Monday, August 17, 2009

All About Bette

So, I've been watching a lot of Bette Davis movies lately. Until a few months ago, All About Eve was the only one of her classic films I'd actually seen all the way through. Since then, I've seen ten more films, all from the years 1938-1946, when she was at the peak of her stardom working at Warner Brothers. She seems to me a wholly unique kind of star, one who was more at home playing nasty villains or pathetic victims than effervescent heroines. Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, stars of Charade, on the other hand, are much more typical movie stars in that they never played unsympathetic characters. She is instead a darker, more extreme, less charming version of Katherine Hepburn, another star who specialized in strong, independent women (though this Hepburn, too, never played a villain).

What then, made her so popular? In these films, Davis plays a killer (The Letter, Deception, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life) a liar (Deception, The Letter, The Old Maid), a spoiled and selfish rich girl (Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex) and a pathetic wallflower (Now, Voyager, The Old Maid). This raises the complex issue of audience identification. Did the people who flocked to Davis's films in the 30s and 40s identify with her characters? Did they see themselves as the strong, independent-minded woman on the screen? Or did they despise her as the other characters in the films do: was she they star they loved to hate? Is this why the punishments the Davis characters must endure were so satisfying? In The Old Maid, she gives up her daughter to her pretty, blonde sister because she thinks that'll make the daughter happy. In Now, Voyager, she decides she'd rather raise Paul Henreid's daughter for him, rather than get him to divorce the wife he doesn't love. In Jezebel (as punishment for her horrible crime of wearing a red dress to a society ball) she's publicly humiliated (in one of the most gloriously demented scenes of the 1930s) and rejected by her fiancée, but still risks catching yellow fever to take care of him when he falls ill. We enjoy Davis's intelligence and willfulness, but we also enjoy seeing her punished for daring to have such outstanding qualities.

How many other movie stars provoke such a complex reaction? Certainly John Wayne in a few films when Howard Hawks and John Ford played him against type in Red River and The Searchers, respectively, but in those cases it's questionable that Wayne even knew to what end he was being used. James Stewart in his 1950s films with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann started exploring the dark side of his All-American persona, but still was never truly as villainous as Davis in The Little Foxes or The Letter. Bogart or Cagney might be closer, but they seem more limited than Davis, whether through lack of skill or opportunity, I can't say, and regardless of whether their gangster characters were morally upright, there was never any question that audiences wouldn't sympathize with them once they became stars.

This week we're playing Davis's crowning achievement, All About Eve. It's the most sympathetic character I've seen her play: as quick-witted and short-tempered as ever, but with a raw core of vulnerability that few actors would allow to be shown, dependent as it is on her own advancing age and declining good looks. It's a brilliant performance, one that earned her the ninth of her eleven Best Actress Oscar nominations (and of course she should have won).

Here's a ranked list of the thirteen Bette Davis films I've seen:

1. All About Eve
2. The Letter
3. Now, Voyager
4. Jezebel
5. Deception
6. The Little Foxes
7. The Old Maid
8. The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex
9. Dark Victory
10. Death On The Nile
11. In This Our Life
12. The Petrified Forest
13. Watch On The Rhine

And thirteen more I still need to see:

1. All That Heaven Allows
2. Mr. Skeffington
3. Pocketful Of Miracles
4. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
5. Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte
6. The Man Who Came To Dinner
7. Beyond The Forest
8. Dangerous
9. Of Human Bondage
10. Juarez
11. Three On A Match
12. The Star
13. The Great Lie


Mikey said...

I know it's an easy shot but I think Kim Carnes explained her appeal best:

sean said...

God, you're such a Kim Carnes apologist.

Tan said...

I started to see all Bette Davis Movies. From Bad Sister, i´m currently seeing 'Marked Woman'. So many to see, but i just love her.