?s Bette Davis as she was at her best: first in furious motion, then eerily, eloquently still. She was no drama queen. She was drama in the flesh.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


© 2023 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
  • Create New...